At the beginning of The Boy with Green Hair, the title character, Peter (Dean Stockwell), is at the police station with a bald head, refusing to give his name or say where he is from, but eventually Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan), presumably a child psychologist, gets him to tell his story in flashback. It turns out that Peter is a war orphan because his parents died during World War II trying to help war orphans. He was staying with his Aunt Lilian at the time of their death. She passed him off to other relatives, who didn’t want him either and passed him off to other relatives still, one after another, until he finally ended up with someone he calls “Gramps” (Pat O’Brien), but who is not really his grandfather.
Just to make sure that we regard Aunt Lilian as being heartless for getting rid of Peter once she finds out that his parents are dead, we are shown the house that she lives in, which is large and sumptuous, implying that she could easily have afforded to take care of Peter. But that makes us wonder what happened to the house that Peter’s parents lived in, the proceeds from the sale of which should have been inherited by Peter. Or were Peter and his parents dependent on Aunt Lilian, living with her because they were too poor to afford their own place? We never find out the answers to these questions because this is a movie about a child and intended for a childlike audience. As children never concern themselves with questions of finance and inheritance, the intended audience of this movie is not supposed to be concerned about them either.
Anyway, once Peter settles in with Gramps, the school he ends up going to is having a clothing drive to help war orphans, and as part of that drive, pictures of war orphans are attached to the walls.
One day Peter’s hair turns green. The night before, Gramps told Peter that he liked to keep a green plant around because his wife, a trapeze artist who fell to her death, used to say that green was the color of spring and represented hope and the promise of a new life. Of course, green plants are one thing and green hair is another, and thus it is that the other children make fun of Peter at school the next day. One kid, something of an exception from the rest, asks what is wrong with green hair. Another kid answers, “How would you like to have your sister marry someone with green hair?” the standard retort of the bigot in response to someone who expresses a more tolerant attitude toward those who are different. So, Peter’s green hair allows the movie to make a point about discrimination against people on the basis of color, which is just a specific form of discrimination generally. Hostility toward people that are different leads to war, which causes war orphans.
Peter becomes so miserable about the way he is treated that he decides to run away. He comes to a spot in the woods where the war orphans that we saw in pictures on the wall of the school have come to life. They tell Peter his green hair is a symbol for faith and hope, that its function is to make him look different so that people will listen to what he has to say. In speaking to Peter, the war orphans don’t use contractions. Instead of merely saying things like, “I wouldn’t cry” and “He didn’t know,” they say, “I would not cry” and “He did not know.” That’s how we know that what they are saying is of sublime significance.
Without contractions, then, the leader of the war orphans tells Peter: “Everywhere you go, people will say, they will say, ‘There is the boy with the green hair.’ And then people will ask, ‘Why does he have green hair?’ So, you will tell them. ‘Because, I am a war orphan, and my green hair is to remind you that war is very bad for children.’ You must tell all the people, the Russians, Americans, Chinese, British, French, all the people, all over the world, that there must not ever be another war.”
Funny that he singles out mostly the Allies of World War II for receiving this message. I would have encouraged Peter to tell that to the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese. Anyway, the point is that since Peter has green hair, people will listen to him, and there will never be another war, which means there will be no more war orphans.
Inspired with his mission, Peter runs around telling everyone that war is bad for children. However, the children at his school gang up on him and try to cut off his hair. When that fails, the adults finish the job, after which a bald-headed Peter runs away again, which is how he ends up at the police station in another town. In the end, Peter decides he will let his hair grow out again so that he can continue with his 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 war 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 absurd.
The worst feature of this film is that it is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite shameful. Even if one of Peter’s parents, say, the father, felt the need to participate in the war effort, 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. We are supposed to think of those relatives that kept passing him on to other 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. For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” There is no indication in the movie that Peter’s parents were inspired by this passage, but they didn’t have to be. A lot of people come by this attitude naturally. But I’ll say this much for Jesus. At least he was a bachelor. If he had gotten married, had a child, and then abandoned his family because he decided he was meant for better things, it would have been harder for apologists to say that Jesus merely spoke by way of hyperbole.
In any event, 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, his parents 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.
Early on in the flashback, Peter tells of when he was five years old, in which we only see the hands and arms of adults. Had we seen the faces of his mother and father, they would have become real for us, and we would have begun to wonder what kind of parents would do what they did to Peter. But because they are faceless, they remain abstract, making it less likely that we will condemn them. Furthermore, we do not hear their voices, which means there is no dialogue in which they tell Aunt Lilian about their plans. In particular, we do not get to see the appalled look on her face when she is told that she is going to have a five-year-old child on her hands as Peter’s parents head out through the door.