By A. O. SCOTT
THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 19, 2011 – Most of what happens in “Went the Day Well?” — an undeservedly forgotten British film showing at Film Forum starting on Friday — is a flashback. In the first scene, a friendly chap in a village churchyard addresses the camera, which is to say the audience, and supposes we want to hear about the big battle that happened in the town a few years before.
That skirmish, involving local residents, members of the British Home Guard and a platoon of Nazis masquerading as Englishmen, was a milestone in the defeat of Germany. Now, in peacetime, surveying the graves of those who fought and died, we can reflect on what happened in an attitude of calm amazement.
Except that the film, directed by the peripatetic Brazilian-born cineaste Alberto Cavalcanti and produced by Ealing Studios, was made in 1942, when victory over Germany was anything but certain. For original audiences, in other words, that excursion to the churchyard was a message from the future, an acknowledgement of sacrifices already made and still to come, and also a genial, chin-up morale booster.
“Went the Day Well?,” based on a story by Graham Greene, is part of a rich repository of films, made in Britain and in Hollywood, intended to buck up the spirits of the English-speaking world in the fight against Hitler. “Mrs. Miniver,” a huge, Oscar-sweeping hit in the United States, remains the best-known tribute to the plucky indomitability of ordinary Britons.
Cavalcanti, in the best Ealing manner, takes up that same theme with dry, humorous precision. With one notable exception, people of all classes and backgrounds come together to do the decent thing and fight back to defend their homes and one another.
The elderly vicar; the lady in the manor house; the chatty, simple-hearted shopkeeper; the poacher and his boy — all of them and more band together to face down a threat that arrives cloaked in benign bonhomie. A group of soldiers shows up in the pleasant hamlet of Bramley and needs billeting, which the locals are only too happy to provide. But the visitors show some odd traits. One speaks sharply to a child. Another crosses his sevens when scoring a card game. Yet another is found to be in possession of a bar of Viennese chocolate.
We soon learn that they are the advance guard of an invasion force. And the cruelty of the state they represent becomes apparent as they are transformed from guests to occupiers, holding the civilian population hostage.
Cavalcanti, who also contributed an episode to the marvelous Ealing horror anthology “Dead of Night,” handles the story with crisp, vigorous wit. “Went the Day Well?” contemplates some pretty grim stuff, but with equipoise, discipline and a sense of humor that embody exactly the virtues it sets out to defend. Apart from its considerable historical interest, this is a movie about how civilization survives.
“Went the Day Well?” runs through June 2 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village; (212) 727-8110, filmforum.org.