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12 June 2017

Britain in a Time of Terror: Went the Day Well?, 1942

This cozy looking little British war movie is usually a big surprise to lovers of Carry On comedies, Margaret Rutherford's Miss Marple, or stiff upper lip dramas. You'll find a lot of stiff upper lips, all right, but they are hiding ferocious patriotism. 

The unsuspecting vicar has breakfast with his daughter Nora

Filmed in 1942, 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. Sheep 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 at all 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. We meet the kindly vicar (C.V. France) and his spinster daughter (Valerie Taylor), the imperious lady of the manor (the great Marie Lohr), the postman, the bobby, and the gossipy postmistress, their numbers rounded out by children evacuated from the cities, Land Girls assigned to the local farms, and men too young or too old for the military serving in the Home Guard.
The outsiders -- the poacher, his dog, and the evacuee

Late on a sunny morning, 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 suddenly you learn  that not only are the soldiers German invaders disguised as ordinary Tommies, but the way has been paved for them by a long-term sleeper agent -- what used to be called a Fifth Columnist. This secret traitor has served Hitler's Third Reich by living amongst the unsuspecting villagers as if he were one of them. And this agent turns out to be the popular and respected magistrate, Oliver Wilsford, 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 -- combat injuries from World War 1 caused nerve damage to that side, and he is nearly always shown from the right.) We see Wilsford meet with and receive orders from the false Army officer (Basil Sydney), 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, guarded by rifle toting, scowling Germans. The white-haired vicar stands up to the thuggish, arrogant Nazi leader and attempts to warn the other residents by ringing the church bell, and is summarily shot dead.

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 shock and fear, they are experiencing a deep, cold anger. Everyone, men, women, and children, manages to stay calm. 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 if you are at all familiar with British films from the 1930's and 1940's -- 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 soldier on guard is made to disappear.
Muriel George, postmistress, takes out another enemy soldier
The Germans have taken over and occupied the local post office and the telephone exchange. The postmistress, previously shown as an garrulous, easily flustered village character, traps the soldier guarding the phone access and kills him, at the cost of her own life. The young sailor, Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton), whose wedding day has been disrupted leads an organized, commando-like group to take back key areas of the village. 

The Land Girls arm themseslves

Meanwhile, the villagers assemble in the Manor House and set up defenses against an armed onslaught by the Germans. Anyone who can shoot, led by Tom, takes part in this, including the Land Girls (these were young women who were assigned to work on farms to free men for active service). None of them show the least hesitation in shooting the invaders. Here, in almost the most startling moments in a very surprising movie, the Vicar's daughter Nora and Mrs. Fraser take matters into their own hands. 

Nora, having been heartlessly led on by Wilsford literally for years is initially almost overwhelmed by the shock of finding out that he was an enemy agent all along. Then she arms herself and goes in search of him. He tries to excuse himself but she empties the revolver she carries, firing until he falls. 

Nora takes her revenge against the enemy agent
Mrs. Fraser has had charge of the village children, who have been taken to the manor. Towards the end of the battle, when the Nazis know they are losing, a grenade is tossed into the room where they are gathered. Mrs. Fraser instantly seizes it and dashes into the hallway, slamming the door behind her -- sacrificing herself for the children without hesitation.

Mrs. Fraser thinks fast when a grenade threatens the village children

The day is eventually saved by a raffish old poacher (Ellis Irving), his faithful dog, and one of the youthful city-bred evacuees (Harry Fowler), who combine their already sharp wits and risk their lives to evade the Nazi patrols long enough for the boy to escape to the next village and give the alarm.

Soon the villagers are relieved by real soldiers called out from the nearest base. But the fact remains that 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. 

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.

The lessons of that war are still true -- British people don't panic. They don't get in a tizzy. They don't put up a glamorous front -- they're sarcastic and mouthy, they drink pints of bitter and lager-and-lime, eat mushy peas and chip butties -- but under all that deliberately prosaic surface lies a core of iron. Enemies can call up all the terror weapons they can muster -- it will never work. 

Went The Day Well on IMDB

(NOTE 1: This is a slightly revised repost; I think this film repays viewing again in the light of the recent attacks in Britain, and our government's response to it.) 

(NOTE 2: Also, this article contains spoilers; do not read if you'd rather be surprised by the unique plot. And I would recommend that; seeing this story unfold with all its secrets is a great experience.) 

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