Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In the Lancashire countryside, three siblings (Kathy, Nan and Charles, who live on a farm with their widowed father and his spinsterish sister) follow a farmhand down to the river and save the three kittens he had chucked into a burlap bag for drowning. On their way home, Charles asks a Salvation Army sister if she would like one of the kittens; she says no, but that Jesus will surely take care of it. The kids put the kittens in a box in the barn and when Charles says that Jesus will help, Kathy replies that Jesus can’t because he's dead. But that night when Kathy goes out to check on the kittens, she finds a bearded stranger asleep in the hay. She says, "Who is it?" and he awakens with a start and mutters, "Jesus Christ." Thinking he actually is Jesus, returned to the world, she keeps his existence a secret, afraid he'll be crucified again, and sneaks bread and wine out to him. Charles quits believing early on when he finds his kitten dead ("He’s not Jesus, he's just a fella," he says) but soon the word gets out to other schoolchildren who flock to see him, wanting to hear him tell Bible stories. He's actually an escaped and wounded murderer, and he tells them not to tell the adults about his presence. Eventually, though, word gets out and, in a wonderfully shot final sequence, masses of children race the police to the barn to see what fate this Jesus will meet.

One thing that makes this film worth watching is its tone. Some critics call this an allegory, which I don't think is quite right, but it's also about childhood innocence and it could have run the risk of being too sticky-sweet or sad. As it is, it captures quite nicely the childlike feeling that there might really be magic in the world, and the awareness that adults are all too likely to snuff that magic out. The general mood of the film is a balance between seriousness and whimsy; most of the interactions between the children and adults outside of their family is quietly humorous. The scenes with the stranger always have an undertone of danger; even though he never hurts the kids, he retains a feel of potential menace and never becomes a figure of fun or sentiment. Alan Bates does a nice job in the part, mostly acting with his eyes as he has little dialogue and no chance to build up a character as we learn almost nothing about him except that he killed someone. The other reason to see this film, something which contributes greatly to the film's tone, is the acting of the children. Hayley Mills (pictured with Bates) is very good, if a few years too old, as Kathy, but she occasionally feels a bit artificial next to the very natural performances of the non-pros playing her siblings: Diane Holgate as Nan and especially Alan Barnes as Charles who steals most of his scenes with his delightful performance. [YouTube; the print that has been posted is from a VHS tape and is not the ideal way to see the movie—many tracking problems and yellow and green smears throughout on the black & white picture—but this has not been released on a region 1 DVD as of this writing]

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