The title character of The Boy with Green Hair is Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell), who is a war orphan because his parents died during the London blitz of World War II trying to help war orphans. The school he ends up going to is having a clothing drive to help war orphans. When Peter’s hair turns green, this marks him as having a special mission to tell everyone that war is bad because it causes war orphans. But the other children make fun of him on account of his green hair, and the adults pressure him into having it cut off because it is a public nuisance, an inauspicious beginning for Peter’s special mission.
Children might have enjoyed this movie when it first came out, and adults might have enjoyed it with them vicariously. But its simplistic message, never very credible in the first place, is drained of what little plausibility it might have once had by the fact that the world has not changed: we are still fighting wars, presumably causing children to become orphans. The idea of a little boy with green hair wandering around telling everybody that we need to stop fighting wars might have been an expression of hope in 1948 when this movie was made, but now it just seems naïve.
The worst feature of this film is that it is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite irritating. When Peter was very young, his parents left him with an aunt so that they could help the war orphans in London. Even if one of his parents felt the need to participate in the war effort, say, the father, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him, but they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child. When the aunt gets word that Peter’s parents are dead, she passes him on to other relatives who don’t want him either. This continues until he ends up with his grandfather (Pat O’Brien).
We are supposed to think of those relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child. It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family. Without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, they just dumped him on his aunt and took off.
There is one moment in the movie when Peter correctly concludes that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.