Alberto Cavalcanti: hero of the war
A new BFI season celebrating filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti opened at BFI Southbank last week. Tom Huddleston celebrates his greatest achievement, Nazi invasion thriller ‘Went the Day Well?’
All of these creative experiences fed into Cavalcanti’s debut film for Ealing, ‘Went the Day Well???’, the tale of a dozy British hamlet invaded by Nazi shock troops. His GPO experiences had provided the director with a unique insight into the realities of British life, in all its class-based complexity, but also with the mythic national character we create for ourselves. His documentary work provided him with a willingness to explore the life of a community: its hopes, its fears, its darkest secrets, along with a propensity for depicting even the most extreme events in blunt, unsentimental terms. And his work as an experimental filmmaker enabled him to fuse contradictory elements into a seamless whole: ‘Went the Day Well???’ is a film which simultaneously lionises, satirises and coldly questions the concept of Britishness, even nationality itself, while never diverting from its central, government-approved message of eternal vigilance. Love your neighbour, the film seems to say, but keep an eye on him too.
By the time ‘Went the Day Well???’ was released in 1942, the battle of Stalingrad was underway and all plans for a German invasion of Britain had been indefinitely shelved – not that the average moviegoer would have known it. And after the war, it slipped quietly out of the public consciousness: too worrying for the post-war wave of Ealing comedies, too nationalistic for the New Wavers, too cosy for the neo-realists, though the film still pops up in the BBC2 schedules to scare grandma out of her afternoon nap. Cavalcanti’s career seemed to follow a similar path but on the strength of this movie alone, never mind extraordinary pieces like exuberant comedy ‘Champagne Charlie’ and breathlessly intense crime drama ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’, he deserves to be remembered as one of the leading lights of our national cinema. Let’s hope the new BFI season goes some way towards redressing the balance.
Read our review of ‘Went the Day Well???’.
Author: Tom Huddleston
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