Even if the films of Ealing Studios are not as widely viewed as they once were, any cinephile can probably describe the tone of their output: an easygoing atmosphere; charmingly British, often explicitly patriotic; and whether rural or urban in setting, they feature what has been referred to as the “Ealing village”. In Went the Day Well? (1942), the village is a literal one, the fictional town of Bramley End. The activities of these villagers are not quite harmless.
An introductory framing device informs the audience that the events of the story take place in 1942, before “old Hitler got what was coming to him” – though the film was made and released in that year, during the peak of the war – and reveals a monument to a group of Germans who died attempting an invasion. The German soldiers, it transpires, arrived one weekend in 1942 disguised as English Tommies, led by “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney). They even have an inside man, the leader of the local home guard, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks).
It’s not too long before some of the residents of Bramley End start to wise up to the fakes, and a surprising amount of patriotic violence ensues. While several of the villagers are given hero’s deaths, the viewer is invited to cheer the fatal scuppering of the German’s plans. After all, this film was made at a time when Britain was at war; the threat of invasion may have seemed inevitable to some audiences. This is a propaganda film, designed to boost the morale of the British people with a bit of cathartic blood-letting.
That tends to get in the way a bit, unfortunately, even if it is also the mitigating circumstance for the sometimes uncharacteristically violent scenes. Until the villagers begin to revolt, they’re almost anonymous, interchangeable; in contrast, the villainous Hammond and Wilsford seem to take up most of the screen time. Even in the fightback, some of the characters remain indistinguishable.
The performances are of a kind and of their era. The particular Britishness of Bramley End, combined with the violence (at one point a chipper, gossiping elderly woman kills a German soldier with a fire axe) creates a tone of camp which I imagine would not have been present for viewers at its initial release, many of whom would likely have never seen such strong on-screen images of killing.
This restoration by the British Film Institute, released by Optimum Classics, also features a few special features, including a short documentary film, Yellow Caesar, by the director, Alberto Cavalcanti.
Having earned a reputation in the intervening years since it was released in 1942, Went the Day Well? is still a good piece of work, and should remain a treasured item of our national cinematic history. It is no longer so shocking, nor so politically important as it once was, but it has taken on an air of gleeful envelope-pushing by its fans. It is as enjoyable and easygoing to watch as much of the output of the Ealing Studios. These film makers, however, would go on to greater things in the years immediately following the war, and it may be well to regard Went the Day Well? as a sign of the good things yet to come under Michael Balcon’s stewardship of the studio.