When it’s on: Thursday, 4 January (6.30 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
We’re heading towards the end of this two week blitz of seasonal postings on the site, and what better film to cover than a charming slice of northern whimsy like Whistle down the Wind? Bryan Mills might be better known as a director for some of his later works, but this debut in the chair, produced by Richard Attenborough, showcasing child star Hayley Mills, and offering an early major screen role for Alan Bates, takes some beating.
The funny thing about Whistle down the Wind is that it isn’t incredibly well known, but those who have seen it tend to fall under its spell, perhaps enchanted by a film set in the shadow of Pendle Hill, Lancashire. The landmark is famous for its seventeenth century witch trials and is difficult to miss – I don’t have to travel far to see its iconic whaleback outline, isolated from the Pennines so that it stands out on the horizon. I climbed its 557 metres a few years ago, so I know what it’s like to risk a heart attack thanks to a reckless, punishing act! In any event, for a mere hill it holds a mysterious, romantic allure for visitors, while presenting a stark jab of nature into a region that grew during the Industrial Revolution. Burnley is the nearest town, once a centre for cotton production, while the hamlets that were built in the shadow of Pendle are slightly remote farming communities. It’s in the latter that the film is set.
Bernard Lee plays Bostock, a middle aged farmer whose wife died several years ago and now lives with Auntie Dorothy (Elsie Wagstaff). When irresponsible farmhand Eddie (Norman Bird) tosses a sack containing kittens into the river, they’re saved from a watery death by Bostock’s three children, Kathie (Mills), her younger sister Nan (Diane Holgate) and little brother Charles (Alan Barnes). The kids then try to find a new home for the cats, offering them to a Salvation Army official who says she can’t take them but that Jesus will make sure they’re looked after. Resigned to keeping the kittens for the present, they set up a temporary shelter in their barn, and it’s here they come across an injured and delirious man (Bates), who exclaims ‘Jesus Christ!’ when Kathie asks him who he is. He falls unconscious, and the children make the obvious leap of imagination that the stranger is none other than Jesus himself.
Over the next few days, the children bring ‘Jesus’ things to eat and slowly help him to regain his strength, letting slip their discovery to other local children so that the legend begins to spread. In the meantime, the little community is rocked by the news that an escaped wife murderer might be somewhere in the area. Police are combing the region, and Bostock tells his children not to get involved with strange men.
The story is about the formation of a myth, more specifically the ability of children to develop their own lore and in the film applying the history of Jesus – they’re taught about his miracles in Sunday School classes, led by Diane Clare’s patient teacher – that takes them out of their tough, agricultural lives to the mythology of the man in the barn. The disconnect between reality and Clare’s fantastical yarns is clear, and makes it equally obvious whether Bates is really Jesus or not, but there’s an earnest yearning among Kathie, her siblings and their friends that turns the film into an optimistic fable. For a time, imagination and the longing for something ‘bigger’ and more meaningful than themselves and their world takes precedent. The man neither confirms or denies their assertions over his identity, which adds to the mystery and allure surrounding him.
Forbes adds to the fable by linking the childrens’ meetings with the stranger to Bible tales. Their first encounter involves the three siblings, an allusion to the three wise men, and when their group extends to twelve you get the same number as the apostles. One of the kids, Jackie (Roy Holder) is picked on by a school bully to whom he claims he knows Jesus. Held in an arm lock he’s forced to deny this three times, before a train whistle sounds in the distance – the imagery should be clear enough. It’s at its most obvious in the scene where the stranger is finally arrested. Standing outside the barn where he’s been hiding and forced to stretch for a search, his silhouette against the stark white background of the sky forms the shape of the cross. All the while, the children start attributing every day acts to the power of Jesus. It starts raining and then it stops. They wonder whether he’s responsible.
Bates puts in a real star-making performance as the stranger, often communicating in little more than grunts approximating dialogue and doing the rest of the acting with his eyes, not quite believing what’s happening and having no choice but to play along with the delusion. Though a killer, there’s little suggestion that the children are in any danger from him, and the threat he represents is more implied by their blind trust rather than anything he does. Hayley Mills, the daughter of John Mills and Mary Hayley Bell (the latter wrote the novel upon which the film is based, with her daughter ever in mind for the role of Kathie), was already a star when she made Whistle down the Wind. She was Disney’s child actor of choice, but affected a note perfect northern accent and fit the part with ease, though she’s upstaged by Barnes as her little brother. Worldly wise and nasal, Barnes steals all the scenes he appears in. His catchphrase, the withering ‘It isn’t Jesus, it’s just a fella‘ could be the film’s tagline, delivered most significantly after the stranger has failed to look after his stray cat and allowed it to die. Holgate adds good value as the middle child, the focus of all those shots that depict her looking hopefully at ‘Jesus’ as though everything depends on him being the real thing. As for the other adults, Lee is fine and understated, gruff with his children yet kindly, and there isn’t a bad performance elsewhere.
Shot in crisp black and white photography, adding to the bleakness of the location while making it appear more evocative and less dirty than it deserves, and a wistful score from Malcolm Arnold that weaves in hymns and Christmas Carols, there’s a lot to cherish here. I think it’s a delightful piece of work, all about that hinterland between childhood and growing up, when you let yourself dream and hope against hope that some of it will stick. Some interpretations of the final scene suggest Kathie is left devastated by the film’s final twist, but my impression is it ends on an optimistic note, that there’s enough in what she saw and experienced to make her suspect she’ll have those feelings again some day.
Whistle down the Wind: ****