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Whistle Down the Wind

Jan 9, 2012

Downham Village{{}}

I’ve been searching on the Internet wondering why I can’tfind a DVD of my all-time favorite movie, Whistle Down the Wind, starringHayley Mills. If you haven’t seen it, you must sign the petition (I have yet to create) to get somebody on the US side of cinema production to get this fantastic film transferred onto media that we can view on equipment this side of the Atlantic!

Whistle Down the Wind is the story of three children fromYorkshire England who find an escaped convict in their barn and think he’s Jesus Christ. It was the first film of director Bryan Forbes, produced in 1961 by Richard Attenborough and based on the novel by Hayley’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell. One of the first things I love about it is that it is filmed in black and white -- which gives it that je ne sais quoi -- the contrast of stone walls and bare trees of the farmland, the stone buildings and dirt roads of the village, coupled with the look and charming Yorkshire accents of the people. Movies of this genre stimulate in me what I can only describe as a kind ancestral aching and longing for the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The opening shot could be from an Alfred Hitchcockthriller -- we see a crooked farm path along a hillside, with gnarly rocks and trees, and the back of a man walking away from the camera. He carries a sack and three children follow behind watching his movements. He comes to a small pond and throws the sack in. The children hide and wait until he leaves and they retrieve the sack, which contains three kittens. They put the kittens under their coats and walk into the village where a small band of Salvation Army missionaries are witnessing to a few villagers. In this scene, Charles, the younger brother, looks at the preacher woman and asks in his thick, stuff-nosed, Yorkshire accent, “Do you want a kitten? It isn’t dead.” She says she can’t take the kitten but Charles explains how the mother cat keeps having them and his dad doesn’t want them and keeps trying to have them drowned, so the children are trying to find homes for them. The missionary assures Charles that Jesus will take care of his kitten.

The children hide the kittens in the barn and later whenKathy (Hayley Mills) goes back to check on them she sees a bearded man sleeping in the hay. Shocked, she retreats, gasping, “Who is it?” And the man, who is a wounded, escaped prisoner hiding in their barn mumbles, “Jesus Christ”, when he sees her and collapses. She concludes that Jesus has come back and is in their barn.

Before bed Kathy confides this to her younger sister, Nan.At breakfast the next day the girls try to sneak food to Jesus. Charles gets miffed that he’s not in on their secret and calls them both “rotten cows”. His dried up aunty who is serving breakfast thumps him on the back of the head and says, “Watch your mouth!” When she walks back into the kitchen he grumbles very realistically, “It’s always me what gets it.” His facial expressions are just real. All three children are believable as siblings, their reactions and the delivery of their lines is hilarious -- but not in the obvious manner of Disney films, or the less subtle sorts of humor common in movies such as Home Alone. Thesekids are respectful to the adults and yet they do what they think that they have to do to take responsibility for the situation they face. They cope in the adult controlled environment while trying to follow their honest and innocent consciences.

I love the depiction of daily life in this movie too. Thehomely scenes at tea, with the family seated around the table eating slices of homemade bread from china plates and drinking their tea from china cups -- the table set with potatoes, meat on the bone, slices of cake, butter and homemade jam -- their knitted wool sweaters and parlor furnished with overstuffed chairs, doilies and fireplace. The whole feeling of the time is so different from now.

The sisters manage to keep Jesus a secret from Charles atfirst but when he runs into the barn and finds his sisters looking at the man sleeping, Charles is in on the secret too. They run from the barn onto a faraway, bare hillside and then comes the perfect moment in Malcolm Arnold’s score where he intersperses the Carole, “We Three Kings”.

Charles gives his kitten to Jesus thinking it will becared for, and loses faith when he finds the kitten dead. Kathy says Jesus has his reasons. She takes Charles to the vicar and asks him why God lets some things die. The vicar gives a vague answer that segues into a lecture on children committing vandalism. Charles listens while sucking a bottle of soda pop through a straw. He takes Kathy’s hand as they leave and says with insight and resolve, “He doesn’t know, does he?”

Later Charles leaks the secret about hiding Jesus in thebarn to the other children at school and then a group follows them home. The utterly sincere faith of the children is heartbreaking. Hayley Mills’ performance is passionate and emotional. Her loving devotion moves the heart of the convict in an understated performance by then newcomer, Alan Bates. When the police finally close in at the end and bring him out of the barn, he holds his arms out in the position of the cross, while they frisk him. The faithful children gather and watch while the adults seem to drag Jesus off to be crucified again. Two little ones show up after he’s gone and Kathy reassures them saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll come again.” The sweetness of this moment is handled with subtlety and reserve

Bernard Lee, who later appeared in James Bond movies,plays the father. Many local village children appeared as well. I read that the village just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the making of the movie and many of the players came to celebrate. This epitomizes the type of wonderful old British, black and white film I watched with my mother on television on many a Sunday afternoon.

Image(s) from Wikimedia Commons
Downham Village was used in the 1961 film, Whistle Down The Wind

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