The Lieutenant Died Last (Graham Greene, Colliers, 1940)

Went The Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, dir. Ealing, 1942)


Writing about The Cider House Rules I ventured the idea that films are more like short stories than they are like novels, yet I found a short story to film adaptation that required at least as many changes as one would expect with a novel. Turning a twelve page short story into an eighty-five minute film suggests that additions would be needed I suppose, but this adaptation was not merely a matter of filling time.

            The short story in question is Graham Greene’s The Lieutenant Died Last, on which the Alberto Cavalcanti film, Went The Day Well? was based. The short story was published a scant two years before the film was issued, in 1940 and 1942 respectively, and makes an interesting example of how an idea may be taken and put to deeper, or at least more specific purposes than those of its origin.

            Greene’s story imagined a unit of German paratroopers had landed in an English village intent on sabotage. Holding the villagers hostage they set off to destroy a nearby railway line, but are thwarted by the efforts of the local poacher. There is quite a genre of English invasion stories, and particularly so since the 1870s Battle of Dorking. This anonymous work, which is said to have sparked the building of a ring of forts to the south of London, is attributed to Tomkyn Chesney, who also wrote a fine study of the Waterloo campaign. Among a spate of other books published between then and the outbreak of World War One, is William Le Quex’s 1897 invasion scare, and another set in a future 1915. In the early nineteen forties John Steinbeck published a neat little novella (The Moon is Down, 1942) which described the invasion, and subsequent occupation of a fictional country by its fictional neighbour. Around the same time a man called Necker published a study of the German Army that included an account of a parachute attack similar to the one in Greene’s short story. Subsequently of course we have had books and films like SS-GB and The Eagle Has Landed, and the seminal guerrilla-movie masterpiece by Kevin Brownlow, It Happened Here.

            The parachute force was in those early days of World War Two very much feared, though the coups we remember now tend to be so-called ‘failures’ such as Arnhem and Dien Bien Phu. Even the German seizure of Crete was viewed as a failure by Hitler, at the time, and he never used paratroops in the same way again. What was viewed, then and now, as unequivocally successful, was the German parachute attack on the Belgian fort of Eben Emael, at the opening of the attack in the west that lead to Dunkirk. This was the stroke that raised the profile of the parachute arm.

            Cavalcanti’s Germans are paratroopers too, though they arrive in the English village by lorry, along a road we which travel with them as the opening credits roll. In Greene’s story it is Purves, the poacher, who watches them fall, ‘like enormous parasols’. Purves, on his own initiative, commences a one-man war against the invaders, having witnessed them shooting an escaping child. Harbouring memories of the South African war and ‘the Bojers’ he defeats the Germans, rescues the hostages, and is rewarded for his troubles by being given a caution by the local magistrate, for the two rabbits he has poached earlier in the day!

            It is all run through so terribly quickly in Greene’s short story. The village people are referred to, Mrs Margesson at the post office, the village constable, Lord Drew in his mansion, but they are not developed as characters and really have little to do with the story. In the end, Purves shoots, out of mercy, the fatally wounded eponymous Lieutenant, and considers with unease the photograph of a baby he has taken from the man’s wallet.

            Cavalcanti takes a different tack. He develops not only the characters of the villagers, but also, to a certain extent, those of the Germans. Purves is still there, and so, curiously for such a changed story, are many of the details. The boy is still shot, and in the legs too, as in Greene’s story. The constable is still discovered ‘unready’, in the book because he has been digging potatoes, in the film because he is caught shaving. The film’s story is much more complex, not the only example I have found of films wising up, rather than dumbing down (H.G.Wells did the same to his own short story with the screenplay of The Man Who Could Work Miracles).

            Cavalcanti’s focus is not the fighting, so much as the villagers, and how they are forced to recognize, and react to the fact of their having been invaded. The issue of a fifth columnist, a traitor within, is a major part of the film. It is not touched on in the short story. The Home Guard too is absent from the short story. Calvacanti has to have a battle though. Perhaps the cinema audience demanded it, the story certainly did, for having got his sixty Germans into the village he has to deal with them. And here is another curiosity, for Cavalcanti’s battle scenes are ludicrously unrealistic, yet at the same time reminiscent of photographs from the time of Home Guard exercises. There was an issue, early in the war, over the realism of Home Guard training, as envisaged by the government in comparison to that offered by (socialist) Spanish Civil War veterans. Cavalcanti errs on the side of the government version! Yet the scene in which the postmistress hacks to death one of the invaders is intentionally horrific, though not gratuitously graphic. Perhaps Calvacanti wanted to play up the implications of an invasion for the civilians (a dwindling theoretical possibility by the time the film was made), and play down the horror of the actual soldier to soldier combat that their menfolk were already engaged in, or preparing for.

            The film’s exploration and presentation of the village and its people, and the relationships between them, their ideas, of responsibility and care for each other, of how to behave, and how to decide, and ultimately, of how to act in extremis, is the core interest for both film maker and viewer, and in many ways, once the decision to act has been taken, the carrying out of the actions is of less interest. Here, perhaps, the form parts company with the theory of the short story, in that it cannot get out of the story as abruptly as a written version would.

            The film is cleverly framed though, in two scenes that reveal its wartime propaganda intent. We are greeted at Bramley End (six and a half miles from Upton Ferrars, and in a lush half timbered rural England – whereas Greene had us at Potter, in ‘Metroland’, only a commute away from the city) by a survivor, who shows us the grave of the German invaders. At the end he closes the film too, making it plain that not only the Battle of Bramley End has been won, but the war against Hitler as well. This, at the time of the making of the film, was not something that everyone would have taken for granted! Certainly, he invites no qualms about their killing similar to those felt by Purves as he contemplates the photograph he has looted, except in the killings carried out by women. In the film version it is not only the poacher who kills Germans, but civilians of both sexes, and in scenes that appear much more ‘realistic’ than the general battle scenes.

            Whereas Greene was content to build his story around the game of lethal hide and seek that Purves plays down by the railway line, Cavalcanti wanted to show us, in some depth, the sacrifice, and self sacrifice, the courage, both moral and physical, that would be needed for the British people, in what was recognised then, and is still recognised, as ‘the people’s war’, to win their victory. This was not simply an official reaction to the separation that had been engendered during ‘the soldiers war’ of 1914-1918, and the alienation between soldier and civilian that had followed, but a recognition that it is suppression and subjugation of the civilian that is the ultimate objective of the enemy, the ultimate objective of war. Cavalcanti was not only showing the qualities that would be needed to win such a war, but was asserting that the civilians in Bramley End, and by extension in Britain too, had those qualities, and would live up to them.

            Greene, on the other hand, was merely writing a speculative fiction in answer to that question, which writers are often asking, what if?