Danny the Champion of the World (1989 TV Movie)
Somewhere in England, in the Autumn of 1955, widowed father William Smith (Jeremy Irons) and his son Danny (Samuel Irons) live an idyllic life together. Only their gas station happens to sit on a piece of land that a local developer wants to buy, and when he won't take no for an answer, and sets government inspectors and social works onto Danny and his father. Danny and his father decide to get even with Victor Hazell (Robbie Coltrane) and his pheasant-shooting friends in a manner in keeping with their own family tradition.
Widowed veteran William Smith (Jeremy Irons) runs an English country gas station and car shop with his doted and devoted son Danny (Samuel Irons) (nine), a happy rascal. Their property is the last hole in filthy rich Victor Hazell's (Robbie Coltrane's) plan, allegedly a pheasant hunting estate. William, his father's heir as master-poacher, abhors the unsporting rich man's hobby as much as moneybags Victor. Hazell sends every inspection he can find, but none resist the Smith boys' disarming charm. At the laid-back village school, Danny becomes new teacher Captain Lancaster's (Ronald Pickup's) chosen whipping boy, but proves to be a hard a nut to crack as dad.
- It is 1955, somewhere in rural England. Wealthy Victor Hazell owns a vast estate, and drives his expensive car proudly around it to survey his domain. He drives past several signs that show he has acquired much of his property recently, by buying out surrounding smallholdings. There are hundreds of prime pheasants wandering around his property, and as he drives along his two gamekeepers, Rabbetts and Springer, wish him a good morning. However, he does not acknowledge their presence, throws his cigar out the window and drives on proudly, much to their disgust.
Hazell's good mood is ruined when he stops on a hillside and spots, in the distance, the garage and filling station owned by William Smith and his nine-year-old son, Danny. Hazell gets out of his car and peers at the structure through a set of field glasses, watching Danny fill the tank of a customer's car. In high bad humor, he returns to his own car and proceeds down the hill towards the filling station.
In the garage, William and Danny have just finished repairing a car another customer left behind. Danny asks permission to drive it out of the garage, and William lets him do so. Hazell's car comes barreling down the hill at the same time as Danny is backing the car out of the garage, and both he and Hazell are forced to slam brakes to avoid a collision. William praises Danny for his quick thinking and Hazell, putting on a friendly tone, does the same. He then asks William if he'd be willing to sell his land - the Smiths own six acres of field and the garage, filling station, and an old caravan which serves as their home - but William tells him he already explained to the solicitor from Hazell's estate he was not interested.
Hazell explains to William that his land is smack in the middle of the rest of his estate, and is preventing him from achieving his goal of having one of the biggest and best pheasant shoots in that part of England. He offers him 2,000 pounds, then 2,500, but William remains unmoved. Hazell frustratedly demands why the obviously poor Smiths refuse to sell their land, and are willing to give up a small fortune that could give Danny a better future. William calmly tells Hazell that that they are happy where they are and have no intention of selling. Hazell warns them not to get in his way, then storms out of the station.
That night, in the caravan, Danny interrupts his father's nightly bedtime story to ask him about Victor Hazell. William, a former veteran, tells Danny that Hazell is a war profiteer and a crook, and that because of his power and wealth he is likely to make trouble for them. However, he cheerfully insists that he and Danny together can stand up to him, which comforts Danny. The next morning is the first day of school, so they go to bed to get up early.
The next morning, William walks Danny to school. In the village they pass and greet several friends - the postman, Mr. Wheeler (the grocer), Mrs. Clipstone (the vicar's wife), and Enoch Samways (the village policeman). At school, William hands Danny a repair bill to give to Mr. Snoddy, the school's Scottish headmaster, and they part ways. Reverend Clipstone leads the students and teachers in a hymn and prayers, and Mr. Snoddy introduces a new teacher he has appointed to teach the fourth grade class, Captain Lancaster.
