Great Films You Need To See – Went The Day Well? (1942)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is kicking off 2016 with a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘war’ (fun, I know). This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), and covers Alberto Cavalcanti’s superb 1942 wartime drama Went The Day Well?

Went The Day Well? remains a brilliantly imaginative and disturbing wartime 'what if'

Went The Day Well? remains a brilliantly imaginative and disturbing wartime ‘what if’

Propaganda films exist to sell a varnished version of real events, which makes it even more remarkable a movie made at a time when the outcome of World Ward Two was far from certain would so boldly write the epitaph for Hitler’s Third Reich.

Adapted from Graham Greene’s magazine story, Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 classic Went The Day Well? regales supposedly contemporaneous events from a point in the future (not too distant audiences presumably hoped) when the war was over and the Allies stood victorious.

Cherry villager (Mervyn Johns) shows us "the only bit of England the Germans got" in Went The Day Well?

Cherry villager (Mervyn Johns) shows us “the only bit of England the Germans got” in Went The Day Well?

In spite of the happy ending, it must have nevertheless been discomforting for audiences to be told by a cheery pipe-smoking villager (played by Mervyn Johns) that the so-called Battle of Bramley End had been kept a state secret until after the war was over – a battle for the very heart of England where the front line is a sleepy country village; not too dissimilar to the sort of quaint idyll many people would have returned home to after stepping out of the cinema.

Went The Day Well? enacts the nightmare scenario Brits would have feared at the time; namely a German invasion of Britain under the noses of honest, hard-working folk. What makes the film even more unnerving is that the fifth column of Nazi soldiers who arrive en masse in Bramley End largely speak with cut-glass English accents and ingratiate themselves into this small community with considerable ease.

The dastadly Garmans hatch their plot in Went The Day Well?

The dastardly Germans hatch their plot in Went The Day Well?

It transpires they’ve had help from at least one Nazi sympathiser on the inside, revealing an ugly truth that has hidden in plain sight, and the deviousness of their plan – Bramley End is the beachhead where the English way of life can be destroyed from within – is staged in brutal, thuggish fashion when they reveal their true intentions during a church service (a none-too-subtle implication that the Nazis are a godless lot).

Cavalcanti does away with dramatic flourish and instead films events with a documentarian’s gaze. That said, there are several pointed moments, not least of which a brief shot of Basil Sydney’s Kommandant Orlter consulting his mission plans next to a plaque honouring the fallen dead of World War One.

Postmistress Mrs Collins (Muriel George) turns ax murderer in Went The Day Well?

Postmistress Mrs Collins (Muriel George) turns ax murderer in Went The Day Well?

The villagers’ eventual fight back is still startling and must have stirred in audiences of the time an odd mix of revenge fantasy and queasiness at the bloodthirsty nature of what they were watching. Postmistress Mrs Collins’ (Muriel George) use of an axe to kill a gruff-sounding Nazi is tempered by the tear-stained shock etched on her face when the gravity of the deed starts to set in, while the look of joyous satisfaction a villager gives to shooting a German invader augurs the action man movies of the 1980s and beyond.

Even Thora Hird gets in on the act in her first starring role as a gun-toting Bramley Ender who makes the Nazis wish they’d picked another quiet strip of England to invade.

That got 'em! Shooting Germans in Went The Day Well?

That got ’em! Shooting Germans in Went The Day Well?

One can perhaps forgive some of the more circumspect dialogue bearing in mind the time in which it was released, although the response a young Harry Fowler gives when asked “do you know what morale is?” – “yeah, it’s what the wops ain’t got!”- is difficult to defend.

Went The Day Well? remains a brilliantly imaginative and disturbing wartime ‘what if’ that no doubt sent a stark warning to ol’ Adolf – you mess with Little Britain at your peril.


  1. le0pard13 · January 28, 2016

    I heard of this, but have yet to see it. Seems to be good time to fix that. Fine review, Mark.

  2. Stu · January 28, 2016

    I’ve never heard of this one, so thanks for highlighting it. I wonder if Philip K Dick saw it before writing The Man In The High Castle (or Thomas Harris with Fatherland, for that matter)?

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Hey Stu. It was pretty influential as I understand; Michael Caine’s The Eagle Has Landed is very close in its narrative. Fatherland possibly owes much to the film also, absolutely.

  3. Paul S · January 31, 2016

    I watched Went the Day Well on a whim without having any idea of how good it was. This is the type of film the phrase “forgotten gem” was coined for.
    “You don’t want to mess with a gun toting Thora Hird!”

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      “Forgotten gem” is indeed a great term to describe this. Too many people haven’t caught this. Thora Hird kicks ass!

  4. Jordan Dodd · February 2, 2016

    Wow I had never heard of this film. It sounds incredibly interesting! Thanks for sharing mate, I didn’t know such a film existed in this period of time. I wonder if Adolf actually saw it? And if he did, did he see it untouched by Goebells?

    I’ve gotta get a hold of this one, I love war movies (most of the time)

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Hey Jordan. It is interesting! It’s fascinating watching a film made in 1942 that so confidently predicts an Allied victory.

  5. movieblort · February 2, 2016

    I watched this when I was studying for my History degree. A great review here buddy. I did a whole module of “History on Film”, comparing the historical accuracy and significance of movies and cinema.

    I need to get back to Kieron at The Bigger Picture too. It’s been so busy as of late, but I still want to get at least one article over to him!

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Thanks mate; much appreciated. I didn’t realise you contributed articles for The Big Picture! Which ones have you written?

      • movieblort · February 7, 2016

        Nothing yet! That’s what I mean, I need to actually get round to submitting one!

      • Three Rows Back · February 7, 2016

        Ah, I see!

  6. ruth · February 3, 2016

    I hadn’t even heard of this one Mark. Interesting title formed as a question, too. It seems that projects about an alternative universe seems popular these days, w/ The Man in the High Castle and BBC’s currently developing SS-GB, w/ my new crush Sam Riley in the lead 😀

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      They do don’t they? I watched the Man In The High Castle pilot and was a little underwhelmed, although I understand the show itself is much better.

      • ruth · February 6, 2016

        The show itself is ok, it could’ve been better as the premise is intriguing. But they focused on less interesting stuff like love triangle nonsense instead of building up the storyline of Rufus Sewell’s character which is far more gripping.

        P.S. Hey, my monthly series post is up, hope you can take part!

  7. Andrew James · February 14, 2016

    I dropped by this blog since apparently both of our blogs sit in the same row.

    Decided to check out this movie based on your recommendation and I have to say that it’s amazing. It’s brutal and forward-thinking. Strange that it was filmed smack dab in the middle of WWII (during the year after the Pearl Harbor invasion) and used actual British military (you can tell because they suck at acting).

    Loved that it was mostly the women and children doing all of the scheming and fighting throughout most of the picture. And then it becomes a siege film. Loved the shit out of this. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Say hi to the other folks in row three some time soon. Cheers!


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