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 entry, Whistle 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.
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?