By Sarah Eilers ~
The 1942 film A Child Went Forth is charming, reassuring, earthy, poetic.
In the opening black and white sequence, young children stumble-walk their way through fields of wildflowers on a summer day. In the next frames, they traverse a narrow road in the countryside, their adult caretakers alongside. Our narrator, the actor Lloyd Gough, paraphrases Walt Whitman:
There was a child went forth every day. And the first object he looked upon... that object he became... ...that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
A Child Went Forth presents a world in which children play, “work,” cooperate, disagree, solve minor problems. They’re only loosely guided by adults, who are not their parents and who remain on the periphery in the film, and they discover the natural world in a way they never could in an urban environment. That children can thrive in such a setting is the entire point of the film. In England, 800,000 children had been evacuated from cities to the countryside in 1939 and 1940 to protect them from anticipated German bombing. In 1942, when this film was released, it did not seem impossible that such an action might one day be necessary in the United States. The commentary continues, suggesting that the situation could be managed and children protected. There is even a hint of hope. Might this sort of childhood experience prepare young humans for co-existence with others?
Not so long ago, this English lad was watching bombs fall. Should the defense industry call mothers away or should we have to face the stark necessity of evacuations of our cities, here is the beginning of a way to solve the problem of our children in modern warfare. But war or peace, in city or country, is there not food for serious thought in this approach to childhood? This is not a substitute for home and parents. There is none. But it is a green and lovely interlude where you meet your fellow six and three-year-olds on your own level, where people care and watch, but keep us free to try and fail and try again until we learn to live together.
Whitman’s words, uniquely American, his life and work affected by his work with wounded soldiers during the American Civil War, provide comfort and encouragement to the intended viewers of this film, citizens engaged in a frightening, global struggle. That children absorb and grow and become the world they experience is the message of the poem, and the film offers hope that America’s children could grow in safety and solidarity in a wholesome natural space. The film closes with another paraphrase of Whitman’s poem.
And the March-born lambs, and the sow's pink- faint litter, and the mare's foal, and the cow's calf, and the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side… all became part of... ...the child who went forth every day, [and] who now goes, and will always go forth every day.
Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.