Screen Violence

film 1 of 5

Went the Day Well?

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

This is an amazing movie, experienced without diminishment every time I see it. At a recent in-class screening we asked if any of the students had ever encountered it, or even heard of it. Not even remotely. And don’t you find, when a class isn’t forcing you, that not having heard of things makes it easy to not make the effort. As it turned out, those students got their timbers well shivered. There’s an obvious lesson here, which is that there’s no end of great, including and especially the obscure great. We can’t just let them tell us what to watch, or stop searching ourselves!  

Of course beyond that platitude are the particulars of this jaw dropper. It’s kind of haw haw/I-dare-say at the beginning, then the screws are tightened with awesome exactitude. Technically Went the Day Well? is pretty well perfect: framing, pacing, telling the story and keeping track of the characters within it. There are several effective procedural strains, some pleasing humour, and a few quiet, perceptive observations about class and such. 

But most impressively there’s that violence. It’s still shocking, not comparative to modern levels, but in itself. It’s very important that this violence is shocking, but not immoral. Mrs. Collins hatchets that guy and her soul is rent by the necessity of it, just as ours are rent by what follows. Very wartime, and very wartime complicated (cf. Humphrey Jennings, John Ford’s They Were Expandable, etc.)—her death isn’t quite futile, but help thou my unbelief!

The aforementioned film students were a bit confused by the melodramatic treatment of the Germans in a film that was also presented to them as being psychologically complex. Very fair. Do you know or remember those Randolph Scott westerns that Burt Kennedy and Budd Boetticher put together in the fifties? (See review for Comanche Station, q.v.) Those superb, searching inquiries into the complex nature of protagonism and antagonism, of the good and ill within us, also shorthand things by making their Native Americans into basic generic baddies. That’s a shortcoming, and yet the films still stand, shining  As for Cavalcanti’s movie, the Germans are there to evoke sympathy and provide dramatic conflict. And not much more. They’re Orcs, basically. The filmmakers’ more important point has to do with the flawed diversity of the town’s people, and how all that must and can be transcended. To demonstrate we have the formidable character of Mrs. Fraser. Her evolution from battle-ax to the cinema’s most heroic and heart-rending death is positively wrenching, and inspiring. Since everyone has her reasons, we’d best be humble and grateful.  

A final note: William Walton’s brief fanfare is identical, beginning and end. At first it’s stirring; at last it’s devastating. What must they have felt when they watched this in the UK, in 1942?

Went the day well?

We died and never knew

But well or ill

Freedom we died for you.