A good cast, including Mony Woolly and child-actors Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner, elevate this fable above its sentimental and propagandistic elements, which are understandable considering that the picture was made at the height of WWII.
Directed by Irving Pichel, the movie was adapted by Nunnally Johnson from the novel of the same name by Nevil Shute, which was also serialized in Collier’s magazine.
The warm-hearted, humanistic tale tells the story of Howard (Monty Woolley), an older man fishing in France to divert his attention, or more specifically to forget that his only son was one of the first Brits to have been killed in the war.
While there, a British couple (played by Lester Matthews and Jill Esmond), asks him if he would be willing to take their two young children to the Brittany coast where they hope they would be able to cross the English Channel to safety.
The children are placed under the care of the in the authoritarian and crusty but charismatic Howard, and the long, adventurous journey begins.
Along the way, they are joined by several other war children. Amazingly, the kids are able to communicate and to bond intimately even though they come from different countries and speak different languages.
Turning point occurs, when Aristide Rougeron (J. Carrol Naish), a local resident of Brittany, helps them arrange for a boat. Howard develops special affinity with a French girl named Nicole Rougeron (the young Anne Baxter), but it is not a romantic bond.
But just before they are to escape, they are captured by a Nazi officer, Major Diessen (played by the director Otto Preminger), resulting in a battle of wits and struggle for survival between Howard and Major Diessen.
The screenplay gives Howard some witty, sharply written lines, while Preminger’s Nazi officer is stuck with a one dimensional, villainous role.
In the end, Howard convinces the Nazi that these are innocent children and the latter relents, allowing them to evacuate, provided they take his niece along with them.
It’s never explained why a Nazi officer would be traveling with a preteen niece, but we are not supposed to ask such logical questions.
Woolley, a former drama and English lit Yale professor, gave up academic life and took to the stage when he was 48; he made his first movie at the age of 49, one of the most elderly debuts in film history.
Actor: Monty Woolley
Oscar Awards: None
The big winner in 1942 was William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver.” James Cagney received the Best Actor for “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Howard (Monty Woolley)
Ronnie Cavanaugh (Roddy McDowall)
Sheila Cavanaugh (Peggy Ann Garner)
Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxter)
Major Diessen (Otto Preminger)
Aristide Rougeron (J. Carrol Naish)
Mr. Cavanaugh (Lester Matthews)
Mrs. Cavanaugh (Jill Esmond)