If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you know how the four Pevensie children came upon that famous wardrobe. They left London during World War II to live, in relative safety, in the countryside.
They weren’t the only ones.
While few children found magic wardrobes, literally millions of them left London and other British cities during the war. And in 1944—when Germans renewed their bombing runs over the British Isles—they were joined by three more: Lily, Pattie and Ted Watts.
Their mother tearfully sent them away from Manchester to the quaint village of Oakworth. They’re soon whisked into the loving, slightly chaotic Waterbury home—populated by the family matriarch, Bobbie; her daughter, Annie; and her 13-year-old grandson, Thomas.
It’s all quite strange for the city children. They’re put to work collecting eggs and making dough. Seven-year-old Ted frets that he might be eaten by owls. Pattie, 11, wonders why they left Manchester at all. When 14-year-old Lily tries to reassure her that their mother’s safe, Pattie asks (rather sensibly), “Why send us away then, when there’s no danger?”
“Just in case,” Lily tells her.
But even in Oakworth, the war still feels near at hand. The village is bustling with children who, like Lily and her siblings, have come by rail from England’s biggest cities—all worried about their families back home. One of the village’s sole remaining men works on a radio that (he says) can monitor enemy communications. Even Thomas says he’s doing his part: “I keep watch,” he somberly tells his new housemates. “Keep a look-out for suspicious enemy activity.” He even has his own secret headquarters, in a forgotten caboose in the nearby railway yard.
But one day, when the children are playing hide-and-seek, Pattie discovers their secret hideout isn’t so secret. She stumbles on a man—a man in uniform—hiding under a blanket. The game forgotten, she rushes to tell Lily.
“I think he’s a German!” she squeals.
But when the children approach, armed with axe handles and toilet plungers, they discover an American soldier, and a Black one at that. He’s injured, too: A jagged cut runs down his knee, and his foot looks bruised and twisted. His name is Abe and he tells them that he’s on a secret mission. “I need you to tell no one,” he says. “No one. There are enemy spies everywhere.”
“Told you,” Thomas says.
But soon, Lily has her doubts. Abe says he’s 18, but he looks younger. Much younger, really. Is it really a secret mission he’s on? Or is he harboring another secret?
When the children arrive in Oakworth and head off to school, the schoolmistress, Annie, has some rules for them all.
“One, respect for our elders. Two, honesty at all times. Three, no fighting, no spitting, no biting. Four—most important of all—comradeship.” Annie tells her students, both longtime residents and new arrivals, to stick together. To support each other. That’s what people should do during difficult times: be there to lift one another up.
These are good rules. And while Railway Children sees each statute broken at one time or another, those rules (some of them, anyway) still form the moral bedrock of the story.
Rule No. 4 is the most critical here, and we do see plenty of people give support to their fellows. That’s especially true for the Watts children, who stick together through all difficulties and form a strong band with Annie’s son, Thomas. Eventually, all of Oakworth’s kids unite for a worthy cause. Even the local bully joins in.
The adults here aren’t so successful in displaying real comradeship, though—particularly when it comes to dealing with the Black GIs stationed nearby.
Oh, the British residents in Oakworth and neighboring towns are very accepting of the African Americans in their midst. They reject an American suggestion, in fact, that Blacks should be barred from mostly White taverns, restaurants and gathering places. (The military was still pretty strictly segregated, even in World War II.) But when the locals refuse to segregate their establishments, the American Military Police aren’t having it: They break up such multiracial gatherings and rough up minority soldiers—even though those soldiers wear the very same uniform they do.
Historically, such clashes between Black American soldiers and White American MPs were not uncommon in Britain during World War II, and the racial tension in Railway Children serves as a catalyst for important moral decisions made by both children and adults. As one adult tells Thomas, “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good to do nothing” (a paraphrase of the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke).
[Spoiler Warning] When the movie’s four central kids learn that Abe is both 14 (he lied about his age to get in) and running away to escape prejudice and MP mistreatment, all agree that what Abe’s been subjected to isn’t right. But they fight over how to right that wrong. Lily insists that they must secretly help Abe escape. Thomas argues they should tell the adults in their midst.
“In this world, you have to be smart, take risks, tell untruths,” Lily says. “It’s cold survival.”
“No,” Thomas says. “It’s called being a liar. And I’m not one. Not now, not ever.”
It takes a bit, but Thomas’ determination to tell the truth—to trust adults to do the right thing—gathers steam and proves to be ultimately the right course. Indeed, Oakworth’s adults mostly prove to be conscientious and principled.
Oh, and we should note the kindness of those adults in the first place, being willing as they were to take in the children of strangers. “Making a new home for evacuees is a national service,” a poster proclaims, and so it was.
While not particularly spiritual, Railway Children does contain several fleeting allusions to faith.
Dozens of “railway children” from Manchester and other English cities gather in Oakworth’s church to be divvied up amongst the village’s families. The school they all attend is called St. Mark’s, which makes it, at least nominally, a religious institution. Someone says his wartime job is to talk with other Allied countries and make sure that “we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.” We hear passing references to God, as in “may God rest his soul,” and “may God strike me down.” When a bomb strikes a cemetery, someone comments about how even the dead aren’t safe.
