UK / 96 minutes / bw / Beaver, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Bryan Forbes Pr: Richard Attenborough Scr: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Story: Whistle Down the Wind (1959) by Mary Hayley Bell Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Roy Holder, Barry Dean, Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Patricia Heneghan, John Arnatt, Gerald Sim, Elsie Wagstaff, Hamilton Dyce, Howard Douglas, Ronald Hines, Michael Lees, Michael Raghan. A number of movies have taken as their subject the mythopoeic tendencies of young minds, whereby they can generate fantastical explanations for misunderstood events, or even their own spiritualities—their own mythologies and religions, in fact. The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the 1954 William Golding novel, is the example that usually springs most readily to mind; others include The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Celia (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and, arguably, The Babadook (2014). First on the scene, though, and in my view the most effective of all of these—certainly the most poignantly beautiful—is Whistle Down the Wind.
In a small Lancastrian community, the three children of the Bostock farm—Kathy (Mills), Nan (Holgate) and the youngest, Charles (Barnes)—save a trio of kittens, the latest litter of farm cat Dusty, from being drowned in a sack by feckless farmhand Eddie (Bird). Charles tries to fob off one of the kitten on first his pal Jackie Greenwood (Holder) and then a Salvation Army street evangelist (Heneghan). The latter tells him that she can’t take the proffered kitten but that she’s sure Jesus will look after it. From this casual statement flows much later confusion.
Feckless Eddie (Norman Bird).
Unable to give the kittens away and knowing that if their dad (Lee) or Eddie finds out the truth the creatures will face another death sentence, the kids hide their mewling treasures in the barn. It’s important, of course, that the kittens be named:
Charles: “I’m going to call mine Spider.”
Nan: “You can’t call a cat Spider.”
Charles: “I can call it anything I like.”
Nan: “You’re daft, you are. You’re soft in your head.”
“You’re daft,” Nan (Diane Holgate) tells her little brother Charles (Alan Barnes).
The conversation turns to how Jesus might look after the kittens, but Kathy derides the notion: Jesus is, after all, dead. The two younger children are horrified at the statement—”You just wait ’til Jesus cooms and gets yeh,” Charles summarizes—and, while Kathy is old enough to know better, we can see that at the same time she doesn’t: she’s definitely troubled that she might have committed some unforgivable blasphemy.
Kathy (Hayley Mills) spies on Dad.
The kids live with their dad, a widower, and his shrewish spinster (or widowed) sister, Dorothy “Dolly” (Wagstaff). Auntie Dorothy, who has a caustic turn of phrase, tries to keep everyone in line—not just the kids but Dad as well. That evening, as she finally gets the stud fastened in Dad’s overtight shirt collar so that he can go off to the pub . . .
Dad: “I can’t breathe in it.”
Aunt Dolly: “No. I expect you’ll get beer past it, though.”
After Dad’s departure, Kathy creeps out to the barn to tend the kittens. To her shock she discovers an injured man (Bates) lying in the straw and the gloom. She’s not to know that he’s escaped murderer Arthur Alan Blakey; when she timidly asks “Who is it?”, Blakey responds with a weary “Jesus Christ” and faints.
Kathy’s first sight of the man in the barn (Alan Bates).
After all that’s gone before, Kathy jumps to the obvious conclusion:
Kathy: “Jesus. He’s in our barn. He’s come back.”
Nan: “Kathy, are you sure?”
Kathy finds a “photo” of Blakey.
Kathy (Hayley Mills) shows Jesus to Nan (Diane Holgate).
The two sisters try to keep the news from Charles, whom they’re sure would blab it all over town, but of course he finds out . . . and tells his pal Jackie Greenwood, so that it’s Jackie who blabs the news to others. Soon there are nine extra kids who know that Jesus has returned and is hiding in the Bostock barn—making up a round dozen disciples. The Bostock kids sneak out food to their messiah, bread and wine being the first choice—the latter is Dad’s special port reserved for drinking while listening to the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast. And the kids really do believe:
Nan: “It’s stopped raining. D’ye think he stopped it, Kathy?”
This strength of belief is picked up by Malcolm Arnold’s score, which as one of its motifs uses variations on the tune of “We Three Kings.” The motif plays as almost a mad pagan dance as the three Bostock kids jig for joy in the knowledge that they’ve been blessed by the resurrected Christ. When they try to face down the almost menacing huddle of the nine new disciples the tune plays more like a military march. Arnold’s score is in general quite exquisite, sometimes making use of quasi-liturgical orchestration. The haunting theme tune, released as a single, was a smash hit in the UK.
