Rudyard Kipling’s colonial-era adventure yarn centres around a little boy, but was given a gender-switch when Twentieth Century Fox adapted it for their biggest star. In 1887, little Priscilla Williams (Shirley Temple) and her widowed mother, Joyce (June Lang) arrive in northern India to take up residence with the British regiment stationed near the Khyber Pass. They are greeted by brawny Sergeant Donald MacDuff (Victor McLaglen), whose kilt causes Priscilla some mirth (“How do you keep the mosquitoes from biting your knees?”). On the way to their new home, Priscilla kindly retrieves a precious pendant belonging to Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), unaware he is brigand and mutineer being sent to jail. She instantly wins his friendship and that of handsome Lieutenant “Coppy” Brandes (Michael Whalen), who also takes a shine to her beautiful mother.
However, Priscilla’s grandfather and head of the regiment, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith) is a stern, hard-edged military man who lords it over his dependent daughter-in-law. He forbids Joyce from seeing Brandes again, believing her presence will distract him from his duties. Eager to win the old man over, Priscilla resolves to become a military mascot. She adopts the nickname Wee Willie Winkie, after the nursery rhyme, dons a little uniform and practices drills under the loving guidance of Sgt. MacDuff, who becomes her closest friend. But storm clouds are gathering. There is a traitor at the fort and Khoda Khan makes his escape…
Most of Shirley Temple’s early movies were low-budget comedy-dramas, formulaic but hugely popular with Depression-era audiences eager for a little sunshine. Following the big box-office success of Curly Top (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1935), studio head Darryl F. Zanuck chose to put all of Fox’s resources behind Temple’s career and her vehicles began to grow bigger and better: e.g. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), The Little Princess (1939). Wee Willie Winkie found her working with John Ford, a better calibre of filmmaker than usually helmed these movies and the end result was a picture the star herself cites as her favourite. As Steven Spielberg would later do with E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), Ford keeps his camera at a child’s eye-level and brings his vibrant cinematic technique to amp up the emotion, if not necessarily the plot complexity.
Indeed the film is part John Ford cavalry “western”, part Shirley Temple vehicle. It plays to convention as Shirley’s cheery disposition warms old grouches like Col. Williams and hostile natives alike. She plays cupid, sparking romance between Coppy and mom, and even saves the day, bringing peace between two warring cultures. However, Ford’s love for the minutiae of military life is well in evidence. He details the rambunctious goings on at the army barracks with plenty of knockabout comedy. As always with Ford, the action sequences are thrilling, full of cracking stunts and snappy editing. And whoever expected to see action scenes in a Shirley Temple movie? It also features the only time a character was ever flung off a balcony to his death right in front of the dimpled wonder.
This being a Kipling adaptation, it is not free from crude stereotyping of its Indian characters, but Ford sensibly confines these to the peripheries. However, the film does show Kodar Khan in a sympathetic light and is redeemed by a performance of great dignity from Cesar Romero. By contrast, most of the British top brass are somewhat stuffy and pompous, especially the belligerent and vindictive Colonel Williams. In one scene he is so affronted by the site of his granddaughter in uniform, he orders his men to perform drills for three hours. And yet, like his opponent Khan, the Colonel displays great courage and fortitude during the climax. Even in a children’s film, Ford’s characterisation is even-handed.
Victor McLaglen steals the show as lovable lug Sgt. MacDuff, moved to tears when Priscilla admires a portrait of him as a little boy. Off-screen the actor was genuinely fond of his pint-sized leading lady. They share a wonderful chemistry that culminates in a tear-jerking scene where Priscilla sings “Auld Lang’s Syne” at his bedside. Temple’s cutesy antics rub some modern viewers up the wrong way, which undervalues her skill at performing for the camera and her undeniable charisma. Children can’t help but ask awkward questions. Ford uses a crucial facet of Temple’s screen persona, her directness as a means of challenging entrenched ideas on both sides and contrasts her innocence against the harsh realities of war.
The film was a critical and box-office hit, although novelist and film critic Graham Greene struck a sour note when he famously wrote of the child star: “Her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and desire.” Less than impressed, Twentieth Century Fox and Shirley Temple sued for libel and won (the settlement remained in a trust until the child star turned twenty-one, after which it was used to build a youth centre in England), although Greene’s review partly inspired Nabokov to write Lolita!
Eleven years later, John Ford re-teamed with a grownup Shirley Temple for his thematically similar western Fort Apache (1948).