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  Swallows and Amazons Summer Magic
Year: 1974
Director: Claude Whatham
Stars: Virginia McKenna, Ronald Fraser, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Kit Seymour, Lesley Bennett, Brenda Bruce, Mike Pratt, John Franklyn-Robins, Jack Woolgar, David Blagden
Genre: Comedy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: One glorious summer in 1929, Mrs. Walker (Virginia McKenna) brings her children by steam train to spend a few weeks holiday in the Lake District. Dubbing themselves “the Swallows”, John (Simon West), Susan (Suzanna Hamilton), unfortunately nicknamed but utterly adorable Titty (Sophie Neville) and young Roger (Stephen Grendon) command their swift sailboat for adventure and intrigue on “the high seas”, and eventually set up camp on Wildcat Island. Here they discover rival seafarers, Nancy (Kit Seymour) and Peggy (Lesley Bennett), known as the Amazons (“They’re girls!” gasps a perplexed Roger) have already staked claim to the island. The children engage in friendly warfare, while calamitous events bring them into conflict with the girls’ grumpy, river-barge owning Uncle Jim (Ronald Fraser).

More than an adventure yarn, the cherished children’s novel was writer Arthur Ransome’s love letter to the Lake District. Summery cinematography renders it positively idyllic here, glistening with serene beauty. This film adaptation hasn’t achieved the same classic status enjoyed by The Railway Children (1970), possibly because it tells a more carefree story that lacks the same emotional punch. Nevertheless, Swallows and Amazons is a real gem laced with self-deprecating wit (“Just look at that scenery!” beams mother, and the children all laugh as their train heads into a tunnel) and a real spirit of adventure.

It conjures a world where children are given freedom to learn through play, a world that nurtures them without talking down to them. Elders John and Susan take on the roles of surrogate parents, cooking and caring for their younger siblings without any fuss, while there is always a friendly farmer’s wife to lend a pint of milk, or a kindly charcoal-smoker (Jack Woolgar) to offer fishing tips or entertain with his pet snake. Mild emotional trauma arises when Uncle Jim accuses John of lying, while danger exists only in the form of some barely glimpsed burglars, whom wily Titty soon outfoxes.

While her nickname drew guffaws from generations of schoolchildren - to the point where a 1965 BBC adaptation changed her name to “Kitty” (just as well, since she was played by Susan George) - it’s Titty who displays the most active imagination (“this cross marks the spot where cannibals ate six missionaries!”) and emotional growth. She wins the day by stealing the Amazon ship all by herself, finds the stolen treasure chest and wins the ultimate accolade from Nancy: “By thunder, able seaman, I wish you were in my crew!” Look out for a charming scene where Titty imagines herself as Robinson Crusoe, with sound effects conjuring an imaginary storm and wild beasts. Things turn poignant when mum arrives to play Man Friday, clearly missing her children.

Performances range from sparkly-eyed scene stealing Sophie Neville to endearingly stilted Stephen Grendon, but in keeping with the film’s overall tone remain naturalistic rather than affected. A well-cast Ronald Fraser combines amiability with some of the blustery menace from his Robert Aldrich movies. Claude Whatham’s direction is unobtrusive, although the first encounter between Swallows and Amazons is brilliantly filmed like a redskin ambush in an old western, as the Walker siblings stoically brandish their weapons during a tense standoff. The bossy Amazons are equally brave and just that little bit sharper, making them almost proto-feminists. Amusingly, Nancy has changed her name from Ruth, because everyone knows the Amazons were “ruthless” - geddit?

The tricks and counter-schemes the kids devise are fiendishly clever, and everything ends in a great big, glorious sea battle/pillow fight, wrapped up with a huge feast of cake, ice cream, jelly and ginger pop. Good times.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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