Jigging for joy to the tune of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Even though Blakey has some difficulty playing the role of Christ convincingly, the kids still retain their faith. After the disciples have presented him with gifts of a New Testament (something to remind him of home, as it were) and a trashy romance paper called Shirley (“It’s got a free gift inside it,” Nan explains. “An Arabian charm bracelet”), they beg him to tell them a story, expecting he’ll choose a parable or something of that ilk. Instead he gives them the torrid saga of “Ruth Lawrence, Air Hostess” from Shirley. They listen reverently. And much later, even after Kathy discovers that the hidden package Jesus sent her to fetch contains a gun, her faith is unshaken.
“It’s got a free gift inside it. An Arabian charm bracelet.”
Blakey (Alan Bates) tells Kathy (Hayley Mills) and the other kids a story.
Of course, a dozen kids can’t keep things secret for long. In the playpark Jackie taunts the local bully, Raymond (Dean)—credited as such but called Fatto or Patto by the others—along the lines of “I know something you don’t know.” Raymond responds by tormenting the secret out of Jackie, and of course then refuses to believe what he’s been told. So now he starts tormenting Jackie into an admission that he was lying: “Have you seen Jesus?” On the third iteration Jackie “denies the Lord.” Just at that moment there’s the cry of a passing train’s whistle—or is that a cock’s crow?
The feared village bully Raymond (Barry Dean).
Charles is the first to become disaffected with the risen Savior. He entrusted Spider to Christ’s care but Christ allowed the kitten to die. When the gaffe is finally blown and Dad finds out what’s been going on in his barn—it happens at Charles’s birthday party (the Last Supper?)—the little boy spits out: “It isn’t Jesus—it’s just a fella.”
Dad (Bernard Lee) finally realizes there’s something been going on in his barn — or stable?
That Blakey hasn’t been discovered before is in itself something of a miracle, in that Bostock’s isolated barn would seem to be precisely the sort of place the cops would check at an early stage in the manhunt. The closest direct threat of discovery comes when Dad and the vet, Mr. Weaver (Douglas), arrive to check a sick cow. Blakey has hidden under some straw right next to the calf. While tending the beast, Weaver repeatedly—and agonizingly—steps on Blakey’s hand. Somehow Blakey manages not to cry out.
Inevitably, there’s an arrest. Although he has the gun, Blakey, touched by Kathy’s fidelity and her essential goodness, decides to meekly surrender, even though he knows the gallows will be his fate. As Superintendent Teesdale (Arnatt) and Sergeant Frank Wilcox (Sim) frisk him, he holds his arms out to the side in standard fashion; the cinematography stresses the similarity of this pose to crucifixion. It’s interesting to reflect that, whereas in the Bible version it’s Christ who brings spiritual salvation to mortals, here it’s the other way round: it’s the mortals—the kids—who have brought spiritual salvation to Blakey.
Dad (Bernard Lee) tries to stop Kathy (Hayley Mills) from going to Christ’s aid.
With the exception of Mills, the kids in the movie were amateurs, almost all of them recruited in the Burnley and Clitheroe regions of Lancashire. Another exception is Holder, who’d had a TV role before playing Jackie here, and who went on to have a very extensive acting career, mostly on TV. Most of the other kids never appeared on screen again, which is startling, because there are some brilliant performances on display from them in this movie. Dean is quite superb as the bully and Holgate is a sheer delight as Nan—by turns funny and affecting, and often both at the same time.
The focus of most attention among these amateur child actors has been, ever since the movie’s release, Alan Barnes as the splendidly adenoidal Charles. He had one small further role—in the 1963 war movie The Victors—but then evidently decided the acting life was not for him. This is quite in keeping with an anecdote director Bryan Forbes told much later, of how, when he was recruiting his youthful cast, he asked the little boy if he’d like to be in the movie. “I’m not bothered,” was the blunt response. Barnes seems, further, to have “disappeared” himself entirely from the IMDB.
Although I’ve been concentrating on the amateur actors, this isn’t to suggest that the professionals are less than excellent. The chemistry between Mills and her supposed siblings is tremendous, and she’s completely convincing as their big sis. Although it might seem paradoxical now, Mills was already an international star by this time while for Bates Whistle Down the Wind offered him a first big-screen starring role—his big chance. It was a chance he grabbed with both hands. He manages to exhibit extraordinary sensitivity in a part that was necessarily limited in its scope: even a slight shift of his gaze can speak volumes. From here on this most gifted of actors never looked back.
Alan Bates in his first starring role.
