Among the most enduring - and most unusual - post-war British children's dramas, Whistle Down The Wind catches its star Hayley Mills at the peak of her powers.
Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from a story by Mills' mother, Mary Hayley Bell, it's neither a character study nor a coming-of-age tale. Rather it's a sort of parable about the power and limits of religious faith, and the displacement of childhood certainty with doubt.
The story centres on three rural Lancashire kids who find a mysterious stranger (Bates) asleep in their barn. The eldest, Kathy (Mills), asks him who he is. His first words to her - "Jesus Christ!" - are misunderstood and Kathy becomes convinced that the man, a murderer on the run from the police, is the Messiah. Slowly she weaves an entire mythology around him until all he says and does is loaded with religious significance.
Though just four years into her acting career, Mills give a performance that is quiet but effortlessly natural. There's little that's mawkish or manipulative in Bryan Forbes' direction, and the bleak Lancashire landscapes and haunting score contribute to the poignant tone. Alan Bates successfully negotiates a difficult role by underplaying things and the supporting kids, none of whom had acted before, are engaging and unaffected.
However, there's also a vagueness about what's being signified here. In early scenes there's a sprinkling of irony as the children act out their favourite Bible stories and ponder their extraordinary luck. When they eventually discover the man's true identity - and as a result lead the police to his hide-out - Kathy remains unchanged by the experience; her capacity for belief, the conclusion suggests, is endless and unshakeable.
At key moments there's implied criticism of an established church that's evasive, hypocritical and officious, and Forbes very effectively evokes the children's private world. However it's Kathy's little brother (Barnes) who learns the most difficult lesson, in the process providing a clue to the underlying message. "'T'ain't Jesus," is his bitter assessment of the man they thought might save them. "He's just some fella."