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The Scrivener: Is Jesus Really In The Barn?

Brian Barratt re-views an excellent allegorical film from 50 years ago,,“Whistle Down The Wind’’, in which children believe that a criminal hiding from the police is Jesus.

Brian says the film presents a timely reminder that it is easy to be taken in by a self-proclaimed guru, televangelist or cult leader. “Innocence coupled with a form of ignorance makes some folk gullible to this kind of entrapment. Whether or not the author had this mind is open to question but it is certainly relevant to us today.’’

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Cinema-goers and TV-watchers know of Bernard Lee mainly because he played the role of M in the first eleven James Bond films. Likewise, anyone who saw "Gosford Park" will remember that Alan Bates played Jennings, the butler. On the other hand, the name of Hayley Mills might not be so well-known.

She is the daughter of one of the great actors in British films, John Mills. In her fourth film appearance, at the age of about 15, she played Kathy, the leading role in the 1961 film "Whistle Down the Wind". Alan Bates, appearing in his second film, played the other pivotal role, the mysterious man who mysteriously appeared in an old barn. And Bernard Lee played Kathy's father. The film was based on a novel written by John Mills' wife Mary Hayley Bell.

It was nominated for four Academy (BAFTA) Awards and is included in the BFI (British Film Institute) list of the "50 films you should see by the age of 14".

Like "Lord of the Flies", it is an allegory involving children. Unlike "Lord of the Flies", it has no violence and the only murder took place before the start of the story. The black and white photography, with no special effects, is deceptively straightforward but realistically evokes farm and countryside in the north of England 50 years ago. Shadows created by artificial lighting are occasionally visible but do not spoil the overall picture. The background music, composed by no less than Malcolm Arnold, beautifully enhances the unfolding plot without distracting from the characters, action and dialogue.

Kathy and her little sister find a dishevelled, bearded stranger in an old barn on their father's farm. They do not realise that he is annoyed to be found. When they ask him who he is, he swears under his breath, "Jesus Christ!" and instructs them not to let anyone know he is there. They take him literally, believing him to be Jesus fulfilling His promise of a Second Coming. They do not, as one reviewer has said, believe that he is a "reincarnation" of Jesus — to the children, he is Jesus.

Various sub-plots emerge while the girls smuggle food and drink out of the house and do whatever they can for him, awaiting his next move as Jesus. Their little brother finds out, and is sworn to secrecy, but the secret leaks out. It isn't long before other children from the nearby town are coming to gaze at Jesus and await His word.

Two key things occur during this process. Firstly, he does not tell them that he is not Jesus, but plays along with their belief. Towards the end, he takes advantage of Kathy's innocence and dedication in a potentially very dangerous way. Secondly, we the viewers see a "Wanted" notice on a building in the town. We, but not the children, realise that what we suspected is true — he is an escaped criminal on the run.

By the time the police come searching for him, we have seen what is really a sort of allegory of the life of Jesus. The otherwise normal events in the family and among the children are symbolic of events recorded in the Gospels in the New Testament.

The children bring gifts to Jesus in a stable. Under pressure from a bully, a boy denies three times that he has seen Jesus. There are twelve children in the initial group who share the secret and come to admire, to worship, Jesus. When they ask him to tell them a story, he does not read a Bible story but a contemporary story from a magazine. Kathy's little brother's birthday party is an indirect reference to Christ's Last Supper. In the end, when the murderer is captured, and the police frisk him for concealed weapons, he stands with his arms held out. We recognise that Kathy, held back at some distance from the barn by a police officer, sees this as the stance of Christ crucified.

The innocence of children is a major theme. The symbolism and allegory might be just a little too obvious, but it does not detract from a charming, often intriguing, and eventually tense story which avoids falling into the trap of sentimentality. It all looks and sounds so real. The young Hayley Mills is outstanding in her role.

For us, the allegory is also a timely reminder that it is easy to be taken in by a self-proclaimed guru, televangelist or cult leader. Innocence coupled with a form of ignorance makes some folk gullible to this kind of entrapment. Whether or not the author had this mind is open to question but it is certainly relevant to us today.

Here is a film from nearly 50 years ago which is definitely worth a second viewing. The people speak with Lancashire accents which might be difficult for non-British viewers, but the DVD version has sub-titles. And, yes, it is a film that people should see before they turn 14. It brings back to life a real world that has no mobile phones, computers, video games, Barbie dolls, or mass marketing of junk food, where children could be children.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009

Note. Information in this article has been culled from several websites but the opinions expressed are those of the writer.


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