A 12-year-old boy embarks upon a journey of self-discovery after escaping from a 1950s labor camp with little more than his courage and wit.
Imagine being thrust alone into the big bad world at the tender age of 12, armed with little more than wit and courage, a loaf of bread, a compass and an envelope you’ve been instructed to deliver to a country you’ve never heard of. That’s reality for David, a resourceful and courageous boy who came to life in the pages of Anne Holm’s 1963 young adult classic, North to Freedom.
In this fine screen adaptation, David makes a bold breakout from Bulgaria’s Belene Forced Labor Camp in 1952 and sets out on a mission to deliver a mysterious letter to Denmark. He has few life skills beyond what he's learned from a fellow labor camp prisoner, and only vague memories of nurturing parents to give him emotional strength. The words of the unseen accomplice who has primed him for the journey lead him past the prison guards and launch him into unchartered territory; none reverberate more loudly than these: “Trust no one.” David's daring adventure takes him past harrowing border crossings and into the rat-infested cargo hold of a freighter. It bumps him along dusty country roads in covered farm trucks and dumps him beside a stunning Swiss alpine lake.
The people David encounters along the way stretch his limited understanding of human nature, challenge his deeply ingrained fears and coach him in his pursuit of life. A sailor gives David safe passage. A baker teaches him to smile. An aristocratic Italian family takes him in. And finally, a widowed artist (Sophie) restores his spirit with compassion and understanding. Under her patient guidance and encouragement, David begins to let down his guard, peek over the walls of distrust and discover who he truly is.
The complexities of human nature—the limitless variations of good and bad—are brought to light in a series of vignettes both inside and outside the labor camp walls. Some people help David on his way without even knowing it, while others invest in a young life they recognize as deeply needy. (Still others add to his burden and are discussed under Other Negative Elements.)
Johannes, David’s prison mentor, teaches him the true meaning of brotherly love and sacrifice through his own selfless example. When David despairs of freedom and wishes himself dead, Johannes chastises him: “If you’re alive you can change things; if you’re dead, you can’t.” A man serves as an unlikely guardian angel, protecting David's life more than once. A sailor shows him grace when he catches him stowing away in the ship’s cargo hold.
After risking life and limb to gain his freedom, David puts it all on the line to rescue a young girl from a blazing barn. As he recovers from minor burns and exhaustion in the home of her wealthy Italian family, they lavish him with gratitude, acceptance and earthly comforts. Then, a chance encounter with the widowed artist Sophie puts David on the fast track to self-discovery. David almost visibly grows in stature when she tells him his quiet strength indicates he’s capable of becoming a man of power. As Sophie shares her own life tragedy with David, he lets down his guard and shows her bits and pieces of himself, including the source of his deeply ingrained distrust of others. In return, she gifts him with these words of wisdom: “Life wouldn’t be worth living without trust. Be cautious, but live fully and freely. Make friends and see goodness in people or you’ll never find any happiness.”
David pays dearly for stealing a bar of soap from a prison official and promises Johannes never to do so again. It's a promise he keeps, even when penniless and hungry.
David has only a rudimentary understanding of spirituality. A baker gives David a picture of St. Elizabeth, “the patron saint of bakers,” who he says takes care of everyone who needs help. David prays to her at several points in his journey before he decides he doesn’t deserve her protection anymore, leaving the picture at a friend’s bedside and asking the saint’s protection for her and her family instead.
A mother reverently gives thanks to God before a family meal. A woman suggests it’s “some kind of psychic energy” that allows her to feel someone coming up behind her. David watches the choir practice in a country church. Closing song lyrics include the line, “All I have is in Your hand, Lord/Can You hear me now?”
A sailor keeps a hidden stash of girlie mags.
Labor camp guards treat David harshly, but no physical abuse is shown. A man is executed. (The audience is spared all but the raising of the gun and the sound of the shot.) Two children tie their older sister to a chair and set the barn on fire. She’s rescued, but astoundingly, the only punishment the culprits receive is early bed without dinner. While on the run, David falls down a hill and smacks into a tree. An older boy gives David a bloody nose for snooping on his property. An armed guard is hit in the head with a stone when the Italian Communist Party and a group of protestors come to blows.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is interjected once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
David is paid by a vintner to deliver a basket of wine to a party. (No one is shown drinking.)
Other Negative Elements
A hard-hearted shopkeeper mocks David (who barely understands the concept of money) when the hungry young boy offers him a mere two lire for some food. “Why don’t I sell you the whole shop and throw in the wife and kids, too?” the man snidely remarks before telling him to get lost.
Others who fall short on the kindness scale include a baker who offers David food for work, then calls the authorities before giving him a crumb, and a wealthy party hostess who shoos the delivery boy away from her feast-laden tables with only a rude put-down. A sailor jokes about getting kicked off his ship for stealing.
David repeatedly lies as a means of self-preservation, telling concerned adults that his absentee parents live somewhere else, or that he’s on his way to meet up with them at the circus.
David bathes au natural in a tidal pool (his privates are obscured by splashing seawater).
It’s a beautiful thing when Hollywood takes a beloved work of fiction and turns it into something bigger and finer than it was. They’ve done so by allowing the noble heart of I Am David to shine through what could have been a dark, heavy tale. There’s a noticeable lack of gratuitous violence, language and substance abuse—things that could have been easily used to add a more dangerous edge to the storyline.
We’re allowed to see only enough of the harsh realities of David’s life to provide the historical framework and urgent motivation for his daring adventure. What the film does linger on is the resilient, indomitable nature of the human spirit, the opportunity to do good or evil (and the rewards and repercussions those opportunities lead to), and the importance of tearing down the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from each other.
There’s a wide array of rich subject matter to spur discussion among all but the youngest of family members. (The violence, however restrained, could be too much for some children.) One of the issues begging exploration, for instance, is the cruel treatment of labor camp prisoners, and whether things like that are still happening today. Also, explore examples of modern-day refugees and religious martyrs. Do we have a responsibility to help those in need (check out the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10) ... even if it requires breaking the law? Is it OK to lie when a person’s life hangs in the balance?
I Am David is one of those rare cinematic jewels (its sometimes slow pace actually seems to accentuate its authentic flavor) that leads us to ponder life’s important questions, builds up our faith in mankind and inspires us to invest in others.