Set in the rolling hills of Lancashire, England, Whistle Down the Wind contrasts the basic innocent faith of young children with the harsher worldly beliefs of adults when several children mistaken a man living in their countryside barn for Jesus Christ. It's a good film to watch during the Christmas season, when we celebrate the real Incarnation—even as we consider the imagined incarnation in this classic film, made in 1961.
The principal child actors Hayley Mills, Diane Holgate and Alan Barnes have chosen to keep their rescued kittens in secret places in their family barn so their father won't see them.
When the eldest girl Kathy Bostock (Mills) asks a man she finds lying down in the hay who he is, his surprised response to her presence and question is "Jesus Christ!" Taken aback that she has really met God in the flesh, the young girl later chooses to share her discovery with her little sister Nan (Holgate). After their younger brother Charles (Barnes) learns their secret, he tells one friend who proceeds to tell nearly all of the children in the surrounding area.
At one point, the children generally acknowledge what happened to Jesus the last time he visited people in human form and vow to protect him from the adults they feel sure will turn him over to the authorities. The children are unaware that a murderer is on the loose and never truly believe that Jesus (Alan Bates) might be anyone other than who he says he is—except perhaps when one of the children entrusts a small pet to him and the little creature dies.
Numerous moments occur which recall events in the New Testament, as when the children bring some of their most treasured possessions to Jesus as gifts, and when a schoolyard bully demands that a boy who says he just saw Jesus take back his claim. However, those few children who doubt the reality of Christ's presence quickly learn that the majority of the children are convinced that the true Messiah is in their midst. They gather around him in the barn at one point and ask him to read to them.
The beautifully light and lyrical music provides an excellent backdrop throughout the majority of the film, especially during moments like when the children pose troubling theological questions to a vicar in a town restaurant or try to take food from the dinner table so they can later give it to the man they think is Jesus.
A certain element of suspense is neatly woven into the film, based on a novel crafted by Haley Mills' real-life mother, Mary Hayley Bell. As the adults grow restless in their search for a wanted murderer, the children are warned to avoid interacting with strangers. At one point in the story, one of the children accidentally says something that makes the adults wonder if the dangerous man they're looking for may be in the Bostock family's barn. As the children step away from a birthday party table, you can't help but briefly recall The Last Supper.
While adult authority figures close in on the Bostock property, the film captures the tender scene of children flowing down the surrounding hills, wanting to capture their own view of Jesus and perhaps stop his possible capture by the "grown-ups" they are certain are about to make a serious error.
Alan Bates eloquently captures the changing persona of the criminal who realizes who the children think he is and that he may have a serious responsibility for his behavior in front of them.
Like many other movies filmed in black and white, this one keeps our attention keenly focused on the nuances of each performer's words and actions to an extent that might otherwise be lost. It's hard to watch this film and not think about one's own religious beliefs in black and white terms—and wonder just how open each of us might be to someone's modern day claim of seeing Jesus. Though as Christians we claim to look forward to Christ's Second Coming and to joining him in heaven, this film forces us to ponder how open we really are to seeing him in the immediate future.
Many of us drag our feet when confronted with troubling religious feelings and are a bit like the two young girls who appear at the end of the film just a little too late to see Jesus. We can't help but wonder if they would have believed in him like nearly all of the other children had they arrived just a little earlier. Perhaps we would experience some of the shyness and reluctance that Kathy's little sister Nan expressed when getting ready to meet Jesus for the first time. We want to embrace him—yet we are confronted by fears that may include a sense of unworthiness.
Whistle Down the Wind is a classic film that keeps us entertained while asking us to look deeper into our own ability to remain open-minded to the presence of Christ in our midst and our own ability to still approach him with the spiritual innocence so immediately and richly present in young children.Discussion starters
- If someone told you they had just seen Jesus Christ in the flesh, how would you react? Why?
- What did you make of children's "faith"? How was it like your own as a child? How was it different?
- What did you think of the way the children questioned several adults about aspects of Jesus' behavior they didn't understand?
- What would you say if Jesus came to your door today? How much of your life would you feel you could truly share openly and honestly with him?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film contains no explicit sex or violence and a very limited amount of harsh language.