A thrill-packed adventure on India’s untamed frontier . . . with a little girl at the center.
John Ford and Shirley Temple? Working together, this crusty old man with few good things to say about anybody and the most famous and delightful child star of all time? Who would think any alliance possible, when, after all, the director had said, “Working with a child actor is a most horrible thing.”
Ford was then under contract to 20th Century-Fox, where he would later make The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine, among other remarkable films. When studio head Darryl F. Zanuck told him he was assigning him Wee Willie Winkie with the eight-year-old Shirley Temple, “something to scream about,” Ford said, “great!” This hardly reflected his true feelings.
At least initially, he didn’t approach the job with relish. When they first met, he said with disdain, perhaps expecting a spoiled and demanding little terror, “I am the man you are going to direct in Wee Willie Winkie.” At every opportunity he ignored her, walking past her, sucking on his famous handkerchief, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses and a tweed cap pushed low over his eyes.
The film, different from any Shirley had made before, was set in Rudyard Kipling’s most famous part of the world, nineteenth-century India, based on his imaginative short story of 1888. The young boy in the book, Percival William Williams, becomes a girl, Priscilla Williams, in the movie.
It’s 1897 and the child (Temple) and her mother Joyce (June Lang) have traveled to Northern India and are met at the train station by Sergeant Donald MacDuff (Victor McLaglen). While at the station, the rebel leader Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero) is captured. Priscilla picks up a talisman Khan had dropped.
At the fort, Priscilla meets her grandfather, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith), the crotchety old commander, nervous around women and children. Her mother meets Lieutenant Brandes (Michael Whalen), who has just been chewed out by the colonel. Brandes takes an immediate liking to the child, and she to him. He takes her for a ride on his back and she soon nicknames him “Coppy.”
Trying to persuade the colonel to like her, Priscilla works at becoming a soldier, first seeking help from little Private Mott (Douglas Scott), an errand boy, only to be rebuked. When she approaches Lieutenant Brandes, he passes her to MacDuff. (At one point, MacDuff, would pitch an annoying Mott out the window into a rain barrel.)
All military spit and polish, MacDuff is a typical British martinet, and, one would think, a hard man for a little girl to charm, but the two strike up an immediately friendship. He dubs her Wee Willie Winkie, from the Scottish poem by William Miller. He gives her a new uniform intended for Mott.
On a visit to the prison, Priscilla returns the talisman to Khan, who is very gracious toward her.
In order to show her how to march—Priscilla is intent on becoming a “soldier”—MacDuff calls the troops together for an unusual drill, but the colonel believes MacDuff is making fun of him and punishes him and his men. Further, he insists that Priscilla and her mother remain in their quarters.
By now, Priscilla has beguiled the gruff old colonel and she suggests he invite Joyce to the company dance one night. Joyce, of course, hadn’t been consulted and has slipped away with Brandes, who has deserted his post to be with her. That night the fort is attacked by the rebels and Khan freed. The colonel arrests Brandes.
Just as Priscilla and her mother have decided to leave, a patrol returns to the fort after being ambushed, MacDuff seriously wounded. Unaware that he is dying, Priscilla takes him some flowers and sings “Auld Lang Syne.”
Aware that there’s no way he can win with his smaller force, Colonel Williams walks alone toward the rebel stronghold. When Priscilla runs down to him, Khan joins her. The two leaders agree to a peace, and the next day Priscilla joins her grandfather in reviewing the troops. Mott tells her that MacDuff would have been proud of her.
Even though Zanuck thought he was inconveniencing Ford by “saddling” him with this child actress, the director jumped at the opportunity of Wee Willie Winkie, not because of her, but because of the generous budget and the chance to work with one of his favorite, and easily tormentable, actors, McLaglen. They had worked together in numerous silent films, beginning with The Fighting Heart in 1925; their collaboration ended twenty-seven years later with The Quiet Man in 1952.
The sets, including a British army outpost and a rebel stronghold, were recreated in the hills near Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. Arthur C. Miller’s wonderful and sensitive camera captured it all brilliantly—both what was in the script and the many little touches which Ford added, some of the most moving scenes in the film.
MacDuff’s deathbed scene and then his funeral, with bagpipes and military honors, were sensitively acted and shot, a tribute to this crusty old director. Even this child detected during filming a sentiment heart that John Ford made such an effort to hide beneath an histrionic show of hardened masculinity.
The real miracle that took place during the filming of Wee Willie Winkie was the change in Ford’s attitude toward Shirley. He soon discovered that she was not what he had expected, and was unlike most petulant and self-centered child actors, who so often become little adults, but precocious, intelligent and highly professional. (Ford would use Shirley again in Fort Apache, 1947.)
While Ford had first deliberately over-directed her, as if she had no clue about her role, he soon left her on her own, as was his usual custom, much in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock. He liked the way she would lean over to whisper a cue to some British actor who had forgotten his lines.
After the filming of MacDuff’s deathbed scene, as Shirley related in her autobiography, Child Star, “Ford came over and put his arm around my shoulder . . . My grief had come across with perfect restraint, he said . . . That we could be friends I had never doubted. But now we were colleagues.”