Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Went the Day Well? (1942): Kick-Ass Ladies of the Manor

Went the Day Well? is the best British film made during World War Two (far more entertaining and accessible than better known morale-boosting classics like In Which We Serve) and one of the best films of the 40's made anywhere. It's an Ealing picture, directed in 1942 by the Brazilian-born but British-based Alberto Cavalcanti, from a story by Graham Greene, about what happens when a group of German soldiers turn up in a quiet English village, disguised as Tommies, with the idea of infiltrating normal life so as to set up a post to aid the German invasion. The battle of Bramley End is what happens. (The Eagle Has Landed later stole elements of its plot.)

At first there's the tension of wondering when the villagers will click; there are a few suspicious encounters with soldiers who, though expertly trained to pass themselves off as natives, act in a strangely aggressive manner and don't seem to know their English geography so well. The air of paranoia, of not being able to trust anyone, is something we know from 60's cold war movies like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold perhaps, or American Watergate-era movies, but it's a revelation to see such a dark mood in a 40's film.

Then Nora (Valerie Taylor), finds a piece of chocolate with German lettering in the knapsack of the commanding officer of these troops and she takes her suspicions to Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), an apparent pillar of the community who has in fact been embedded in the local community for years as a German spy. Their cover blown, the Germans take decisive action to silence the locals and in the second half of the movie things get really interesting. Rounded up all together in the village church the local people break out and start finding ways of fighting back. It's a great movie about how ordinary people adapt to being killers (what Straw Dogs was supposed to be but wasn't). The film makes clear that it's far from easy; people break down in tears after witnessing violence or forcing themselves to commit it. And it's surprisingly gritty kind of violence too for a movie of that time, not quite Casino or Goodfellas but heading that way. The vicar, trying to ring the church bell to send a warning, gets dispatched with a bullet to the back. Home guard soldiers cycle innocently along and get gunned down in summary fashion. A child escapes and tries to get word to the outside world, but gets shot.

The film is also notable for its portrayal of women's role in fighting the war; it has an amazing number of kick-ass ladies. Remember this was the era of Mrs Miniver and Brief Encounter, when women were usually seen as warm, motherly creatures to be honoured, or fragile waifs to be protected. But here we see the plump village woman in charge of the local telegraph office throw pepper in a German's face and then take an axe to him. Nora, realising Oliver Wilsford is a traitor and a spy and that she doesn't have time to convince anyone else of this unbelievable fact, simply picks up a loaded revolver amongst the confusion, seeks him out alone, and gets rid of him with a military-style execution. Most shocking of all is near the very end, during the siege at the Manor House, when society madam Mrs Fraser throws herself on a grenade to protect a group of children; the effect, though hidden, is still palpable and shocking. All in all this is a great movie, way ahead of its time.

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