Wee Willie Winkie (1937) dir. John Ford
Starring: Shirley Temple, Victor McLaglen, June Lang, Cesar Romero
By Alan Bacchus
One of John Ford’s least well-known films is one of Shirley Temple’s best films – Wee Willie Winkie – based on the Rudyard Kipling story about a young girl who travels to India to meet her grandfather, and winds up becoming intregral to the peace between Indian rebels and British imperialist military. It’s a surprisingly engaging film that moves beyond the stigma of a “Shirley Temple” film. It stands on its own as one of Ford’s most underappreciated films.
Priscilla Williams (Shirley Temple) and her mother Joyce (June Lang) are traveling to India to meet Priscilla’s British grandfather and Joyce’s father-in-law. Granddad Williams is a colonel in the British military and is in charge of commanding the British occupation (and civilization) of a Sikh territory. Neither has met the other and so the meeting is anticipated with excitement and curiosity, especially for Priscilla. Of course, Priscilla is only a kid and naïve to the clashes between Indians and British cultures and by accident she befriends the leader of the Indian resistance, Khoda Kahn (Cesar “The Joker” Romero), who has been sent to prison for running guns.
Though she lives on a very un-kid-friendly military base in India, Priscilla is not a fish out of water. She easily fits with her new temporary family. She strikes a unique friendship with Drill Sergeant MacDuff (the lovable Ford regular Victor McLaglen). But when tensions heat up between the warring parties Priscilla inadvertently gets involved in the struggle. Through her friendship with Kahn Priscilla actually negotiates a peace between the rebels and the British and settles age-old conflicts with her Shirley Temple-cuteness.
John Ford and Shirley Temple are a perfect match. The emotional and mythic sensibilities of the Ford style works well with the naïve hijinx of the Shirley Temple films. Priscilla's naïvite to the stakes the British and Indians are engaged in allows the film to boil down complex issues into simplistic easy-to-understand terms. Priscilla doesn’t know politics, but she does understand that if Kahn doesn’t want to hurt anyone and Col. Williams doesn’t want to hurt anyone, then why should they fight?
It's impossible not to love Shirley Temple’s exuberant energy. It’s easy to see why Temple is often credited with “getting America out of the Depression”. She’s a shining beacon of light which passes through the darkest of situations. One of Ford’s greatest scenes (in any of his films) is Priscilla’s visit to MacDuff's hospital beside. With MacDuff shot and near death Priscilla visits him with joy and elation. She is naïve to what how badly her good friend is hurt, and so the contrast of emotions in the scene is heartbreaking.
How has such a film with such esteemed pedigree (Ford, Temple, Kipling) been forgotten about in the eyes of historical cinema? Perhaps it’s the title which reads more like a forgettable kids film than a classic story set in exotic India. It’s a shame. And certainly the hot pink packaging on the new Fox DVD will not be an incentive for curiosity-seekers to pick up the film. But seek it out for yourself and make a 70 year old ‘discovery’. Enjoy.