After assembly, Danny goes to Mr. Snoddy's office to leave the letter on his desk. He thought Mr. Snoddy was not there, but discovers him quietly sneaking a nip of gin. Mr. Snoddy is a lenient and gentle man, and does not berate him. He shrugs it off, and tells him its a sort of open secret that he drinks a lot, but asks that he not go publicizing it. Danny agrees, and goes back to his classroom. Captain Lancaster gives him no chance to explain why he was late, but demands his last name and in rather military fashion publicly berates and belittles him for not only being late but trying to quietly enter the class unnoticed, as he deems that sneaking. He says he will not punish any students this first day of term, but, after embarrassing Danny, informs the entire class that from now on he will tolerate no breach of conduct or rules in his class, with punctuality, order, and strict discipline being the absolute necessity for every student.
Danny returns home to find ministry inspectors on their property seeing if they are mixing fuel grades, which while a common practice is illegal. Of course, the Smiths are not doing this, and the men are forced to leave empty-handed. William tells Danny the men were obviously sent by Victor Hazell, because they weren't due for their regular inspection for some time. He also tells the men, who play innocent, that he knows it's a put-up job. He tells Danny he suspects they won't be the last. The men call Mr. Hazell and tell him of their failure, but Hazell tells them he wanted William and Danny to know it was a put-up job so they would realize his power. He then makes a call to a different ministry to call in a favor, though it is not disclosed what.
That night, Danny wakes up in the dark to discover William is not in the caravan. He goes to see if he's working late in the garage, but he is not there. He searches the property in vain, then waits on the porch of the caravan for William to return. William comes back about 11 PM and is astonished to see Danny is awake, as he has never woken in the middle of the night before. He explains that he went up to Hazell's woods some miles down the road to see if he could get back at him by poaching a pheasant, which shocks Danny.
William apologizes for leaving without telling Danny where he was going, and goes on to explain that when he was a boy, his father poached most of their food because they couldn't get it any other way. In fact it was how most of the poor people in the village survived, and no one made much of a fuss about it because ownership of game animals is determined by where the animal happens to be at the time as long as it is alive, so prosecution is difficult. However, the gamekeepers still took a potshot at the odd poacher now and then if they saw them, so that added a spice of danger to it, and it became considered almost a sport. William also explains that he considers the rearing and shooting of masses of tame birds just for fun "organized slaughter" and that it defies nature; this is yet another reason that he and others don't consider poaching, as it is a hunter stalking prey and quite in line with nature, a full-on crime. He tells Danny his late father (named Horace in the book but never mentioned by name in the film) was considered an expert poacher and studied it as if it were an art or science. He learned that pheasants love raisins, which was considered a great discovery at the time.
In the morning, William goes on to demonstrate to Danny his father's other discovery of how to catch pheasants quietly without a keeper being alerted by noises. They own a small flock of chickens, and he uses them as an example, digging a hole in the ground and leaving a paper cone full of raisins in it. They hide and watch as a chicken eats the raisins and gets the paper cone stuck on her head. Once her eyes are covered, she does not move. Danny and William stroke her and pick her up but she stays quite still as long as the paper is over her eyes. William explains it's the same with pheasants, and lets the confused chicken go free.
A car comes into the station and William assumes its business as the engine sounds rough. However, it is an inspector from the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, Miss Hunter, who has been told that William is an unfit father and has come to investigate the complaint. William is quite cooperative and kindly offers to show her around - as she and her assistant start the inspection, he whispers to Danny to fix the engine. Danny gets out a toolkit and proceeds to take the inner workings of the car apart.
