In the fertile but drab rural environs around Burnley in Lancashire, a man tosses a sack of kittens into a creek. Three spying siblings wait for him to leave, then hurriedly rescue the litter. The opening scene establishes Whistle Down the Wind's simple conflict—the cruel, sensible adult world, in which unwanted kittens are a nuisance to be rid of, versus the compassionate child world, in which you help things in trouble. Wiser than some summer camp rebellion, "Adults Suck!" tract, by film's end, Whistle Down the Wind has exposed the blindsides and virtues of both worlds, and called into question who deserves to be called naïve. It can be classified as a film for children because it both concerns and stars them, and because the story and morality have a simple, fable-like clarity. But it might be a richer experience for adults, who will find their basic identification with the young protagonists complicated by understanding for that grim grownup pragmatism.
The film is based on a novel by Mary Hayley Bell, whose daughter, Hayley Mills, stars as Kathy, the eldest of the Bostock children. Kathy, sister Nan (Diane Holgate), and brother Charles (Alan Barnes) stash their kittens in the family barn. One night, Kathy goes to check on them and finds a bearded trespasser (Alan Bates) asleep in the hay. She alarms him with a shriek of "Who are you?", and while he's still confused and bleary he mutters "Jesus Christ." His arbitrary blaspheming convinces Kathy that the Son has chosen the Bostock barn as the site of resurrection. Soon, her siblings find out, and they begin sneaking the injured man bread and wine (his meal of choice, they learned from Sunday school), and obeying his order not to tell anyone. Inevitably, the secret slips, and the kids' schoolmates arrive chanting "story! story!", hoping to hear biblical adventures. The Man, slow to realize the misunderstanding, opens up a tabloid slick and begins to read the tawdry exposé of "Ruth Lawrence, Air Hostess." It is clear where the story is headed even before you learn that The Man is a murderer fleeing justice, but the poetry and power of the journey and especially the tear-tugging conclusion still startles.
In 1961, the fifteen year-old Mills was already a star from Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, and her Disney contract allowed her to branch out with projects like Whistle Down the Wind. As Kathy, she might be a few inches too tall, but her immersion in the role is incredible. As her protectiveness of The Man grows more feverish, it becomes clear that it's not based solely on youthful purity or Christian reverence, but also adolescent hormones—first love and an insane, coveting jealousness. Bosley Crowther happily called Alan Barnes "absolutely the most terrific little fellow we've ever seen in a film," and his Charles—the first kid to lose his illusions once the supposed messiah lets his kitten die—delivers the line: "It isn't Jesus. It's just a fella'." Initially funny, then profound on second thought, it's a classic line.
It is obviously a Christian film, with the children the shepherds, the grownups the punishing Romans, and Bates' desperate and doomed criminal Christ himself, in the sense that the poorest among us is He. The soundtrack's "We Three Kings" over a shot of the siblings cavorting on a hill is the rare too-blatant touch in a film that otherwise treats a potentially inflammatory scenario with grace and maturity. It has the purity and entertainment value of a standard, and it's a shame it's not better known in the States, where it'd make a fine holiday TV staple replacement for the rancid A Christmas Story.