Swallows & Amazons (w/ The Railway Children) Review
In the years between the first and second world wars and with their father overseas, the four Walker children and their mother (Virginia McKenna) travel by train to the lake district for their summer holidays. As the steam train winds its way through the country, John (Simon West), Susan (Suzanna Hamilton), Titty (Sophie Neville) and Roger (Stephen Grendon) think about the long, lonely weeks that lie ahead of them, their sad faces pressed against the windows of the carriage. But on arriving, things begin to look much better as John finds a small boat, named the Swallow, tied to the small pier at the bottom of the garden of their summer house. Sending a telegram to their father, they're pleased to hear him say, "Better drowned than duffer! If not duffer, then not drown!" in his reply and, gladdened, they assign themselves as the crew of this fine vessel and ease it out into the water.
Seeing an island in the middle of the lake, they sail to it and set up camp, claiming it as the property of the Swallows. But the crew of the Amazon, Nancy and Peggy Blackett (Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett) have something to say about that and over the coming days, the Swallows and the Amazons mount good willed raids, all with a mind to capturing the other's boat. Yet, amidst the fun, there's real trouble brewing as burglars steal a chest belonging to the Blackett's Uncle Jim (Ronald Fraser), who, on noticing that it's missing, calls the police and accuses John of the crime. Joining forces, it's up to the Swallows and Amazons to prove John innocent, to find the chest and, should they feel like it, to have a great deal of fun in doing so!
It would be easy to dismiss Swallows And Amazons. Occasionally, it would appear in the television schedules on the BBC, typically during the summer months when, in the manner of Why Don't You..., it would be a reminder to switch off the television and go outside. If, that is, one could stomach it. Even as a child, it was sanctimonious going on preachy, presenting a chocolate box, home counties version of the years between the wars when children could enjoy long summer days unbroken by petty nuisances, of a countryside, barring the occasional passing train, bereft of traffic and of an era that a previous generation would describe as being one in which you could leave your door unlocked without fear of who might get in. One can better understand the fretting of the Daily Mail on watching Swallows And Amazons and its recollection of a glorious summer in which Britain literally bloomed. I can well imagine how a child of the city or of suburbia might look upon it as nothing less than a fantasy.
Being a child of the country, however, I look upon Swallows And Amazons as being a powerful film, its rush of childish excitement still potent after all these years. Perhaps from looking so very ordinary, it depends upon the joy in the eyes of its cast to convince, their running through the woodlands capturing the fun there is to be had in dark and unexplored bits of one's own backyard. And in that respect, John, Susan, Titty - these were gentler times so no sniggering! - and Roger are a well-rounded cast, each one bringing out their particular character. John, captain of the Swallow, is a forthright boy on the cusp of his teenage years. Susan is a born homemaker whilst Titty is a dreamer. Roger is an innocent little thing, not too sure of himself and tending towards living in the shadows of his older siblings. The Blackett girls - Peggy and her older sister Nancy, who's real name is Ruth but, in the words of their Uncle Jim, pirates are ruthless - are a good match for the Walker children, their being older giving the four Walker children something of an edge. All told, it's good fun and it captures the minds of young children who marvel at its innocent sense of adventure.
As an adult, there are timely lessons within the film, enough of them even to draw this viewer towards reading the Arthur Ransome books on which it is based. As a parent, there is much to worry about, even more if one believes the scare stories in the popular press. However, the pleasure of Swallows And Amazons is in its rejection of all of that. A kindly old gent on a houseboat who enjoys the company of children and who keeps a larder well-stocked with cake and ginger beer might not have an unnatural love of young tots but may be just that, a decent old cove writing his memoirs who enjoys childish games. Similarly, one needn't worry if one's children don't return home until late, if they camp out in a forest or if they play at pirates and fire homemade arrows at other kids so long as no one comes home bleeding and that they do eventually come home. Swallows And Amazons makes one believe in the best of people, not only of children but in there being something childish in everyone. It's lesson, if there is one, is simply to enjoy one's life. Not to do so is so very dull.
Presented in 1.33:1, Swallows And Amazons doesn't look like it's been cropped but there are some moments when the camera swings that little bit to quickly from right to left, suggesting that it's been panned and scanned. However, despite looking for verification of this, I'm no further forward and it may be that it was always presented in this aspect ratio. Certainly, anyone familiar with it from its many showings on television won't be shocked at seeing it here. Otherwise, though, it doesn't look at all bad. The brightness can waver at times, as can the colours, but there's a sharpness to the picture that's lacking from The Railway Children, the other film that's in this set. In particular, the scenes set during nighttime look very good with the DVD picking out what little brightness there is against the light of the moon.
The DD2.0 Mono soundtrack is just as good, finding a place for the dialogue, ambient noise and sound effects without one ever threatening the others. It all sounds very good and there's a nice feeling of directness to the audio track that matches the action on the screen. There are, however, no subtitles on this release.
There are no extras on this Optimum DVD release of Swallows And Amazons.
Their transfers are sometimes wayward and the lack of any extras on these two films (being Swallows And Amazons and The Railway Children) is a disappointment but I'm otherwise quite happy at Optimum finding the space for children's films such as these and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in their schedules. There are, I suspect, a good many films from our childhood that I feel Optimum should get around to and although their pace is somewhat slow at the moment, they could do much worse than to keep on releasing sets like this.