We are in the kitchen of an eighteenth-century French farmhouse, where water is boiling away in a pot over the fireplace. The man in a ruffled shirt takes the boiling water from the fire and pours it on a boy of eleven or twelve who sits in a bathtub. The boy, unharmed, closes his eyes and smiles blissfully through the steam.

"He's going to melt like a piece of sugar," says the housekeeper frowning behind him. He doesn't. He's "The Wild Child," "L'Enfant Sauvage" of Francois Truffaut's film by that name, a child abandoned to grow up like an animal in the forests of Aveyron. He has not been educated to believe that heat is a source of pain. As the man in the ruffled shirt says, "He picks up glowing embers in his fingers." And the boy's fingers are not scorched.

The man is Dr. Jean Itard of the Paris Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, where the wild child lived in misery after being trapped like a badger in the forest. Dr. Itard seems to see a challenge and a promise in the boy, and has brought him home to educate him, although the other doctors feel the child is "an inferior being—lower than an animal," apparently deaf and dumb. The film is based on the historic memoirs of the real Dr. Itard; he is played in the film by Truffaut, one of the world's foremost film makers.

A Leader for Today
August 28, 1971

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