In Britain during World War II, thousands of children are evacuated by their families to the safety of remote villages. In a small Suffolk coastal town, teenage boys – members of their school cadet regiment – are eager to join the army but too young to do so yet.
Subjected to continuous war propaganda, they view the conflict in Europe as a glorious, heroic struggle and are consumed by brutal homemade war games while awaiting their happy chance to slaughter Germans.
A local youth called John Curlew (Martin Tomlinson) invites Austrian Jewish refugee Mark Stein (Oliver Grimm) to take part in the games. At first, Stein is scorned because of his Germanic heritage but is later allowed to join in.
When Stein runs off during a fight, the youths decide to give him a court-martial and fake execution by firing squad, but – in a freak mistake – a real bullet is used and Stein is killed.
Director Philip Leacock’s sympathetic treatment of child actors – he also made The Kidnappers (1953) – again pays off in this engrossing film and Oliver Grimm, Martin Tomlinson and Michael Anderson Jr. play their roles with conviction.
The adult members of the cast give the boys considerable support, particularly Harry Andrews as a retired Army officer, Kay Walsh as his unhappy, complaining wife, mother of a conscientious objector of whom she is ashamed, and who is embittered because her husband is no longer eligible to serve at the front, and Michael Trubshawe as the boys’ military instructor.
The film – adapted from the novel The Custard Boys by John Rae – is made cheaply but with patience and passion, and demonstrates superbly the terrifying dangers of the death-and-glory ethos applied to young minds.
Michael Anderson Jr