I've mentioned that I consider They Made Me a Fugitive
to be the superior film, but I still think it's a masterpiece, and about as great and convincing as genuine "propaganda" can get (as opposed to the previously mentioned Ivan the Terrible
, which to me is interesting for precisely the way it fails as propaganda... that is, not celebrating Ivan/Stalin, but painting their reigns' as nightmarish).
I honestly don't see how you say the film plays it safe. Sure,
no kids get killed (which in itself may deserve a spoiler tag), but it certainly doesn't keep them out of harms way... not just the moment Sausage mentions, but a kid does get gunned down, which is shocking and taboo even if he does survive.
In fact, the film distinguishes itself precisely by Cavalcanti's talent and understanding of screen violence. It's something he excelled at: it pops up in Dead of Night
where he generates genuine panic and sympathy for the destruction of an inanimate object
...and which comes to the fore again in Fugitive
, which is structured around three moments of extreme violence (and where he plays with the viewer's position as voyeurs/witnesses). The film may not celebrate "primitivism and brutality", but its resistance is never simply "heroism". The film's all about normal, decent people suddenly making contact with very real and very serious brutality, and Cavalcanti doesn't sugarcoat it at all. While shot on location, the film is shot in a very "invisible" Ealing studio style from the beginning, showing only the briefest hints of Cavalcanti's avant-garde and documentary inclinations.
That all changes half-way through, precisely at the moment when violence starts to intrude on the film, the docile, polite shooting style suddenly giving away to a much more punchy and moody design.
The shot of Daisy being held at gunpoint at the switchboard is shot in stark, expressionist close-ups that constrast jarringly with the very scene it's cross-cut with.
The film may not have "gore", but Cavalcanti doesn't need it; those first slaps pack as much wallop as most bloodshed in lesser films, and it's only the first unsettling sign of things to come.
Cavalcanti constantly undercuts and shades the moments of violence with genuine horror, films them with unglamorized bluntness, and in the later scenes, as the violence escalates upon itself, hints at a burgeoning sense of amoral sadistic glee in its protagonists. The film's point of view is a collective; it doesn't establish any leads among the cast of characters, and this not only emphasizes the sense of community, but it has the flip-side of leaving us a sense of genuine unpredictability. For a film about "heroics", this is the rare film where literally any character can be killed. When it happens, it's not treated with the bombast of a "hero's death", but with a matter-of-fact unsentimental abruptness. When heroism and sacrifice does emerge, it's similarly hard-earned and direct. "Patriotism" takes a back seat to plain survival, and Cavalcanti brings attention and nuance to the psychological strain of suddenly being immersed in violence.
The most shocking moments of the film bear this out. Kind Mrs. Collins, who would probably never hurt a fly, suddenly taking up an axe, and recoiling at her actions... all this only to be disposed of quickly. The home guard, comprising nearly all the young men remaining in the village, being unceremoniously slaughtered. The previously mentioned sacrifice by Mrs. Fraser, which is unthinking, blink-and-you-miss-it. Nora's getting her revenge, but doing so at the edge of madness. Daisy being rescued, and not rejoicing, but breaking down with tears of revulsion at the two murders she just saw.
In fact, there's a perversity to the later scenes, where the violence escalates into series of increasingly rapid-fire montages. The fact that both the allies and the enemy are in the same uniform makes distinction among the combat and carnage increasingly impossible, disrupting simple patriotic crowd-pleasing in favor a genuine sense of unease and anarchy.
I'll leave it to war strategists to explain the feasibility of the Nazi's invasion plan, but the film's vision of resistance is never less than convincing. I see no xenophobia here, but a genuine immediacy at a very real threat. Yeah, it espouses vigilance and heroism, but with good reason, and never allows itself to lapse into fervency or to coast on demagogy. Naming the film after the John Maxwell Edmond epitaph is to me a masterstoke, as it summarizes both the attitude and outlook of the film.
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
Went the day well?
It's patriotic, but sobering in its execution. It's heroic, but mournful of the cost of war. It speaks of sacrifice, but not as a grand gesture of allegiance to blood and soil (the cult of sacrifice so alluring to fascists), but as something unglorified and often unthinking, done at the blink-of-a-moment for the sake of your fellow man. And just as the poem ends on a note of uncertainty, so is the "science fiction" of the bookends unable to divert from the genuine terror and restlessness that it contains. While Bramley End wins for freedom, the film doesn't ignore it comes at a price. While the price may be justified, it's to the films benefit that it doesn't sweep it under the rug for simple ra-ra patriotism. Measured, clear-eyed and unflinching, this film is propaganda that doesn't come from a war-office, but from a very real place of urgency and foreboding in the common people it chooses to glorify.