William shows her the caravan, the outhouse that is their bathroom, the tin washtub they use to bathe in, and the rest of the property. While the caravan is tidy and there is nothing that is strictly against code, Miss Hunter is aghast at their primitive conditions and demands if William thinks it is right to raise a child this way. William insists that there is nothing wrong, and Miss Hunter attacks from another angle, demanding to know why their records show Danny did not enter school until he was 7 years old, for the law requires children be in school at 5. William reveals he knows the law quite well, and that it also says that if alternate tuition from a qualified instructor is available during the child's early years, the age limit is no longer in effect. He also reveals that before the war he was a full-time schoolteacher. Miss Hunter is caught off-guard, but then insists Danny would have benefited from social interaction and that William is still in the wrong.
As she leaves to make her report, she discovers Danny has taken her engine apart. She is furious and threatens to prosecute, until Danny begins rattling off what all is wrong with her engine and that he can fix it if she will just wait a moment. Miss Hunter and her assistant are stunned, and go inside the caravan with William to wait. William then tells them he's sorry he ordered Danny to fix the car without permission but that he was trying to prove the point that Danny is not a truant and is in fact an extremely intelligent child and a prodigy when it comes to mechanical work. He also explains the reason he was late in sending Danny to school was that, as his wife died when Danny was four months old, it took him a while to reconcile himself to being alone without Danny there as Danny is all he had. Miss Hunter, finally convinced William is not a poor parent, returns to her repaired car and assures the Smiths they need fear no further inspections. She and her assistant leave.
Danny and William get back to their original discussion as they work on an old Austin Seven mini-car left by a customer. William explains last night was the first time since Danny's mother died that he had been out poaching on his own, as he wanted to wait until Danny was old enough to be left alone for a couple hours. Danny tells him he won't mind if he goes out again, so long as he has prior warning of when he's planning to leave and come back. William promises he will do this.
The head of the Ministry calls Victor Hazell to report the failure of the attempt. Hazell is frustrated, but tells his friend he'll still honor this favor that was done for him. He also refuses to give up trying to run the Smiths off their land.
The next morning, Danny and William are en route to school when they spot a rabbit caught in a snare Hazell's gamekeepers had left for vermin. He and Danny release the rabbit, but the delay causes Danny to be late for school. William tells Danny to tell Captain Lancaster that he will take the blame. However, upon arrival to school, Danny is derisively told by his teacher it was "kind of him to grace them with his presence at last." Danny starts to deliver William's message but Captain Lancaster shuts him up before he gets a full sentence out and tells him no excuse would be acceptable, and punishes him to write "I will not be late for Captain Lancaster's Class" 1,000 times along with the rest of his homework. Danny returns home and tells what happened. William is disgusted by Captain Lancaster's apparent desire to make Danny the class example, and Danny reluctantly sets out to write his lines.
That night, William leaves to go see if he can catch a pheasant this time, as he was unsuccessful last time. Danny is still hard at work with his lines, but he promises William he'll get to bed on time and not wait up for him. William tells Danny he'll be home by 9 and sets out.
Danny wakes in the wee hours of the morning to discover William has not returned. Knowing that this means something awful has happened, he immediately dresses, gets in the Austin Seven, and drives it up the road to Hazell's woods. He passes a police car on patrol, and they turn around and give chase. However, before they catch up to him he has turned off the main road, and they drive on into the night without ever seeing him again.
Danny starts into the woods to search for William, but hears Rabbetts and Springer. The two gamekeepers are grumbling about staying out all night patrolling traps Hazell has set for poachers, when he pays them so badly. They then triumphantly shout about having caught a poacher when they look in one of the traps, and hurry off to tell Hazell. Springer is hesitant to go at first, but Rabbetts insists that if the man has been caught in the trap this long he can't get out now, so they leave together. As soon as they are gone, Danny discovers that the trap is a sheer-sided pit about 12 to 14 feet deep, like a tiger trap. William is inside it, and he hid his face from the keepers but he suspects they know who he is. His ankle is broken so he has no hope of climbing out, until Danny tells him he drove the Austin and that there is a tow rope in it. He runs to fetch it.
