Often described as a wartime propaganda film, Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (reissued this week) is much more than that.
The film tells the story of a group of Nazis posing as British soldiers billeted in an idyllic English village as the advance party for an invasion.
The duck pond and village green, the church and the village post office form a backdrop to invasion, brutality and death.
In the process, the villagers learn that they have to fight with every means in their possession to resist.
The juxtaposition of peaceful English country life with the immediacy of war has a truly shocking effect. Dad’s Army this is not.
In fact, the Home Guard doesn’t long survive the invasion and women bear much of the brunt of the fighting.
Cavalcanti, the director, was a Brazilian influenced by surrealism. His politics and outsider’s eye ensure that this film lacks much of the sentimentality usually associated with films about English villages.
The script was adapted from a short story by Graham Greene, whose detachment from his upper class background allowed him to both know and criticize British society.
The politics are a critique of the upper class appeasement and sometimes collaboration so hated by most people in Britain by the time war broke out.
During the war, there was much opposition to those who it was perceived used their privilege to escape the worst of the war. One intelligence report relates that film of children arriving in the US (usually rich evacuees) was hissed in one cinema.
Cavalcanti’s heroes include the Land Girls who do war work on the farms and a young Cockney evacuee. The villain is the squire who is secretly collaborating with the Nazis.
But pretty much everyone else is ‘in it together’, blurring many of the class divisions which did in fact exist during the war. The context of the film is interesting. Made in 1942, its audience was past the high point of fears about Nazi invasion, which seemed a very real possibility after the fall of France in June 1940.
However, the war was to drag on for another three years after the film was made. That year saw the battle of El Alamein in Egypt, where the Germans suffered their first major defeat of the war and the beginning of the decisive and bloody battle of Stalingrad, where Russian victory marked a real turning point in the war.
The Americans were only just entering the war, D day was two years away and, while the worst of the Blitz was over, the horror of the V1 and V2 rockets lay ahead.
Victory was still by no means certain, which is why the film begins and ends with the device of a narrator who describes the events some years later when the English countryside has returned to its more common tranquility and is clearly is not suffering under Nazi occupation.
The film’s slightly Shakespearean title in fact comes from a popular epitaph widely used by the loved ones of dead soldiers at the end of the First World War:
‘Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom we died for you.’
It therefore reinforces both the necessity of fighting for freedom and is a reminder of the previous war’s losses, so great that epitaphs could become popular.
There are many arguments on the left about the nature of the Second World War: was it a genuine fight against fascism or really a continuation of the first imperialist war where Churchill fought to hold together the British Empire against threats not just from the Axis powers but from the growing might of US imperialism?
I agree with the second view, but I also think that there was a huge impetus to fight from below. Working people across Europe wanted the end of fascism, which they saw as a direct threat, and wanted a more equal and democratic world. They were mobilized on a mass scale to fight and to do war work.
Women were more highly mobilized in Britain than in any other combatant country, and that led to more radical ideas developing. In countries such as Italy and France, the partisan resistance -which really took off in 1943 and 44- drew (often teenage) men and women into armed struggle and other acts of great courage.
The failure of invasion in Britain meant that politics took a different turn, leading to welfare reforms and egalitarian measures on a scale never seen before, and only now in serious danger of being rolled back.
Most of the appeasers and collaborationists were never brought to account. Had there been an invasion, there would undoubtedly have been collaboration, as there was everywhere else (including Jersey which was occupied). But there would no doubt have been great acts of bravery and resistance.
A recent publication on home intelligence in 1940, which essentially listened in on what ordinary people said, reported women in Nottingham wanted ‘to be armed with rifles and hand grenades’ and ‘working class Edinburgh women’ saying they would ‘fight Germans in streets if men can’t stop them’ (See Bernard Porter in London Review of Books 8 July 2010).
The great thing about Cavalcanti’s film is that it shows the village of Bramley End as a microcosm of this society, and reflects a growing radicalism which rejected the unemployment and war of the 1930s in favour of a better world.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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