Even after the three Bostock children rescue a sack of kittens from drowning and hide them in their barn at the start of the 1961 Bryan Forbes-directed film Whistle Down the Wind, they know the danger is far from over: It was their farmhand, Eddie (Norman Bird), who tried to get rid of the unwanted animals on behalf of their father (Bernard Lee). Charlie (Alan Barnes), the youngest, is less concerned than his sisters, however. Having spoken to a woman (Patricia Heneghan) from the Salvation Army on the way home, he declares that Jesus will look after the kittens. Eldest child Kathy (Hayley Mills, daughter of Mary Hayley Bell, who wrote the novel on which the film was based) expresses skepticism, but Charlie insists that the woman knows “because she lives in his house.” “How can she when he’s dead?” Kathy retorts. Her sister Nan (Diane Holgate) warns her that she’ll “have something terrible happening now” for saying that, and although Kathy scoffs, it’s clear that she’s rather uneasy. Consequently, when she returns to the barn alone that night, she’s terrified to discover a bearded stranger (Alan Bates) there. “Who is it?” she manages to ask. The slightly dazed man says, “Jesus Christ”; she takes it as an answer to her question.
The following morning, she shares her discovery with Nan, who’s more excited than frightened by this turn of events. (After all, she didn’t say anything to offend him.) “Funny, isn’t it, him coming to our barn?” she remarks. “It’s like a miracle.” Before long, Charlie stumbles upon their uninvited guest, and from there the news spreads to all of the local children, who are eager to see him for themselves. Kathy is adamant, though, that no adults should find out. “It’s got to be a secret society from the grown-ups. Do you promise? Because if you don’t, they’ll come and take him away again, like last time,” she warns the others. He thus becomes someone to hide, treasure and protect, much like the kittens who share the barn with him.
What the children don’t know is that the man they think is Jesus is actually a wanted murderer on the run from the police. He’s understandably baffled by their misapprehension, but once he realizes that they’re not just willing but eager to conceal his presence and do his bidding, he takes advantage of their devotion, even using an unwitting Kathy to retrieve a gun that he had hidden in a railway tunnel. Still, he proves to be more than a heartless manipulator. His gratitude for the children’s help is genuine, and over time he becomes increasingly moved by their trust in him, bizarre and troubling though he finds it. Surely it wasn’t what he expected when he decided to hide out in the Bostocks’ barn.
Dreary in town and country alike, especially in black and white, the film’s bleak setting in the north of England is hardly the sort of place where one would expect a miracle. Practicality, not romanticism, reigns. The adults in the children’s lives — their widowed father and their Aunt Dolly (Elsie Wagstaff) — aren’t unloving or cruel, but they’re both no-nonsense types, as befits their surroundings and their farming lifestyle. Even the local vicar (Hamilton Dyce), to whom Kathy poses serious questions about death, is more concerned about catching the thieves who stole guttering from his church than about spiritual matters. The children, too, for all their purity of faith, can be decidedly earthbound as well, squabbling amongst themselves and, in Charlie’s case, hoping that Jesus will give him a chocolate cake for his birthday.
It’s this juxtaposition of the mundane and the mystical that makes Whistle Down the Wind simultaneously humorous, thought-provoking and touching. Perhaps that conflict explains why Kathy, a girl on the cusp of adolescence, becomes the ersatz Jesus’s most ardent disciple. Before long, she’ll become part of the unappealing adult world, where kittens are considered a nuisance and nothing fun or exciting ever seems to happen. The adults have a greater practical understanding of the world, which certainly has its benefits — the children’s naivete, though charming, puts them in a potentially dangerous situation — but they’ve lost something in the process of growing up. Consciously or unconsciously, Kathy isn’t ready just yet to give up on childhood and its capacity for finding miracles in unlikely places.