Lily sneaks out to help Abe attend to his injured leg. She tells him he’ll have to take off his “trousers,” to which Abe asks if she wants him to take his “pants” off. Pants are the word for underwear in England, and Lily hastily says to keep those on. (We see Abe’s exposed legs as Lily cleans the cut.)
That’s about as “romantic” as these two 14-year-olds get. But there may be some mutual attraction. When Abe leaves the village, he and Lily exact promises that they’ll write to each other—smiling a bit more broadly than a platonic friendship would perhaps warrant.
Someone accuses a girl of staring at a boy’s “bum” in school.
The Watts children see American MPs forcibly separate a Black GI with the English woman he’s walking with: The GI looks like he’s hit with a baton and kicked when he’s on the ground (though the children, and we, watch from a distance). We see another clash between Black soldiers and MPs at a nearby tavern: We learn that several people were beaten, and one was shot. A Black soldier escapes, but he falls into the street and gashes his leg pretty badly. (We see the wound later.)
Railway Children takes place, obviously, during World War II. Lily regales Thomas with a story about what it’s like to live through a bombing: The noise gets louder and louder, she says. “If you’re still alive when the noise is gone, you’re safe.” When a stray bomb hits the Oakworth cemetery, Lily’s close enough to experience the horror of it all over again: While she’s not seriously injured by the bomb, she is knocked out and suffers a small, bloody cut on her head. (Abe tells her that she probably “knocked yourself out screaming.”) We later see a few dead bodies in the crater the bomb left.
Thomas’ father is off fighting in the war, and Annie receives a telegram with some alarming news about him. Lily tells Thomas that her father is “killing Nazis.” We hear about multiple men who lost their lives fighting. Teddy wears a gas mask as parents divvy up children to stay with them: The Watts’ children are the last to find a home, and Lily blames it on the mask. We hear references to lynchings and beatings in the U.S.
A bully and his cohorts throw rocks at Thomas and the Watts kids. Pattie and Lily turn the tables, though: Pattie draws the bully’s fire while Lily sneaks up, throws the bully down and stretches out the kids’ nostrils with her fingers. Lily later tips the bully’s chair over in the middle of class (earning them both a trip to the principal’s office). And when Lily feels the need to escape, she tells the bully not to tell. If he does, she says, “I’ll drag you by your nostrils all the way to Manchester.”
Several people slip and fall in the mud. Kids throw flour at each other. A couple of kids are roughed up. A child runs in front of a moving locomotive. (The train stops in time.)
We hear a sprinkling of mild profanity, including “d–n” once and “h—” three times. God’s name is misused twice.
A scene takes place in a tavern, though no overt alcohol use is seen.
While on the train from Manchester, several kids complain about needing to “wee.” Lily asks the conductor to stop (the train has no toilets), but the conductor refuses. So Lily pulls the emergency cord. Soon, the camera is filled with several relieved boys relieving themselves outside (all shown from the back, of course). When the conductor accuses Lily of being the one to pull the cord, she’s evasive—and pilfers a candy bar in the conductor’s possession as well. (She gives it to several children to split.)
It’s not the only evasion of truth we see here, of course. Several people, including adults, lie—albeit often for what they think are good reasons. (Annie, for instance, lies about aspects of the war to Thomas to guard his heart from difficult realities.)
Pattie’s mother insists that she wear a dress when her children get to Oakworth to make a good impression. But on the train, Pattie slips out of the dress and reveals another, more rough-and-tumble outfit underneath.
A boy throws an egg at a conductor—creating a distraction to allow someone to get on a train unobserved. Kids bemoan the chicken “poo” they find on a gathered egg. A child complains that one of his new guardians “can’t stop farting.” A man pilfers a scone meant for children.
The first story titled The Railway Children was a book, chronicling the small-town adventures of three big-city children (Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis) as they tried to rescue their father from wrongful imprisonment. It was published in 1905—nearly 40 years before the events of this movie even take place. And in Britain it’s been adapted several times for both the large and small screen, most notably for a 1970 film.
Which goes a long way to explaining why the film has two different names: In the U.K., where the Railway Children is already a familiar property, the film acts as a long-gestating sequel called The Railway Children Return. It even features the actress (Jenny Agutter) who played Bobbie in the 1970 film—returning as the same character, now a grandmother.
In the U.S., it’s simply Railway Children—a tale that can, and does, stand on its own.
And in the movie’s own quiet way, it stands tall.
Railway Children deals with issues that feel just as relevant today as in 1944. But the way in which it deals with them is refreshingly old-fashioned.
So many stories meant for children today feel like walks through Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip, where creators try to dazzle their young audiences with light and motion, noise and bustle. And if the stories feel just a bit transgressive? Ever-so-slightly sullied? All the better. Sometimes, it seems, these creators assume that their audience is just as jaded as they are. They’re just not allowed to curse as much.
Railway Children, by comparison, feels like a gentle walk in the English heather.
Sure, like heather, it can be a bit prickly: Parents should note the bathroom humor and the mild profanity found here. But it doesn’t focus on those elements. Rather, it emphasizes some time-honored truths that should be valid in any age: Be honest. Be courageous. And be good to the people you meet—regardless of color or accent or differences you might see.
The folks of Oakworth know that sticking together is the way through most any trial. And it’s something that we—child or adult—should keep in mind, too.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.