The story is told in flashback by a villager, played by Mervyn Johns, as though to a person visiting after the war. He recounts: one Saturday during the Second World War, a group of seemingly authentic British soldiers arrive in the small, fictitious English village of Bramley End. It is the Whitsun weekend so life is even quieter than usual and there is almost no traffic of any kind. At first they are welcomed by the villagers, until doubts begin to grow about their true purpose and identity. After they are revealed to be German soldiers intended to form the vanguard of an invasion of Britain, they round up the residents and hold them captive in the local church. The vicar is shot after sounding the church bell in alarm.
In attempts to reach the outside world, many of the villagers take action. Such plans include writing a message on an egg and giving them to the local paper boy for his mother, but they are crushed when Mrs Fraser's cousin runs over them. Mrs Fraser then puts a note in Cousin Maude's pocket, but she uses it to hold her car window in place; her dog, Edward, then chews it to shreds after it blows onto the back seat. Mrs Collins, the postmistress, manages to kill a German with an axe used for chopping firewood, and tries to telephone elsewhere. The girls on the exchange see her light and decide that she can wait. Mrs Collins waits until she is killed by another German who walks into the shop moments afterwards. The girl at the exchange then picks up the phone, getting no reply.
The civilians attempt to escape to warn the local Home Guard, but are betrayed by the village squire, who is revealed to be collaborating with the Germans. Members of the local Home Guard are ambushed and shot by the Germans. They begin to bow in until a young boy, George, succeeds in escaping; despite being shot in the leg, he alerts the army. British soldiers arrive, and – aided by some of the villagers, including a group of Women's Land Army girls, who have managed to escape, barricade themselves in, and arm themselves – defeat the Germans after a short battle. The squire is shot dead by the vicar's daughter, who had discovered his treachery, as he attempts to let the Germans into the barricaded house. During the battle, many of the villagers who left to fight are wounded or killed; Mrs Fraser is blown up by a grenade and Tom's father wrenches his ankle. The British troops then arrive at Bramley End and all ends well.
The villager retelling the story to the camera shows the Germans' grave in the churchyard and explains proudly that "this is the only bit of England they got".Leslie Banks as Oliver Wilsford, the treachorous squire
C.V. France as the Reverend Ashton, the vicar
Valerie Taylor as Nora Ashton, the vicar's daughter
Marie Lohr as Mrs Fraser
Basil Sydney as Kommandant Orlter, alias Major Hammond
David Farrar as Lt. Jung, alias Lt. Maxwell
Harry Fowler as George Truscott
Elizabeth Allan as Peggy Pryde (a Land Army Girl)
Frank Lawton as Tom Sturry
Thora Hird as Ivy Dawking (a Land Army Girl)
Muriel George as Mrs Collins, the postmistress
Patricia Hayes as Daisy
Mervyn Johns as Charles Sims
Norman Pierce as Jim Sturry
Kathleen Boutall as Mrs Sturry
Hilda Bayley as Cousin Maude
Edward Rigby as Bill Purvis, the poacher
Ellis Irving as Harry Drew
Irene Arnold as Mrs Drew
Norman Shelley as Bob Owen
Grace Arnold as Mrs Owen
Philippa Hiatt as Mrs Bates
Lillian Ellias as Bridget
Gerald Moore as Johnnie Wade
Charles Paton as Harry Brown
Josephine Middleton as Mrs Carter
Anthony Pilbeam as Ted Garbett
Arthur Ridley as Father Owen
Mavis Villiers as Violet
Josie Welsford as June
John Slater as German sergeant
James Donald as German corporal
Men of the Gloucestershire Regiment
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
This epitaph was written by the classical scholar John Maxwell Edmonds, and originally appeared in The Times on 6 February 1918, page 7, under the heading Four Epitaphs. "Went the day well" also appeared in an unidentified newspaper cutting in a scrapbook now held in the RAF Museum (AC97/127/50), and in a collection of First World War poems collated by Vivian Noakes.
The film reinforced the message that civilians should be vigilant against fifth columnists and that "careless talk costs lives". It was based on a short story by the author Graham Greene entitled "The Lieutenant Died Last". By the time the film was released the threat of invasion had subsided somewhat, but it was still seen as an effective piece of propaganda, and its reputation has grown over the years. It has been noted that by opening and closing in a predicted future where not only had the war been won but a (fictitious) full-scale German invasion of Britain defeated, and by presenting a scenario where all echelons of British society unite for the common good (the lady of the manor sacrifices herself without hesitation, for example), the film's message was morale-boosting and positive rather than scaremongering. Anthony Quinn, a film critic for The Independent on Sunday, commented in 2010: "It subtly captures an immemorial quality of English rural life—the church, the local gossip, the sense of community—and that streak of native 'pluck' that people believed would see off Hitler".
In 2005 it was named as one of the "100 Greatest War Films" in a poll by Britain's Channel 4. The 1975 book, The Eagle Has Landed, and the later film use some of the same ideas.
In July 2010, StudioCanal and the British Film Institute National Archive released a restoration of the Went the Day Well? to significant critical acclaim. Tom Huddleston of Time Out termed it "jawdroppingly subversive. Cavalcanti establishes, with loving care and the occasional wry wink, the ultimate bucolic English scene, then takes an almost sadistic delight in tearing it to bloody shreds in an orgy of shockingly blunt, matter-of-fact violence." When the restored film opened at Film Forum in New York City in 2011, A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it "undeservedly forgotten... [H]ome-front propaganda has rarely seemed so cutthroat or so cunning."