Whistle Down The Wind feels like it employs the “kitchen sink” aesthetic in step with British film of the day, bleak and tough around the corners with working-class folks coping with all kinds of toilsome drama. However, if the mantle of that zeitgeist was normally carried by the likes of Albert Finney and Richard Harris, then effectively we have the “angry young men” of the subgenre replaced by children.
It gives the picture a slightly different if altogether refreshing perspective on these same issues. At its center is young Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills); she lives on a farm with her father (Bernard Lee), an aunt, and the aunt’s two children.
They are three rambunctious little farmhands but not altogether wicked, mind you. They come home with three discarded kittens in tow, looking to sneak past the prying eyes of their betters, so they might raise them in the barn. As such, it provides a safe haven and becomes an even more sacred space given what happens next.
Young Kathy is alone busying herself with their charges, and then she sees a stranger (Alan Bates), rather haggard and disoriented. Both man and child are shocked and as she inquires who he is, he utters the words, “Jesus Christ.”
Now many an adult could tell you lots of people exclaiming the Lord’s name are using it in vain, but this never crosses Kathy’s mind. Whatever you might think of her, whether foolish or otherwise, she takes the name very seriously.
This naive misunderstanding is what the entire movie turns on, and it’s a lovely bit of irony. It takes all our cynical assumptions about these people and their world and completely turns them on their heads. Suddenly, we have this glorious portrait of child-like faith set before us, and this only works because Bryan Forbes’ picture allows children to hold such a central place in the story from the outset.
They are funny and mischievous and yet so very sincere in spirit. A cat can be named Spider, and it’s completely honest to gripe and groan about everything little thing. There are these sublime closeups sprinkled through that, even momentarily, allow us to be in their place and empathize. I think of one where the little boy Charlie (Alan Barnes), always at odds with the girls nevertheless, peers over at the man in the hay, and his face lights up. Curiosity getting the better of him, he asks if it’s really Him? He too wants to believe this is the Christ.
This comparison might be tenuous, but rather like the internal logic of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife, there’s something pleasant and powerful about the spiritual reaching into our human environments. We want to believe in their benevolence — that they are able to redeem our families and hardships, with a bit of divine intervention.
There’s still a sense that the spiritual world enters into our lives of its own accord. In fact, there is no true distinction between one and the other, whether they be kindly angels or guests in the haystack. They have the capacity to invade the everyday and breathe new life into it while still feeling almost mundane.
If you’re like me, sometimes religious allegory can feel too on point and obvious. It’s not exactly subtle here, but there’s something about the context that still makes it delightful. After receiving further spiritual insight from their Sunday school teacher, we have the procession of three little kings returning into the presence of their visitor, complete with a musical cue to send them on their way.
The hypothetical question of what to do if Jesus came back takes on very concrete meaning for them because of course, he’s lying right there in their barn waiting for them. And so, with all sincerity, they bring their gifts to place before him. They want him to feel welcome. They want to find favor with him.
It’s a striking allegory — not quite to the degree of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic gallows as it were, but there’s something moving in this picture. Rich in content and meaning, but never in a way that makes one feel put upon or totally scandalized. We watch their visitor become the subject of ensuing pilgrimages of all the local children.
As we’re privy to both worlds, we know this man is actually wanted by the authorities. He’s no Christ; he’s not even a saint, and we must watch and wait for their expectations to be utterly crushed. Because there will always be persecution and unbelief in some form acting in constant opposition. Although they conveniently keep their secret from the grown-ups, it cannot last forever.
A local bully tries to intimidate them all back into the status quo. One small boy on the playground all but recants a visitation with “Jesus,” which in his mind is tantamount to Peter’s denial. There’s personified devastation on his youthful face as he gets a reprieve from earthly torment, but at what cost? It sounds almost silly to speak of these things in such weighty terms, but I’m only treating them with the same gravity as these little children.
If this is the case, we must always return to our protagonist. Hayley Mills shows off all her most extraordinary traits as a young performer, buoyant and yet defiant and determined in the face of naysayers. There’s an assurance she holds onto that guides much of the movie, and it must lead to the inevitable.
The final juxtaposition of Charlie’s boisterous birthday party full of hearty squeals and blind man’s bluff plays against the more ascetic sense of the outdoors as the wanted man tries to escape the local dragnet. He gets cornered in the barn with the police flying to the scene and the whole town hot on their heels. It looks like the children’s faith is bound to be dashed right before their eyes.
What a difference a point of view makes and the intention behind it. Instead of churning up the local rumor mill with clamoring gawkers and gossipers, it feels more like one final act of belief with all the masses set to pay their respects and catch a glimpse of the man. Certainly, the masses are mostly children and that says something in itself.
Because you can take its parable in two ways: either it’s a pragmatic lesson that children must learn how the real world works — with sin, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak. Still, maybe it’s actually a reflection of the Christ’s sacrifice, coming into the world for the humble and the downtrodden, those who would willingly put their trust in him. If we consider these children, their trust is such that they believe he will come back again someday. It’s similarly arresting.
The extraordinary nature of the ending comes with the revelation that this sense of reverence is never broken, keeping with the film’s guiding light from start to finish. This is far from the norm, and it’s rather refreshing that hope is never completely quelled. It’s up to the viewer to decide what to do with this.