There are good cameos from Diane Clare, as the kids’ sunday school teacher, Miss Lodge, and especially from Hamilton Dyce as the vicar, Mr. Reaves, whose primary parishional concern seems to be that some of the local kids have been stealing the church guttering. There’s a scene both comedic and heart-wrenching when Kathy tries to worm out of him the reason why Jesus was not in fact able to save the life of Charles’s kitten Spider—the reason why there is such a thing as death. As Charles looks on skeptically, the vicar is swiftly reduced to woffling and to more whines about his guttering.
The vicar (Hamilton Dyce) tries to explain mortality to . . .
. . . an earnestly entreating Kathy (Hayley Mills) . . .
. . . while Charles (Alan Barnes) watches, skepticism writ large on his face.
Whistle Down the Wind is often hilariously funny, yet it’s full, too, of tragedy. The kids have lost their mum, of course, and Auntie Dorothy can never be any sort of substitute. We can sense that their education will be rudimentary and likely short. And then there’s the final tragedy, the greatest of all, when Kathy must watch the Savior whom she loves, and in whom she has invested so much of herself, being led away to a dreadful fate. In the movie’s final moments we see the full force of her bereftness, the spiritual isolation into which she has been hurled—all the more horrific for the fact that briefly she believed she had achieved some kind of validation. Now she’s back to being stuck on a lousy farm with no one in whom she can truly confide, and looking forward to nothing but a dead-end life. She’s shattered by her collision with the adult world, and we’re shattered with her.
Kathy (Hayley Mills), devastated by her loss.
The “crucified” Blakey (Alan Bates).
Hordes gather to witness the “crucifixion.”
This is also a very beautiful movie, as will be evident from some of the screengrabs here. For the most part Forbes’s direction is very careful to exploit visual opportunities, as when Blakey is being arrested and we see the silhouette of his “crucified” figure against the stark sky. But it’s Arthur Ibbetson’s cinematography that really takes the breath away. He somehow manages to extract almost symphonic qualities from the black-and-white medium, so that, for example, we look at what must have been in reality somewhat dreary urban vistas and see them as evocatively atmospheric. Some of Ibbetson’s work here seems quite noirish in inspiration, as when Kathy is chased out of the railway tunnel where she’s been retrieving the package containing Blakey’s gun. Who among us could fail to be reminded at that moment of the iconic concluding sequence, shot by John Alton, for The BIG COMBO (1955)? Famously, there are occasional hiccups in the movie. At the breakfast table, Charles has a boiled egg whose degree of consumption varies from shot to shot—here he’s halfway through it, there he’s finished it, then he’s halfway through it again, but, oh, look, he’s hardly started it . . . Elsewhere, Raymond seems to be simultaneously both inside and outside a building as a group of kids waits for Jesus to appear. These are, of course, very trivial flaws.
Charles (Alan Barnes) and that notorious boiled egg.
Whistle Down the Wind is billed as an Attenborough–Forbes production, and the two men seem to have regarded it as a sort of family affair. Gerald Sim, who has a smallish part as one of the cops, was Attenborough’s brother-in-law, while Attenborough himself plays one of the extras (and, no, I didn’t spot him). Other bit parts went to Attenborough’s daughter Charlotte and to Forbes’s daughter Sarah. Another familial connection the movie has is that the novel upon which it was based was written by Hayley Mills’s mother.
That novel has also inspired two more recent stage musicals, both called Whistle Down the Wind: the first came in 1989, done by Richard Taylor and Russell Labey, with music and lyrics by Taylor, and the second in 1996, with lyrics by Jim Steinman (the man responsible for so many of Meat Loaf’s songs) and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
A few weeks ago I was asked which movie I’d seen that seemed most perfectly to me to evoke childhood, and unhesitatingly I named Whistle Down the Wind—even though it had been many years since last I’d watched it (for the purposes of John Clute’s and my 1997 book The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, in fact). Rewatching the movie a few days ago in order to write these notes, I felt that the rectitude of my immediate response was more than confirmed. As I noted at the outset, there are other movies that deal with the easy mythopoiea that pervades the fantasy worlds of childhood, but none of them seem to me to be so perfectly and convincingly envisaged and executed as this one. ==================
This entry is a contribution to The 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts. Postscript: I was intending to add a note to the effect that Whistle Down the Wind is far less noirish than even this site would normally contemplate for inclusion, but then I realized that, even leaving aside some of the cinematography, it does in fact have quite a few noirish tropes. One could think of it, perhaps, as something to watch alongside The WINDOW (1949), whose noirish status is rarely doubted.
On Amazon.com: DVD and novel.