WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND has carried a haunting, sentimental echo down through the years since its 1961 release, mostly for those who saw it in England, where it was a sizable hit: the American release a year later was little attended. A beautifully performed allegory, it’s a children’s story with appeal for adults, one that put feathers in several deserving caps.
“It isn’t Jesus. It’s just a fella.”
Rural farm life for the three ‘Bostock’ children is a round of the dull and dutiful—classroom, church, chores—with the light and lively—play, pets, pranks. Then one day, securing a home in their barn for some cast-off kittens, they find another stray taking refuge, an exhausted young man with a beard. When they jostle him awake by asking his name he exclaims “Jesus Christ!”. Innocent as lambs, they accept this literally, and commence a ritual of caring for him in secret, not realizing their saintly charge is actually a fugitive, wanted for a serious crime.
Well established as actor and writer, Bryan Forbes made his directorial debut with this charming and touching fable, the screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall taken from the 176-page novella by Mary Hayley Bell, the wife of actor John Mills. Their precociously talented 15-year-old daughter Hayley plays ‘Kathy’, big sis to ‘Nan’ (Diane Holgate,10) and ‘Charles’ (Alan Barnes,7). Their figure of adoration and mystery is Alan Bates, 26, in his second film (he’d had a small role the previous year in The Entertainer). Stalwart character actor (and future ‘M’) Bernard Lee plays their widowed father.
Shot in the Lancashire countryside around the towns of Burnley and Clitheroe, the isolated and bucolic settings accenting the wistfulness of the kids sheltered naivete while also serving as last stand (or Last Supper) setting for their guest. Eventually, other area children find out the secret and become, in effect, “disciples”. But sooner or later the faith of the young believers will come up against the suspicions and decisions of the adult world.
Bates makes a quiet impression, Lee is always sturdy as an oak, but it’s the young people’s project to make or break, and they’re marvelous. Some maintain that little Barnes steals the picture (Hayley says so in her autobio), but taking a movie away from Hayley Mills is a pretty tall order. Miss Holgate is quite the charmer as well, and all of the other children in the supporting cast register with unaffected honesty. Scenes that would ordinarily be too “cute” or cloying come off with refreshing naturalness, a credit not just to the kids but to director Forbes skill and sensitivity in guiding them. A sterling ensemble.
Producer Richard Attenborough brought it in for a tidy £148,000 (about £2,915,000 in 2022), and to a critical and public smash in England, 61’s 8th most-attended feature. Oddly, when it showed up in the States a year later, it barely made $200,000: possibly the scant take was either a distribution issue or ad campaign snafu, a botch considering it was bracketed by Hayley’s runaway hits The Parent Trap and In Search Of The Castaways. **
Malcolm Arnold did the score. With Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Elsie Wagstaff, Barry Dean, Roy Holder, Gerald Sim. Later adapted as a musical. 99 minutes.
* When it came to the introductory scene where Bates character blurts “Jesus Christ!” he was stuck: “I became absolutely paralyzed with fright, although outwardly I was still calm. I think they finally took the Jesus from take nineteen and the Christ from take thirty-seven and put them together.”
The original title of Mary Hayley Bell’s book was “Bats With Baby Faces”, and she’d based the three leading child characters after daughter Hayley and her siblings.
As for Hayley’s co-kids, this was the only film for Diane Holgate, while Alan Barnes did just one more bit part, in 1963’s The Victors. It’s our loss, but maybe they (and/or their parents) were smart to leave show biz behind.
** Though the US release was delayed until 1962, Whistle Down The Wind joins a rich run of movies from 1961 that kids loved—and their grownup selves still do. Disney delivered The Parent Trap,101 Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, Babes In Toyland, Nikki Wild Dog Of The North and Greyfriars Bobby. The wondrous Mysterious Island and mighty Gorgo are major faves. Plus there was Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Snow White and the Three Stooges and The Wonders Of Aladdin. “Can we go again, Dad? Pleeze?”