Rabbetts and Springer arrive at the house, where Hazell is holding a fancy party. He takes a gun and joins them, hurrying back through the woods to find the pit. By now, Danny has helped William out of the hole, and they are hobbling as fast as they can back to the car. By the time Hazell and the keepers arrive at the pit, they discover that William is gone. They set off in pursuit when they hear the engine of the Austin, but it is already roaring away by the time they reach the road. Rabbetts informs Hazell that he's almost certain the poacher was William Smith, and Hazell agrees with him that it must be. He promises both keepers 100 pounds apiece if they shoot William the next time he tries to poach a pheasant, because he needs him gone.
The next morning, Doctor Spencer - an old friend of Williams and fellow poacher - comes to inspect his broken ankle. He is horrified by the thought of someone digging tiger traps to catch people because someone could get killed that way, and reveals he has a deep dislike of the land-grabbing Hazell as William and Danny. Sergeant Samways pedals up on his bike and informs William that Hazell has ordered him to question the Smiths because he thinks they were on his land poaching. Hazell also volunteered that William may have broken his leg while in the woods. This worries Danny and William; however, Samways surprises them by not allowing William to make any sort of statement and showing them that he is writing down in his notebook that William said he was home and broke his ankle falling down the caravan's front steps. The ambulance arrives, and Spencer and Samways help get William into it.
William comes home later that evening with his leg in a cast and a cane to walk with, and Danny comes out to meet the ambulance. It is pouring down rain, so William and Doc Spencer try to hurry inside to keep themselves and Danny from getting too wet. However, Hazell and the two keepers arrive and stop them. He informs William he knows most of the village is in on this together and warns him that if he comes on his land again he will get shot. Doc Spencer tries to tell Hazell off, but Hazell shuts him up and demands William give him an answer. William coolly tells Hazell that at the moment HE is the trespasser here and that he has one minute to get off his land. Hazell is impressed in spite of himself by William's boldness and leaves, telling his keepers that he's certain William's desire for revenge will make him try again and that they had better be ready to shoot him when he does.
Doc Spencer stays for tea, and he and William both agree something must be done about Hazell. William promises he'll think of something. Doc Spencer leaves William some sleeping pills for the pain, and heads off back to his own house, thanking Danny for making the tea for him.
The next day during class, Danny's friend Sid Morgan thinks Danny is nodding off, and tries to get his attention by whispering his name. Lancaster catches him in the act, and demands he and Danny both come up front. He tells them they were cheating and will both be punished. Danny insists they were doing nothing of the kind, but Lancaster stubbornly says that anyone whispering to each other during class is cheating as far as he is concerned and pulls out a cane with which he plans to beat both him and Sid. He makes Danny hold out his left hand and strikes him with the cane. He is about to deliver a second blow when Headmaster Snoddy, alerted by the gasps of the other children, comes into the classroom and tells Lancaster he must see him in his office at once.
In his office, Headmaster Snoddy tells an arrogant and unrepentant Captain Lancaster that corporal punishment is against the policy of the school, and that Lancaster should know this as it was part of his contract. Lancaster insists he was within his rights because it was a case of academic dishonesty. Snoddy decides to investigate for himself. He calls Sid and Danny to come to him and tells the rest of the class, who have crowded round Danny to try to comfort him, to stay back. He demands the two boys to give their word of honor, and tell him the truth. Lancaster watches this proceeding with a disdainful eye. Both Sid and Danny tell the Headmaster the truth - that they did not cheat - and he allows them to rejoin their classmates. He then informs Lancaster that if he strikes a child again he will be fired on the spot. Lancaster refuses to respond to this, and Snoddy barks at him to tell him if he understood him. Reluctantly, Lancaster agrees to not use the cane, and furiously storms back to his class.
