There was no shortage of propaganda films from all sides during the Second World War, but the British knew how to make them better than anyone else. U.S.studios tried, but their efforts are sanitized and fluffy – goofy musical comedies and white-washed war dramas belie the terrors that were going on. Even supposed classics like Wake Island evoke a tinge of phoniness despite all its alleged gritty realism.
Of course the U.S wasn’t directly threatened by German invasion the way Great Britainwas so their movies lack the immediacy their British counterparts captured. The Japanese did bomb Pearl Harborand while a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was theoretically possible, it never felt eminent. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle never had to contend with relentless blitzkrieg-style bombings the way London did.
For this reason, British propaganda films exude an urgent relevance that Hollywood couldn’t and probably didn’t want to match. Films like Contraband, The Spy in Black, and Next of Kin made effective cases against wartime issues like taking advantage of the black market and blabbing sensitive information in public places. Hollywood just sent Tyrone Power to fly for the RAF, populated stage and screen stars in Stage Door and Hollywood Canteens, and largely turned the battlefield into hackneyed action picture backdrops.
Meanwhile, the British were making movies with more substance. One of the best of these British cautionary tales is Went the Day Well, which recounts a fictional German invasion ofEngland. Here, however, German paratroopers don’t storm the beaches and bombs don’t come raining down. It is a secret, insidious invasion that depends on advance German agents and British stupidity. And, the movie warns, you can expect the coming invasion in the unlikeliest of places.
The unlikely place for the invasion in this film is the picturesque village of Bramley End. The villagers are pleased to learn that they will play host to a detachment of the British army doing communications work in the area. Initially they are proud to host these soldiers, many of them quartered in their own homes. They had been cut off from the war effort, unaffected by the Blitz or preparations on the coast for the feared invasion, and they see this as their opportunity to pitch in and do their parts for the war that, perhaps guiltily, they had been so disconnected.
But some villager begin to suspect that the soldiers aren’t what they seem. Why do some never speak or understand when they are spoken to? Why does one have a German bar of chocolate in his knapsack? Slowly it becomes clear that this isn’t a British military unit, but an advance German team, cutting communications and capturing vital buildings to make the coming German invasion invincible. The villagers, cut off from the outside world, realize it is up to them to band together and stop the invaders.
To make matters worse, there is a traitor in their ranks. Someone they have known and trusted for years is really an advance German agent, thwarting their efforts at every move. They don’t know who the traitor is (or, for much of the film, that there even is a traitor), but we do. And our hope is dashed again and again as the cleverest of plans fail with many deaths because they entrusted their plans with a traitor.
The movie doesn’t pull any punches and that is part of why it is so effective. Just when a Hollywood movie would go soft, this one toughens up. Some of the most sympathetic characters in the film fall in defense of their nation and instead of mourning, we cheer. There is an especially effective scene where someone juggles with a grenade to save a roomful of children. We’ve come to respect that character over the course of the picture, but her death is heroic, rather than gloomy.
And all the gimmicks that would have brought the cavalry to save the day fail here. One plan after another falls apart. In one scene a woman visits the village, unaware of the German presence. Someone slips her a note. We spend several minutes with her on the road as she overlooks the notes and then loses it altogether.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is realistic imagining of a German fifth column invasion. This is an idealized reaction to an invasion – most everyone is remarkably heroic. And, while it might not be far off, it is still conjecture and fantasy. But it is conjecture and fantasy that is ever so satisfying, one of the best let’s-be-prepared-for-the-enemy films of the 1940s and maybe of all time.