Sammy (Fergus McLelland) lives in Port Said in Egypt, near the Suez Canal, in 1956 at the height of the crisis there. He lives with his parents in their apartment, and they are discussing sending him away to his Aunt Jane in Durban at the other end of Africa to keep him out of harm's way. He is listening in on this, not liking the sound of it when he accidentally drops his toy over the balcony and goes to retrieve it. When he is outside, he gets distracted and ends up near the canal when there is a sudden bombing raid, short-lived but long enough to blow up his home - and his parents...
Although it was dismissed at the time by many who felt that this was a too-simple Boy's Own adventure, and not up there with director Alexander Mackendrick's previous classics, over the years there were plenty of viewers who caught this as children who responded to the young hero's plight, and the excitement that his trials and tribulations brought out. At its heart was a rather good performance by child star McLelland in his debut that ensured this would be no sentimental trudge through some hopeless orphan's misery, as Sammy was not one to sit about feeling sorry for himself.
Mainly this was due to the pressures his new life had inflicted upon him, and the way that he coped with a lack of home and parents, or anyone to look after him or anywhere to seek shelter. He didn't have time to mope as he sets out for Durban and the aunt he has never met, only knowing that she runs a hotel there. He doesn't even bother to contact the authorities, as he feels as an English boy he is unwelcome in Egypt at that point, and so begins one of the longest - in distance - road movies of all time, with the odds seeming insurmountable as Sammy literally has nothing but the clothes on his back as possessions.
The first person he hooks up with, or rather who hooks up with him, is an uncomfortably sleazy peddler (Zia Mohyeddin) who ends up being blinded by an exploding stone he was baking bread on in a sequence surprisingly unsettling for a movie assumed to be aimed at children - in fact it was extensively toned down from an original cut that was purposefully stronger stuff, until a more family-oriented version was preferred. Sammy has better luck later on, as he is taken in by American tourist Constance Cummings but she attempts something that becomes the lesson of what not to do with this boy: limit his freedom, liberty being an important theme.
Once he knows she plans to take him to the authorities, he escapes and resumes his trek, and it's only when he meets Edward G. Robinson, who plays Cocky the dealer in illegal diamonds, that Sammy finds someone who could conceivably become a substitute parent. The time spent with him is the happiest the youth has been since tragedy entered his life, and it's here the emotion that has been missing from the rest of the story emerges and lifts the interest in what has been lightly diverting previous to Robinson's appearance. Even Sammy feels his experiences catching up with him, although his survival instincts make certain he doesn't dwell too long on anything that will drag him down. It does make you wonder what kind of person he grew up to be with all that behind him, but his pluck, determination to see his journey through to its conclusion, and most of all his resourcefulness in the face of grave odds, give you faith that children can endure the worst of times. Music by Tristram Cary.