I’m not sure what I was expecting when, a few days ago, I sat down to watch this film. It was one I’d heard of but never before given a viewing for whatever reason. The title suggests something domestic and perhaps slightly delicate and pretty and yet the blurb on the TV guide said it was a WW2 drama starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. So after two hours of well-crafted cinema, intrigue became enlightenment and awe.
A Town Like Alice is a gripping 1956 British drama film based on the book of the same name by Nevil Shute. It tells the harrowing story of a group of women and children forced to march hundreds of miles across Malaya from village to village by the occupying Japanese forces who refuse to take responsibility for them. It is at once awful to witness the hardship and suffering the group has to endure and yet uplifting to behold the strength of the human spirit in times of woe.
The film opens with Jean Paget (played by Virginia McKenna), in a London solicitor’s office shortly after the war. The solicitor informs her that she has a large inheritance and, asked what she wants to do, Jean decides to go to Malaya to build a well in a small village. As work gets under way, she recalls her three years of living in the village and the journey she endured to get there during the war.
Flashback to 1942 and Jean is working in an office in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade and take everyone prisoner. The men are sent off to labour camps and the women and children are told they must walk to a women’s camp fifty miles away. Jean being fluent in Malay, is therefore a prominent figure within the group and helps arrange the acquisition of food and medicines they require from the locals. But after an arduous march in unbearable heat and mosquito infested swamps, the women are told by the camp commanders that they are not wanted and are therefore forced to march on in search of another camp. And so their journey continues with disease and danger always close behind.
Along the way, the group meets young Australian soldier, Joe Harman (Peter Finch), also a prisoner of war, who drives a truck for the Japanese. He and Jean quickly forge a friendship and often meet behind their guard’s back to share a cigarette and swap stories. It is here that he tells her about his hometown of Alice Springs and this is where the story’s title comes from. Joe is appalled by the suffering the group has to endure and helps them by stealing food and medical supplies from his Japanese captors. However, a theft of chickens is investigated and with Jean being the initial suspect, Joe confesses his guilt to save her and the rest of the group. For his troubles, he is beaten and crucified to a tree and left to die. The women are forced to march away but a while later, when their guard dies, Jean begs that the group be allowed to stay in a village where they will gladly work and become part of the community. This they do until the end of the war when they are repatriated.
Returning to the present day in the village where the well is being built, Jean learns that Joe Harman didn’t die against that tree and that he survived the war and returned to Australia. She therefore travels there to search for him. Likewise, he travels to London in search of her and after some disappointment, the two finally meet in the airport at Alice Springs. Very moving it is too.
This is where the film differs from the book because where the cinematic story ends, the novel continues to explore Jean’s new life in the Australian outback and examines all the joys and difficulties that that throws up.
The film was shot mainly at Pinewood studios although some exteriors were filmed in Malaya and Australia. It was directed by Jack Lee (arguably his best known work) and distributed by The Rank Organisation. It was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1956 and won BAFTAs for both McKenna and Finch. Give it a look and you’ll see why. Their performances are faultless. But then, the same could be said of the entire cast. The film itself was nominated too as was the screenplay. The pacing is spot on – your attention and interest in the characters never wanes – and the look of the film is frighteningly real.
All in all, an incredible tale of triumph over adversity – a great film made from a great novel.