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03 May 2015

Went the Day Well:The Nazis Didn't Know How Lucky They Were

(NOTE: This article contains spoilers; do not read if you'd rather be surprised by the unique plot. And I would recommend that; the first time you see this cold, so to speak is a great experience.) 

This cozy looking little British war movie is usually a big surprise to lovers of Carry On comedies or stiff upper lip dramas. There are a lot of stiff upper lips, all right, but they're hiding ferocious patriotism. 

The Vicar and his daughter, Nora

Released in 1944, from a superb story by Graham Greene, Went the Day Well opens in a bucolic, almost relentlessly quaint English village. The story is introduced in deceptively cozy tones by a pipe-smoking villager, played by Mervyn Johns. fSheep and cows browse the fields. Lovely green trees line the lanes. The village postman bicycles down the main street. The residents are preparing for a wedding; the first sign that there's a war going on is the fact that the groom is in uniform, on leave from the Navy. The church choir are rehearsing for the event.
Marie Lohr as the lady of the manor, Mrs. Fraser

All of the characters seem typical for a British film of this era; there is kindly vicar and his spinster daughter, the snobbish lady of the manor, the postman, the bobby, and the gossipy postmistress, their numbers rounded out by children evacuated from the cities, and men serving in the Home Guard. 
Ths poacher, his dog, and the evacuee

As the day unfolds a jeepload of uniformed men rumbles into town, looking for the local authorities. Their officer inquires at the Post Office for directions to the house of the local magistrate (the suave Leslie Banks). As more troops arrive, they let it be known that a training exercise is planned in the area.

Then the cozy dynamic suddenly changes.


Leslie Banks, right, is even more welcoming that he seems
It changes because it is revealed that not only are the soldiers German invaders disguised as ordinary Tommies, but the way has been paved for them by the long-term activities of what used to be called a Fifth Columnist  -- a decades-long "sleeper" agent of the Third Reich who has been living amongst the unsuspecting villagers as if he were one of them. And this agent is the popular and respected magistrate, played by one of Britain's best known film stars, Leslie Banks. (Interestingly, this is one of the only films where you see Banks photographed from the left side of his facc -- injuries from World War 1 caused nerve damage to that side, and he is nearly always shown from the right side.) We see him meet with and receive orders from the false Army officer, who is really a Nazi operative preparing for a full-scale invasion.

This is just the first shock to the viewer. The villagers soon discover the reality of this silent incursion, but the Nazis have overwhelming numbers and arms, and soon the majority of the townspeople are rounded up and confined in the parish church. The white-haired vicar attempts to warn the other residents by ringing the church bell, and is summarily shot dead by the Nazi soldiers.

The vicar defies the enemy
The villagers fall silent, and the Nazis smugly assume that they are cowed and terrorized. But in reality, despite their fear,  they are experiencing a deep, cold anger; one and all, men, women, and children, they keep their heads and consider their response. 
Charlie, the mild-mannered sexton, coolly slays an enemy soldier
Then, one after another, the "cute" country characters -- Mervyn Johns, Frank Lawton, Megs Jenkins, Patricia Hayes, Thora Hird, C.V. France, Marie Lohr, all faces you would recognize -- despite their shock and alarm, steel themselves to do whatever it takes to defend their homes, their neighbors, and their country from these invaders. They do this with cool heads, an apparently inborn bent for intrigue, and absolute ruthlessness. First the humble churchwarden (Mervyn Johns) traps and slays the armed guard in the church basement -- with no hesitation and great efficiency -- and then, one by one, every German guard is made to disappear.
Muriel George, postmistress, takes out another enemy soldier
The day is eventually saved by a raffish old poacher and one of the youthful city-bred evacuees, who combine their already sharp wits and evade the Nazi patrols long enough for the boy to escape to the next village and give the alarm. 
The Land Girls arm themseslves

Meanwhile, the villagers assemble in the Manor House and defend against an armed onslaught by the Germans. Here, in almost the most startling moments in a very surprising movie, the Vicar's daughter and Mrs. Fraser take matters into their own hands. 

Nora takes her revenge against the enemy agent

Eventually they are relieved by real soldiers called out from the nearest base. The everyday, ordinary British people have defeated a highly trained, heavily armed, experienced enemy -- not without losses, but in every way giving as good as they got. 
Mrs. Fraser thinks fast when a grenade threatens the village children
What this and a number of other thoughtful British WW2 films tell us is that the agonizing strain of seven years of war taught British people something about themselves -- they could do whatever it took. But they would be changed; and everyone hoped with all their might it would be for the better.

Went The Day Well on IMDB

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