Who is Peter Fry (played by a 12 year-old Dean Stockwell), the young boy at the center of the 1948 film, The Boy With Green Hair?
When we first meet him, Peter is a nearly mute child who has had all of his hair shaved off and who refuses to talk about either one of his parents. He’s mysteriously shown up in a small town and it’s only after a kindly psychologist (played by Robert Ryan) speaks with him that we discover that Peter is an orphan. Both of his parents are dead, victims of the Second World War. Fortunately, a retired actor named Gramps (Pat O’Brien) is willing to adopt Peter and raise him as his own. Gramps has all sorts of stories about the times that he performed in Europe. The film hints that Gramps might be a damn liar but he’s well-meaning, nonetheless.
Peter starts to attend school and slowly, but surely, he comes out of his shell. Soon, he appears to be just another carefree child and his hair even grows back. But then, one day, he sees a poster featuring other war orphans, children like him who have lost their families to war. When Peter overhears adults talking about how the world may go to war again and how there are now even bigger and more destructive bombs that can be dropped on America’s enemies, Peter start to get upset. What’s the point of going to school and preparing for the future if there’s not going to be any future?
One night, Peter goes to sleep. When he wakes up in the morning, he discovers that his hair has turned green!
Why has Peter’s hair turned green? It’s hard to say but the town is remarkably unsympathetic. It’s perhaps understandable that Peter’s classmates would make fun of him because they’re children and children are the worst about not being able to handle change. But not even the adults seem to be able to handle Peter having green hair! They want to shave his head again!
With even kindly old Gramps prepared to take away Peter’s green hair, Peter flees into the woods. There’s where he runs into the spirits of all the children who have either died or been orphaned by war. They have a message for Peter….
The Boy With Green Hair is both an antiwar parable and a plea for tolerance. There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film but, considering that it was made at a time when the world was still in ruins and people were still getting used to living in the shadow of the atomic bomb, it’s perhaps understandable that the film would be a bit heavy-handed. It was, after all, made during a heavy-handed time. That said, the film actually works better as a parable about racism than as a pacifist statement. It’s kind of hard to see how Peter having green hair could convince people to pursue world peace but the way that Peter is ostracized for being different from everyone else is something to which many viewers could undoubtedly relate.
There’s some weird padding in the film. For instance, there’s a weird musical number involving Gramps that comes out of nowhere. Still, one can see why the film made an impression on some viewers. Dean Stockwell gives a sympathetic and, most importantly, naturalistic performance as Peter and the film’s message is a sincere one. One could easily imagine and also easily dread the prospect of this film being remade with Peter’s hair turning green over climate change. I’m a little surprised that hasn’t happened yet, especially considering the amount of coverage that was once given to Greta Thunberg, whose pronouncements and fame have made her a somewhat angrier version of the boy with green hair. Hopefully, a remake won’t ever happen, as the original film works just fine as it is. Not everything has to be remade.