While not initially successful in France, the film was a hit elsewhere. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a Special Award as Best Foreign Language Film in the United States, and a Best Film from any Source at the British Academy Film Awards.
It is June 1940, during the Battle of France. After five-year-old Paulette's parents and pet dog die in a German air attack on a column of refugees fleeing Paris, the traumatized child meets 10-year-old Michel Dollé whose peasant family takes her in. She quickly becomes attached to Michel. The two attempt to cope with the death and destruction that surrounds them by secretly building a small cemetery among the ruins of an abandoned watermill, where they bury her dog and start to bury other animals, marking their graves with crosses stolen from a local graveyard, including one belonging to Michel's brother. Michel's father first suspects that Michel's brother's cross was stolen from the graveyard by his neighbour. Eventually, the father finds out that Michel has stolen the cross.
Meanwhile, the French gendarmes come to the Dollé household in order to take Paulette. Michel cannot bear the thought of her leaving and tells his father that he would tell him where the stolen crosses are, but in return he should not give Paulette to the gendarmes. His father doesn't keep his promise: Michel destroys the crosses and Paulette ends up going to a Red Cross camp, but at the end of the movie is seen running away into a crowd of people in the Red Cross camp, crying for Michel and then for her mother.Georges Poujouly as Michel Dollé
Brigitte Fossey as Paulette
Amédée as Francis Gouard
Laurence Badie as Berthe Dollé
Suzanne Courtal as Madame Dollé
Lucien Hubert as Dollé
Jacques Marin as Georges Dollé
Pierre Merovée as Raymond Dollé
Louis Saintève as the Priest
The film was widely praised among critics, whose "howling protests" were heard at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival where it was not an "official entry of France"; instead, it was "screened on the fringe of the Competition."
The film was entered into competition at the 13th Venice International Film Festival; festival organizers at first considered the film ineligible because it had been screened at Cannes; it ended up receiving the Golden Lion, the Festival's highest prize.
Upon its release, it was lambasted by some, who said it was a "vicious and unfair picture of the peasantry of France"; in France, 4,910,835 theater tickets were sold. Following its December 1952 release in the United States, Bosley Crowther called it a film with "the irony of a Grand Illusion, the authenticity of a Harvest and the finesse of French films at their best"; according to Crowther, the film is a "brilliant and devastating drama of the tragic frailties of men, clear and uncorrupted by sentimentality or dogmatism in its candid view of life."
At the 25th Academy Awards, Forbidden Games won an out-of-competition Special Award as Best Foreign Language Film. In December 1952, at the 24th National Board of Review Awards it was chosen as one of that year's five top foreign films. At the 1952 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, it won for Best Foreign Language Film.
In 1954, it was BAFTA's Best Film from any Source; in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards, François Boyer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story; Philip Yordan won, for his work on Broken Lance.
Decades after its release, David Ehrenstein called it "deeply touching" and wrote: "Fossey's is quite simply one of the most uncanny pieces of acting ever attempted by a youngster. Clément’s sensitivity doubtless accounts for much of what we see here, but the rest is clearly Fossey’s own."
The main theme of the soundtrack is an arrangement of the tune "Romance".
Forbidden Games was released on Laserdisc by Criterion Collection, who later also released it on DVD.