Near a Lancashire farm, the three siblings who live there are following their father's sole employee as he walks towards the pond carrying a sack. He doesn't know he's being followed, and that's the way the children want it, for when he throws the bundle into the water and begins his walk back, they move in and rescue the sack, opening it up to take out the kittens that were held within. They conceal the creatures in their coats and make their journey to the barn, stopping along the way to assuage the suspicions of their father (Bernard Lee) who wanted the kittens drowned. But that barn will soon become more than a secret home to the little cats...
There are some films which were black and white for budgetary reasons, probably most of them in fact, yet among those are certain works which you cannot imagine being made in colour as it would drain the particular atmosphere from them and Whistle Down the Wind was one of those. It was based on a book by Mary Hayley Bell, who happened to be the wife of British star John Mills and mother to one of the stars, Hayley Mills, who appears as the eldest of the three children who make an important find in the barn: an allegory, of all things. And a Christian allegory, at that, or at least that's what it has been interpreted as for as long as the film has been in existence.
Yet if you take a closer look, there's something harder edged than a simple story of religious faith here, and Whistle Down the Wind begins to resemble more of an atheist take on the nature of blind acceptance of the existence of God. What Kathy (Mills), her sister Nan (Diane Holgate) and brother Charles (Alan Barnes), the youngest who is wise beyond his years, actually find in that barn is a fugitive from justice, a dazed murderer played by Alan Bates who is barely able to mutter "Jesus Christ!" when Kathy stumbles upon him in his makeshift shelter. This leads Kathy, whose mother we understand has died not too long ago, to wish to believe this man is The Son of God.
You know, like in the Bible, as the kids' Sunday School teacher tells them, although in a pointed scene she has trouble answering the tricky questions about the nature of Christ aimed at her by the class. All the way through the adults have either taken their faith for granted and never considered its implications, or barely register its presence: the father is more caught up in the day to day work on the farm than any meditations on what might be beyond our ken. The youngsters cannot accept this, and are forced by Kathy's faith to either acknowledge the runaway as the Christ she says he is, or like Charles become more cynical.
Charles may be the Doubting Thomas in all this, but he has good reason as his kitten died after he asked "Jesus" to look after it. In Keith Warterhouse and Willis Hall's script there are a fair few references to the scripture, so when one of the children confronts the local bully he is forced to deny this Christ three times as the disciple Peter once did, and after the Bostock kids have decided to look after their discovery, Malcolm Arnold's score plays "We Three Kings" to underline the comparisons (Jesus, in a barn, offered gifts, geddit?). This would all have fallen apart if the performances had been amateurish across the board, but although Mills is as remarkable as you might expect as Kathy wrestles with her religion in the face of stark reality, the supporting cast of non-professionals manage to keep up with her and render what could have been a shaky structure surprisingly solid. Yes, it's all terribly precious, but there's that bleak, monochrome landscape to undercut much of the cutesiness and usher in a quiet contemplation.