Movies

Kidnappers, The (1953, Duncan Macrae, Jon Whiteley)

Kidnappers 1953

In The Kidnappers when their grandfather refuses to buy them a pet dog, two orphaned brothers decide to “adopt” an abandoned baby that they find in the woods. But ugly prejudices rise to the surface in their mixed community when their secret is discovered. Enchanting children’s period drama blessed by Oscar-winning performances from its two pre-teen leads.

Growing up in the wet wilderness of Canada’s Nova Scotia in the early 1900s is hard enough for Davy (Vincent Winter) and Harry (Jon Whiteley), whose small community strains from the animosity between its Scottish and South African populations. But the brothers have the added misery of being entrusted to the care of their strict Presbyterian grandfather, Jim Mackenzie (Duncan Macrae).

Embittered by the death of his son in the recent Boer War, Mackenzie’s anger, resentment and puritanical beliefs leave him incapable of kindness… especially when it comes to buying pet pooches for his pesky grandchildren. So when Harry and Davy come across the lost daughter of Afrikaner Jan Hooft, they determine to look after the infant instead. But their secret is soon discovered and, under local custom, Harry is put on trial for kidnapping.

Mackenzie is incensed. The Boers have killed his son, local South African doctor Willem Bloem (Theodore Bikel) has run off with his daughter Kirsty (Adrienne Corri), and now they’re accusing his innocent grandson of this heinous crime. But at the trial, Mackenzie is forced into a change of heart when Jan’s father, his sworn enemy, speaks up for young Harry.

This is a heart-warming film that on the one hand celebrates the enthusiasm and innocence of youth and on the other damns adult prejudice. The screenplay by Neil Paterson (who went on to script British kitchen sink classic Room at the Top ) sustains the story’s excitement and naive charm, while director Philip Leacock avoids the schmaltz that can so easily ruin family entertainment.

The undoubted stars of the piece, however, are Winter and Whiteley themselves. Their exceptionally natural performances won them special “juvenile” Oscars at the 1954 Academy Awards. Leacock and Whiteley would team up again three years later for another fine drama about displaced affection in youth, The Spanish Gardener , starring Dirk Bogarde. Jean Anderson meanwhile would become a mainstay of 1970’s BBC drama The Brothers.

UK / 1953

Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Neil Paterson

Cast: Duncan Macrae, Jon Whiteley, Vincent Winter, Jean Anderson, Christopher Beeny, Theodore Bikel, Jameson Clark, Howard Connell, Adrienne Corri, Francis De Wolff, John Rae, Jack Stewart, James Sutherland, Eric Woodburn