Danny returns home to find William also in a bad mood. As soon as he sees the red welt on Danny's hand and hears that Captain Lancaster accused his son of cheating, he flies into a rage and announces his intention of hobbling over to Captain Lancaster's house and beating the living daylights out of him. Danny, knowing this will only make Lancaster's enmity against him worse, begs William not to, finally saying "I'll hate you if you do it" because William is past listening to anything else. Once he has William's attention, Danny insists this isn't William's battle to fight, and William hugs him and apologizes, explaining it's his frustration at being unable to teach Hazell a lesson that will get him to leave him and the rest of the village alone that has got him in such a touchy mood. The worst part is that he has the perfect plan - poach all 700 of Hazell's pheasants the night before his annual shooting party, and keep them at the filling station until after Hazell has been embarrassed in front of the high-society people he invites every year - but he has no means of carrying it out. Danny agrees such a heist would be the perfect remedy to the problem at hand, but there seems no way it can be done.
That night, Danny spots the jar of sleeping pills Doc Spencer left for William, and is struck with a brilliant idea - dope all the pheasants so they won't be able to fly up to roost after the keepers go home for the night. William consults Doc Spencer and he agrees it's a great plan, and that it would make Danny take over his grandfather's place as the champion of the world at poaching. He gets them a large supply of sleeping powders, and says he will help them to collect all the drugged pheasants and get some extra help to do so. Next, William goes to Mr. Snoddy and asks for his help in carrying out the heist. Finally, he and Danny visit Wheeler's store and ask him for raisins. Mr. Wheeler knows this means they're after pheasants, so when they buy all 30 boxes he is amazed that they would try such a thing.
Back at the Caravan, Danny and William begin the laborious process of crushing the pills into powder and drugging each raisin individually. They stay up all day and late into the night, until William finally tells Danny they must get some sleep - he'll close down the garage for the day and finish the last of the raisins himself in the morning.
Danny runs to school the next morning and mercifully makes it on time. However, this, coupled with the fact he was up so late the night before, serves to make him utterly exhausted, and he falls asleep during class. Sid elbows him frantically, trying to wake him before he gets in trouble, but Lancaster spots this wakes him with a clapper and tells him he must stay after class. Danny tells him William has ordered him to come straight home after school, but Lancaster sharply tells him he must obey his teacher. He then punishes Danny, after the other students have left, by having him run 20 laps round the schoolyard. However, on the second lap, Danny discovers he passes out of Lancaster's line of sight whenever he goes round one particular side of the yard and takes this opportunity to use a nearby shed to climb over the wall and flee home. Lancaster, realizing after a few moments Danny has disappeared, runs in pursuit but is neither agile nor steady enough to climb over the wall and ends up tearing his trousers on a nail sticking out of the shed. Mr. Snoddy comes outside on his way home to see Lancaster, with the seat of his pants ripped, hanging onto the wall with both hands for dear life. Snoddy is clearly amused by the sight; humiliated, Lancaster screams at Snoddy that the school is a disgusting shambles and that he is resigning, to which Mr. Snoddy simply replies "Good!" and leaves Lancaster to fall off the wall.
That night, just before sundown, Danny and William sneak through the woods, scattering the drugged raisins about. All goes well until Rabbetts and Springer appear. The two Smiths hide beneath some shrubbery to keep from being spotted. However, Rabbetts notices the pheasants are congregated about something and starts forward to investigate. Fearing they'll spot the raisins, William snaps a twig. The two keepers look about for the source of the noise but to no avail. In frustration, Rabbetts says he's had enough and is off home. Springer reminds him of the bounty Hazell offered them for shooting William, but Rabbetts scoffs and says William would never hobble about the woods with his leg in plaster and that he has no intention of staying up all night on the day before the big shoot, on the miserable wages Hazell pays them. Springer agrees this makes sense and they leave. Relieved, William and Danny continue to scatter the raisins.
