“Good day to you. Come to have a good look at Bramley End, have you? Pretty little place. And a nice old church too. Thirteenth century, parts of it. Still, it won’t be that that brought you, I don’t suppose. It’ll be these names on this grave here…and the story that’s buried along with them. Look funny, don’t they? German names in an English churchyard. They wanted England, these Jerries did. And this is the only bit they got.”
So begins the terrific, suspenseful WWII “What if?” film, Went the Day Well? Produced by Ealing Studios, most famous for comedies like The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Mouse that Roared, this film treats with deadly seriousness what must have seemed a plausible enough scenario back in the war-torn England of 1942.
One Saturday morning, the residents of the sleepy little village of Bramley End are surprised by the arrival of a squadron of British soldiers. Supposedly in town to check the security of the area, the 60 men are actually a small incursion of German paratroopers. Their mission: jam Britain's radio location capabilities in advance of a major invasion. They put up a good pretense; they speak fluent English and know their way around pub etiquette. The villagers welcome them with open arms, doing their part for the war effort, finding billets for the men, taking them into their homes, etc.
The tension cranks up right away, as the villagers several times come close to discovering the truth, but random events just happen to divert the Germans’ secret from coming out. The next day, just as local sweethearts Tom and Peggy are set to be married, the Germans strike. They mow down the paltry Home Guard troops and force the rest of the villagers into the church. The vicar refuses to be intimidated by Maj. Ortler (Basil Sydney) and his men, and is shot while trying to ring the alarm on the church bell. Things get more and more intense as every effort of the villagers to get a warning out to the rest of the country is foiled by fate or bad luck. As the fateful morning approaches, the villagers make a desperate last attempt to escape and turn the tables on their captors. Little do they know, however, that one of their most trusted citizens is actually a German spy…
The Vicar (C.V. France) bravely faces up to Maj. Ortler.
Went the Day Well reminded me a bit of The Eagle Has Landed, the 1976 tale about an elite German commando unit undercover in a similar English village, on a mission to kill Winston Churchill. In that film, the Germans are depicted as men of honor; one even gives his life to save a local boy from drowning.
Not so in the Ealing film. This was made at the peak of the wartime propaganda movie machine, and the German invaders are therefore depicted as cruel, murderous scum, shooting children and vicars and bayoneting old ladies. As a result, we in the audience cheer heartily when the Nazis get theirs in the end. But even though the opening quote ensures we know that the Germans will be defeated, there’s still suspense aplenty, as it quickly becomes clear that this film has too much respect for its audience to sugarcoat things, and that more than a few of the lovable village characters we’ve come to care for are not destined to survive to the end credits.
The cast of quality British character actors play their parts to perfection. It’s curiously thrilling to see the sort of rural village types one might find in an Agatha Christie novel -- from the garrulous shopkeeper Mrs. Collins (Muriel George) to the vicar’s daughter Nora, who pines for the handsome neighbor Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), to the wealthy and well-meaning Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr) and the rough young orphan she’s taken in (Harry Fowler) to the poacher he pals around with (Edward Rigby) -- going all Rambo on the bad guys. There’s a touch of the subversive about it all, but mostly it boils down to the fact that it never pays to mess with a proud people in their home territory.
Look out for early performances by James Donald (The Bridge over the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Quatermass and the Pit) and David Farrar (so good as Mr. Dean in Black Narcissus) as German soldiers. It's also interesting to note that this ultra-patriotic example of stiff upper lip Brit filmmaking was directed by Brazilian-born Alberto Calvacanti.
This is an unusual and splendidly exciting wartime drama that shouldn’t be missed.
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