Saturday, 9 February 2013

Went the day well?

Many years ago and I really do mean many I spent some time as an inmate in a children's ward, I was probably about five years old, there you are that's how long ago it was. It's a period in my life which I obviously recollect imperfectly but the images that remain are some of my most potent memories. One of them is the haunting sight of the children in the glass rooms, this was a period when the thalidomide legacy was still unfolding so you can imagine the effect of the uncensored reality within these isolation wards would have on the young minds gawking aghast with their noses pressed against the windows. There are other memories: wearing a toy Indian head dress while confined to bed, finding a kaleidoscope in the toy box, making a break for freedom only to be a hunted down by a nurse, being told to stay still and watch the birdy on those chilly morning trips to the other place, the nun who asked me about Jesus and Mary and gave a fist full of St. Christopher, waking up one morning to find my self in one of those glass rooms.

To accompany this fuel to feed the engines of imagination is a memory of the first film I remember seeing, shown on the ward Tele. Went the Day Well was produced as a propaganda effort in WW2. The film actually works very well as a drama, in fact certain elements of if have been recycled more than once, most notably in Jack HIggins's The Eagle has Landed. Which features a plot derived from Went the Day Well, that is, a village being infiltrated by Germans disguised as friendly troops and a climax that features a siege that takes place inside a church. One memory of the film that sticks with me, is what I call the German seven scene, it's where the disguised German officer arouses suspicion by crossing his seven while writing a note. It's funny how such a memory can linger and influence your feelings, I always shudder when I see people do that today and I often wonder if the other kids in the ward who watched the film that night feel the same way. On a less personal level the film is noteworthy because although it's an obvious exercise in propaganda it's an unusual piece of cinema in that it's quite sophisticated as a narrative but it was made before the narrative conventions in mainstream cinema solidified after the war and as such represents an interesting social document.

One aspect of this is the role women play in the film there are a number rounded female characters with fully active volition, so active in fact that it is often violent and occasionally fatal, one such instance is the famous pepper scene. There are also a number ancillary female parts that depict a range of human attributes both positive and negative in quite a realistic way, That's an aspect of mainstream drama that suffered quite notably after the war, there are exceptions, probably I would cite Patrica Neal's role in The Day the Earth Stood Still and maybe a few others but even these tend to be one sided, focusing on the positive. Another related aspect of the film that is really quite extraordinary for a propaganda flick, is the of independence with which the protagonists exercise their own volition. That would be totally verboten today, if you'll excuse the play on words, in recent years a much greater emphasis on dependence has arisen in modern drama. Characters portrayed risking their lives pro-actively, driving the narrative not just reacting to it, are heroic archetypes not realistic portrayals of ordinary people. For that reasons modern film looks rather pale in comparison to Went the Day Well.

The major problem with mainstream film drama is the attention it garners from the would be censors, the guardians of morality and taste. For them everything has to be a morality tale, how many times have you heard, xyz portrayed somewhere will encourage some kind antisocial behaviour? quite a lot I imagine. Printed media doesn't get nearly so much attention although it doesn't escape completely, Seduction of the Innocent proves that point but on the whole it's gotten away with being a lot more rounded, interesting, reflecting reality and real people to greater degree than cinema, although that has diminished too in recent decades. There were no outraged newspapers calling for the banning of Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange but it was a different story when Kubrick made his film. As I mentioned I feel this normalization of cinematic drama grew incrementally after the war, step by it step it ate away veracity til today we're in the state where a propaganda film produced in the time war contains more realism than the fair we get today, in what is supposed to be a free world. When Jason Isaacs was prompted to defend the trivial characters in the Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot, he said he thought that depicting the hero as a slave owner would send the wrong message. No one has epitomized the problem so succinctly, thanks Mr. Isaacs.


  1. The trouble with art 'reflecting' life is that negative aspects of society tend to be magnified and disseminated to a wider audience. I remember back in the '70s, Nationwide doing a feature on glue-sniffing by kids, which was still a relatively minor practice in some parts of the country. Once the programme aired, however, it became a far more widespread pursuit amongst the youth of Britain.

    1. Yeah I remember that, it's a very good example of the feedback mechanism that Stanley Cohen documented in Folk Demons and Moral Panics. That issue kind of ties in with theme here, in that the glue sniffing stories in the press and media sponsored a whole bunch of quite severe legislation restricting the sale of items to minors. An example of the kind of paternalism engendered in contemporary fiction. People had been sending their kids to the shops for razor blades and evostick with no discernible threat the social order then suddenly it becomes a deadly threat to combated with the full force of the law. A sales assistant can get a criminal record for inadvertently allowing a minor to purchase a range of goods previously considered innocuous. I'm not sure I'd make an argument for Went the Day Well being a work of particular realism but it does have more realism in regard to certain characterizations. The other thing about it, which I probably didn't make the point very well is that it portrays ordinary characters, for example, the postmistress as people with their own agency, exactly the opposite to the sort of "socially responsible" attitude that is portrayed today and interestingly in the wartime propaganda from other countries. There's an interesting comparison, that I'll get round to posting something on, between this film and a German Propaganda film, Heimkehr, which, cinematically is more sophisticated than Went the Day Well and made around the same time. It's quite a famous propaganda effort and although I don't speak German it's easy enough to pick up on the themes. When I saw Heimkehr it was something of eyeopener for me because I realized that what I was watching was a kind of progenitor, in terms of the visual and cinematic vocabulary, for the some of the films we see now.