Opening on an English country road leading to the secluded village of Bramley End, Went The Day Well? crosses paths with a friendly pipe-smoking local who, noticing the camera roving toward a sun-bleached memorial in the churchyard, proceeds to connect it to a minor event during World War II. Listening to this Sam-the-Snowman type relate the central premise of the movie, which takes place before Hitler “got what was coming to him,” doesn’t make much of an impact until it dawns on you that the movie was released in 1942, well before Hitler got anything that could be construed as what was coming to him. It’s also strikingly hot on the heels of the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s attempt to subdue the island nation before launching Operation Sea Lion, his own version of D-Day on England’s shores (which would’ve involved a lot of horses). There couldn’t be a cockier claim for this narrator to make, and it serves as an introduction to one very fiery piece of propaganda. Fueled by that quintessential brand of British humor and a bitter hatred for Hitler, it at first gives into the fear-mongering with its suggestions of actual invasion only to assert that such an affront would be met by swift defeat years before a ferocious Red Army knocked on Berlin’s door and the Allies finally succeeded in toppling the Nazi regime. Looking back, it’s spectacularly audacious, a weirdly smug addition to the library of bombastic war movies of the time which acts as if the English never needed any bucking up at all to pummel Hitler into submission.
The plot is simple to point of being childish, providing just enough background to plant a group of undercover German paratroopers in Bramley End with the intention of disrupting communications two days ahead of Hitler’s invasion. That is until a skeptical villager raises the alarm following some particularly cloddish oversights by the German troops, and the entire village is corralled in the church to prevent word getting out. The board is set relatively quickly, making way for director Alberto Cavalcanti to bash together his action figures and make machine gun sounds with his mouth for the rest of the show. Everyone gets their shot at the Germans, including a spunky delivery boy, an uncompromising vicar, and a resourceful radio operator to name just a few, before a flood of British troops sweep over the German infestation in a combination Indian raid/bonzai charge. There’s no spoiling who emerges victorious. From today’s standpoint it’s infinitely more fascinating to view the piece as a whole, a movie that was put out with one agenda in mind, rather than for its narrative twists and turns.
Like most propaganda it vacillates between the victimhood and bravery of its heroes, but, as if Cavalcanti and his collaborators grew upset with the growing violence against their British characters, it swerves almost directly into a full blown revenge fantasy in its final third. The heavy-browed Germans who had been manhandling the women and threatening to execute children become ripe for the slaughter, turning into olive drab Stormtroopers without a tactical bone in their body. They exist as cyphers for the greater threat of Nazism, a vague, vicar-killing force of evil that, human at the core or not, doesn’t belong in England’s backyard It’s the kind of representation that sends people raving today, par for the course in its era, and even the Germans’ moments of benignity are undercut by what could pass for a subtle joke. Even though they’re shown to play cards together, eat chocolate, and hide their offense at anti-Nazi sentiments, they were specially selected for the mission because they could convincingly pass for British. One other instance of sympathy toward them occurs when a British woman freezes in shock after killing one, but it’s framed as a comment on her own conscience rather than the humanity of her foe.
There’s some fun to be had in the broad humor of the first half, when the Germans struggle to maintain their cover in the company of the villagers. It also makes the action, when it comes, that much more arresting for its sheer brutality. Although Cavalcanti shoots action plainly and demurs from showing gore, as was the norm, he isn’t above subjecting both sides of the conflict to harrowing violence. As positive as he wants to be, he can’t seem to help showing the actual severity of war, and for that it deserves some credit for making it look as distasteful as possible. Still, Went The Day Well? couldn’t be more confident about the outcome of the war, and it gets the last laugh years later, when the countryside narrator who makes a final appearance proves that the war was won in not just one, but two, timelines.