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Swallows and Amazons (1974)

Courtesy of Canal + Image UK Ltd

Main image of Swallows and Amazons (1974)
35mm, colour, 92 mins
DirectorClaude Whatham
Production CompanyTheatre Projects Films
ProducerRichard Pilbrow
ScreenplayDavid Wood
Original novelArthur Ransome
PhotographyDenis Lewiston
MusicWilfred Josephs

Cast: Virginia McKenna (Mrs Walker); Ronald Fraser (Uncle Jim); Simon West (John Walker); Sophie Neville (Titty Walker); Zanna Hamilton (Susan Walker); Stephen Grendon (Roger Walker)

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In 1929, the Walker children have adventures while on holiday in the Lake District.

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Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Bryan Forbes' short-lived tenure (1969-71) as production head at EMI was a brief renaissance in films for family audiences, with successful productions of The Tales of Beatrix Potter (d. Reginald Mills, 1971) and The Railway Children (d. Lionel Jeffries, 1970). Swallows and Amazons was another EMI contribution to what was a mini-boom of films setting children's adventures in an idealised past, and it's one of the most traditional, especially when compared with more eccentric titles like Bugsy Malone (d. Alan Parker, 1976).

Derived from Arthur Ransome's popular series of books set in the Lake District, the film opens with the arrival of Mrs Walker for a lakeside holiday with her five children. As so often in children's films - including The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden (d. Lionel Jeffries, 1972) - we are initially presented with an incomplete family where the father is noticeably absent (in this case, away in Malta). The Walker children set up base camp on a nearby island, using their dinghy 'Swallow' for transportation, and create a more 'complete' family structure of their own, with oldest boy John in the father role, and oldest girl Susan cooking, cleaning and taking responsibility for the two younger siblings, Titty, who dreams of high adventure, and Roger, the baby of the group.

The adventures begin when the children encounter fellow holidaymakers Nancy and Peggy, who sail their dinghy 'Amazon' under a pirate flag as they exact retribution on their Uncle Jim for leaving their games to write a book on his riverboat. As the story progresses, the warring Swallows and Amazons make friends with the locals and each other and eventually reclaim Uncle Jim, the story concluding as they make him 'walk the plank' after he has agreed to participate in their games once more.

Filmed entirely on location (save for some shots for the atmospheric sequence in which the children's dinghy drifts in the reeds at night), this adaptation is presented in a straightforward and unfussy style, the beautiful locations and amusing vignettes about a time gone by left to carry the modest film. Suzanna Hamilton is clearly the strongest of a charming group of young performers (and the only one to pursue an acting career into adulthood), while Ronald Lacey proves surprisingly amiable as Uncle Jim.

Screenwriter David Wood adapted the book once again in 1999 for BBC Radio 4.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Casting off (3:17)
2. Meeting the enemy (3:12)
3. Victory (2:42)
4. Walking the plank (2:57)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)