Arthur Ransome’s novel Swallows and Amazons is a tale about the unfettered imagination of children, who, for a short while, before puberty ruins everything for them, are able to derive tremendous pleasure from the simple act of play. It is also, when viewed through the critical eyes of a grownup, a novel about parental recklessness, in which a mother permits her four children to spend several nights alone in the woods. But to dwell on this point is to overlook the endearing innocence of this great book.
Besides, it was a different time in the late 1920s, when the story takes place. Back then, children were readily encouraged to play with knives and sleep rough. It was all part of growing up: that and being allowed to sail about on an enormous lake in the pitch-black hours of the morning. Nowadays, such a story would only be published if there were some sinister consequence to all this, and there seems very little chance, in an era when the viewer’s attention span is considered to be equal to that of gold fish, that such a story would ever be made into a film.
Thankfully, there was a time when film studios felt very differently. There are in fact two adaptions of Swallows and Amazons: one released in 1962 and another in 1974. The latter of these, made on a budget of just £250,000, has become something of a cult success over the years, partly due to the fact that it quite regularly appears in the bank holiday and Christmas television schedule, when one of the channels decides that it needs to fill an hour and a half. All the same, considering that it is one of those films that has the power to resonate with its audience on a very personal level, I suspect that fans might feel that it isn’t on television nearly enough, and will thus be delighted by the release of this 40th anniversary DVD.
The film remains largely faithful to Ransome’s novel, following the adventures of the Walker children — that’s John, Susan, Titty and Roger — who, while on holiday with their mother in the Lake District, are given permission to sail a small wooden dinghy named Swallow around the lake. This in turn leads the children to Wild Cat Island, on which they encounter and subsequently declare war on the Amazons, two mischievous pirate-obsessed young girls. There is remarkably little more to it than that. Yet it somehow manages to skewer the very nature of what it means to be a child, while at the same time evoking an England that no longer exists any more: a simpler England, where children had to rely on their own imaginations for fun.
That’s not to say that the film won’t appeal to children today. It may be leisurely paced, but its main theme — the ingenuity of children — is a timeless one, and one that should be as affecting to a ten-year-old who still enjoys playing in the woods, as it is to a grownup who hasn’t done so for several decades. Only nostalgia separates these two demographics. While younger viewers will envy the Swallows and Amazons for their boundless freedoms, older ones will envy their youth and lack of responsibility. They’ll pine, not necessarily for the straightforwardness of the late 1920s, or for the 1970s when the film was made, but for a time in their lives when it was socially acceptable for them to slip into a world of their own creation.
Arthur Ransome knew all about this. He understood children because, like the character of Captain Flint, the Amazons’ uncle, he too spent a summer teaching the children of his friends to sail. By doing so, he was able to write a terrific children’s book, and this, undoubtedly, is a terrific adaptation, which features the very locations that Ransome drew upon to create the fictional lake of the novel. Aside from containing the fully restored film, this edition includes behind the scenes footage, commentary from Sophie Neville (who plays Titty), interviews with various cast members and a brilliant locations featurette. But it is the film that viewers will find themselves returning to, not only on bank holidays and over the Christmas period, but whenever they wish to be reminded of the inimitable joys of childhood.
Swallows & Amazons is released on DVD on 4 August