Whistle Down The Wind

A companion to the two other films about the imaginative lives of children (Spirit of the Beehive and Kes) that I covered in an earlier entryWhistle Down the Wind could well be the most disturbing of the lot, especially as it’s the most obviously aimed at children. Its cheery music, quoting jauntily from “We Three Kings”, and the rather jolly, Famous Five style of innocent adventurousness the three children start out with (we first see them rescuing kittens thrown into a lake), seem to be setting us up for something far simpler than the film actually is.

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Kathy (played by Hayley Mills), is the eldest of three children living on a farm with their father, and an aunt who has taken on the task of looking after them since the death of their mother (a background detail which isn’t dwelt upon, but which infuses Kathy’s subsequent actions with an underlying desperation the style of the film doesn’t quite confront.) After making a careless remark about Jesus not being able to look after the kittens they’ve rescued because he’s dead, Kathy finds an injured man hiding in a barn, and immediately thinks he’s Jesus, come to prove her wrong. She convinces her younger sister and brother to keep his existence a secret, and together they sneak food out to him (at one point spending money meant for their aunt’s groceries and pretending to lose the receipt to hide the discrepancy). But the man is in fact Blakey, a murderer on the run from the police. He at first doesn’t realise why the children are treating him with such reverence, even when Kathy says they’re doing it because they love him. It’s only after he finds himself with a growing congregation of young disciples that he understands. (They beg him for a story. Instead of reading from the Bible they bring him, he reads from a girl’s comic.)

Things start to go awry when the youngest of the three children, the boy Eddie, finds that the kitten he gave to “Jesus” to look after has died, and Blakey can’t give a reason for why he let such a thing happen. Kathy, determined to believe in him (and, perhaps more importantly, to believe that death has meaning), takes her brother to the local vicar for an answer. But the vicar is so pettily materialistic that, after giving a totally inadequate argument about old people dying to make way for the new ones being born, returns to harping on about the guttering and lead being stolen from the church — something that preoccupies him far more than the fact a murderer is on the lose amongst his flock. Kathy is intelligent enough not to be satisfied with this answer, but is all too ready to believe Blakey when he says he let the kitten die because he had too much on his mind. Seeing how ready she is to believe him, he asks her to retrieve a pistol hidden in a nearby railway tunnel, which she does, without question.

It was in the face of this almost absurdist irony (a child believeing a murderer to be Jesus) that I felt a disturbing possibility beginning to loom out of the plot. Kathy has already quizzed a well-meaning but out-of-her-depth Sunday School teacher about what would happen if Jesus were to return to the world: “bad people” would try to crucify him again. So when her father inevitably learns that a murderer is hiding in his barn, Kathy is going to see his perfectly normal actions (summoning the police, taking the man away) as the actions of a “bad person” crushing the goodness and meaning from the world.

The most distressing scene comes shortly after, when a tearful Kathy begs Blakey to forgive her as the police bear down on the barn where he has holed himself up with his revolver. At this point, it seems that, if he resists arrest and gets himself shot (most likely by Kathy’s father, who, aside from Blakey, is the only adult we know to be armed), Kathy is doomed to live a life of guilt at her part in re-crucifying Christ, and alienation from her father and all the other adults who quite rightfully want to take this murderer away.

Thankfully, we hit a redemptive note. Moved by Kathy’s innocent belief in him, Blakey throws his gun outside and gives himself up. But still, the redemption is his, not Kathy’s. She remains entrenched in the illusion that he is Jesus — is in fact further confirmed in it by the way Blakey seems to adopt a crucificial pose when the police search him before taking him away.

Perhaps the message of the film is that treating any human being, even a murderer, with the love and reverence due to a figure like Christ, will redeem them. But, for most of the time I spent watching Whistle Down The Wind, I felt it was teetering on the edge of throwing poor Kathy into the arms of a conclusion far more bleak and brutal — one perhaps best captured by the casual destruction of innocence in the film’s opening sequence of a man throwing three kittens, trapped in a sack, into a lake to drown. Are the Bostock children (as hinted by the incidental music) really Three Wise Kings who are the first to kneel before a returned Christ, or in fact three innocent kittens almost drowned by an uncaring adult world?

Two Films About Childhood

Not really meaning to, I seem to have given myself a themed, mini film festival these last two nights by watching a pair of films, both of which were about the secret, inner lives of children.

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The first was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), set in a rural nowhere in Civil War era Spain. I’d put it on my Amazon list after seeing it mentioned as a possible influence on Pan’s Labyrinth, but this was my second watching, because after getting it on rental, I liked it enough to buy it. In the film, six-year-old Ana is deeply affected by a showing of the old Universal Frankenstein at her village cinema (where the screen is a rectangle painted on the wall, and everyone brings their own chair), and when her sister tells her that Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t actually killed because he is a spirit that lives in a nearby abandoned house, Ana starts visiting, and talking to, this gentle, invisible monster. But, rather than characterising her as a child, this seems, in the film’s world, to be putting her on her first step to adulthood, individuality, and isolation: Ana’s father, spending all his time in his study with his glass beehive, seems to live in a world of his own; her mother cycles regularly into town to post letters to a man (a brother? a former boyfriend?) who never replies. One day a wounded soldier, fleeing the Civil War, turns up in the abandoned house, almost like a realisation of the spirit of Frankenstein’s monster, and Ana starts to take care of him.

The other film was Kes (1969), which I put on my Amazon list after hearing Mark Kermode praise it, and realising it was another one of those films I’d heard so much about but hadn’t seen. Set in a pretty grim Barnsley, Kes is about a fatherless boy, Billy, pretty much a loner, ignored by his teachers and bullied by his much older brother. Resigned to getting nothing out of life, he’s nevertheless passionate, almost poetic, about a young kestrel he trains to feed from his hand.

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Both films encase their young leads in private imaginative worlds, and both get remarkable performances in return. It’s amazing to think Ana in the first film is just six — in some of the later scenes her face seems ageless, almost ancient — while Billy in Kes looks already hardened against all that the adult world can throw at him. (Almost, but not quite.) In both films the kids find an intensely private focus for their burgeoning individuality and imagination, only to have it broken by the cruel harshness of an uncaring world. The difference is that, with Spirit of the Beehive, because Ana’s world was so much of the imagination to start with, even when events in the real world take it away from her, she’s still left with something. Kes is far more brutal and hopeless, but all the same I felt there was hope for Billy despite his obviously grim prospects, simply because he at least had something he felt strongly about, something that would always be there as a refuge against his unremittingly bleak world, which is more than can be said of his endlessly bickering, selfish, mother and brother.