As darkness falls, the pheasants fly up into the trees to roost. However, just as Danny planned, they are too drugged to manage this and eventually flop back to the ground unconscious. William and Danny dance and celebrate, and when Doc Spencer shows up with Mr. Snoddy and the postman in tow, they have the pheasants all gathered together waiting for them. The five of them gather up the sleeping birds in sacks as gently as they can and carry them back to the workshop, laying them out on the floor to sleep off the drug. Doc Spencer wonders what they're going to do when they wake, but Danny knows exactly what he wants to do - set them free to live as wild birds. Danny and William, with Snoddy and Spencer's help, then send a fire balloon up into the sky as a prearranged signal that would let the rest of the village know they succeeded. The Clipstones, Mr. Wheeler, Sergeant Samways and all the rest of the villagers celebrate as they see the balloon fly by.
The next morning, all the important people arrive at Hazell's estate for the shoot. Before Hazell arrives, they laugh about his attempts to fit in with their crowd and how he does everything wrong. But they are there because of the birds so they try to be polite when Hazell himself shows up on the scene. Springer gets a group of beaters together to drive the birds out of the woods, and Rabbetts starts setting up stands for the shooters. Hazell calls one of the guests, Sir Charles Tallon, aside. It is revealed that Tallon is a developer, and that the whole buying-land-for-the-annual-shooting-party thing is just a ruse disguising Hazell's master plan. His real intention, once he has all the land, is to develop a new township right in the villages backyard, destroying the farmland. This would have been opposed by the villagers, which is why he has kept it on the down-low. Tallon sees, on the maps and blueprints, the Smith's plot of land and says without it the development can't go forward. Hazell lies and tells him he's got the property cheap because he didn't tell William how much it was really worth to him. Tallon doesn't like these dealings, but business is business so he reluctantly makes a deal that his company will develop Hazell's new town.
Everyone goes to the fields outside the woods for the first drive. Several villagers secretly watch as the beaters go crazy trying to drive pheasants that aren't there out of the woods, including Danny, William, and Doc Spencer. Hazell and his guests demand of the two gamekeepers where the birds are, but they don't know. The guests start to openly mock Hazell, and a furious Hazell orders Rabbetts to find the birds or lose what little pay he's getting.
Rabbetts and Springer set off in their jeep to drive around Hazell's land, with Springer at the wheel and Rabbetts standing up looking around for pheasants. Meanwhile, Doc Spencer drives William and Danny back to the filling station, all of them still laughing over the sight they just witnessed. However, when they arrive they find the pheasants are waking up sooner than expected and are starting to run around confused, not understanding how they got in the unfamiliar place. Doc Spencer, Danny and William desperately try to keep them on the ground because if they fly up they'll be spotted, but it's no use. Several of them are seen by Rabbetts through his field glasses, and he alerts Hazell to where they are coming from.
Hazell tears through the village in his car, with his gamekeepers' jeep and the cars of all the rest of his shooting party following out of curiosity as to what he's going to do. They knock Sergeant Samways off his bike in passing, and he pursues them, furiously. Several other people from the village run after them. Upon arriving at the filling station, Hazell smugly tells William he's caught him this time and that he will force him to sell his land. Samways appears and Hazell demands he arrest William for stealing the birds. However, Samways is more interested in serving a ticket to Hazell for unsafe driving, and when Hazell tries to insist, Samways says as he didn't see William in the act, the birds are on his land and that they are technically his for the moment.
Tallon, hearing this, demands of William whether he still owns his property. William tells him this is the case and that he does not and never did have any intention of selling it. Tallon tells Hazell the deal is off and then informs the rest of the villagers standing round of what Hazell was planning to do, much to their horror. Humiliated and defeated, Hazell curses William and the villagers and leaves in disgrace, with Rabbetts and Springer in tow.
Tallon remarks that William seems to have saved the day by refusing to give in to Hazell. William corrects him and tells him that Danny, who drove a car and saved him from the pit and instigated the whole proceeding, is the real hero here. The villagers give Danny three cheers as William triumphantly carries him on his shoulders back to the filling station and the pheasants fly free.