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Film / The Pied Piper

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The Pied Piper is a 1942 film directed by Irving Pichel.

France, early June 1940: John Howard (Monty Woolley) is an upper-class Englishman in his fifties, on a fishing vacation in France near the Swiss border. It is not a good time to be in France, as John and the other guests at the isolated country inn learn via a radio broadcast that the war has gone very bad, with the English having evacuated via Dunkirk, and the Germans having broken through the front in northern France.

Also vacationing at the inn are Mr. and Mrs. Cavanaugh and their children Ronnie (Roddy McDowall) and Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner). Mr. Cavanaugh is a League of Nations official, and he and Mrs. Cavanaugh believe they must return to Switzerland so he can take up his duties in Geneva. However, they fear that Switzerland will be invaded next. When John announces that he will make his way back to England, the Cavanaughs ask him to take their children along with him to England and safety. (As it turned out, the Germans never did invade Switzerland and Switzerland would have been safer than England, but at the time no one knew that.)

John grudgingly assumes responsibility for Ronnie and Sheila. They head northward into the chaos that is France as the German army pours in, starting out on a train, then getting a bus, then forced to travel on foot. John, rather against his will, keeps accumulating additional child refugees (hence the title, a Shout-Out to "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"). They make their way past Chartres to a small town and the home of the Rougeron family, old friends of John's. Daughter Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxter) volunteers to help them the rest of the way to Brest on the coast, where they hope to find a boat to England.

Otto Preminger has a key role in the third act as a German officer, Major Diessen. Alfred Newman composed the music. Based on a novel by Nevil Shute.


  • Artistic License History: The BBC broadcast includes what's supposed to be a recording of Winston Churchill's immortal "we shall fight on the beaches" speech. Churchill's speech to Parliament was not recorded, although Churchill did deliver it for recording some time later. What's actually heard in the film is a not-quite-accurate delivery of the ending of the speech by a terrible Churchill impersonator.
  • Call-Back: A whole comic scene early in the movie has John insisting that Rochester is an American state, while Ronnie politely corrects him and says that Rochester is in fact a city in upstate New York. At the end Major Diessen gets John to agree to deliver Diessen's niece to Diessen's older brother, who lives in Rochester, NY.
  • Chekhov's Gun: John is delighted to witness an RAF raid on Brest soon after he arrives in town. It turns out that the raid was an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler while Hitler was visiting Brest. This becomes important when the gang is arrested, and John is immediately suspected to be a spy who passed word of Hitler's arrival in Brest to the British.
  • Child Hater: John tries to resist the request to take the Cavanaugh kids along, saying "I don't like children!" Subverted when later events show that he isn't really a child hater at all.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: The radio that Mr. Cavanaugh turns on at the inn is completely silent until it picks up a BBC broadcast announcing the German breakthrough and the British evacuation from Dunkirk.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: Diessen quietly cocks the hammer to his sidearm before his second interview with John. Later we find out that this was so he could shoot John if John proved too uncooperative after Diessen revealed his secret.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Diessen is not exactly a good guy, seeing as how he quite calmly has a man shot right in front of John's face. But he does have a little niece that he wants to get out of German territory.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The tolling bells that introduce the BBC broadcast certainly set a mood of foreboding.
  • Gilligan Cut: Ronnie warns of Sheila's tendency to get sick and vomit on trains. Sheila says "I don't either!" Cut to the train, where John shouts "Well, has no one ever seen a child sick before?" to the onlookers as Sheila lies curled up in his lap.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Monty Woolley specialized in this sort of role. Here he plays John, a cranky old Englishman who yells at people a lot and insists that there is an American state called "Rochester". Eventually we find out that he's a former government official rather bitter about not being hired for duty in this war, and that he's also grieving for his son, an RAF pilot shot down in France.
  • Plot Hole: So, Maj. Diessen took his seven-year-old niece on campaign with him, did he? His half-Jewish niece?
  • Road Trip Plot: For the first 2/3 of the movie, as John and his increasingly large group of children go on an increasingly difficult journey to the port of Brest. The last act involves John, Nicole, and the children being held captive by the Germans.
  • Secret Test of Character: Major Diessen pours scorn on John's plan to take the children to England and thence to the United States, but John insists that no, the United States will take child refugees. Then Major Diessen claims that Pierre is Jewish (the film never does clarify whether or not that's true) and says that surely John isn't going to take a Jewish child with him and that the USA wouldn't take a Jewish child refugee anyway. John again insists that yes, America would take a child refugee regardless of race or creed. Then Major Diessen springs the surprise. He will let John go and even allow him to get on a fishing boat and take the children to England, but only if John takes one more child: Diessen's 7-year-old niece, who is half-Jewish.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The last scene shows John safely back in England, in a Smoky Gentlemen's Club with a few of his friends, calmly reading a paper as bombs fall on London.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The fourth child John picks up is Pierre, a boy who was on the bus with John and the others when it was strafed by a German plane. Both his parents were killed. Pierre is rendered temporarily deaf and mute, staring off into space.
  • Trust Password: John and Nicole recognize Fouquet, the man who's supposed to take them on a boat back to England, when he enters the inn where they're waiting and makes a specific food order.