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Soon after the end of real hostilities in 1945, Hollywood produced the
first of many subsequent films from the perspective of prisoners of war
held by the Japanese: that film was Three Came Home (1950) with
Claudette Colbert. I recall seeing that one a long time ago and recall
the dark nature of that narrative (I have yet to submit a review here,
but I will, in time).
A Town Like Alice is a different kettle of fish, so to speak: instead of a single family, it's a mix of various women and children caught up in the retreat to Singapore in 1941, and follows their seemingly unending trek across Malaya, from camp to camp, seeking admission and a final resting place to wait out the war.
The black and white photography is superb as the downtrodden party weaves its way through swamp, dirt roads, wet and dry season, very little food or water, malaria, dysentery and all other manner of tropical diseases. Little wonder that, as they walk, they also die, one at a time, from malnutrition and sickness, and all the while, their guard, an old-timer, gradually comes to admire their perseverance just as the women come to respect the old man's quiet determination to keep helping them to survive. That's the main story.
The big sub-plot is how Jean Paget (Virginia McKenna) meets Joe Harmon (Peter Finch), also a prisoner of war, and how they both come to fall in love on the run, if you know what I mean: they keep meeting (he is pressed into service as a driver for the Japanese) at different parts of Malaya as the women keep wandering around, looking for a place to stay. So, there is a bit of comedy from the irrepressible Aussie soldiers, mixed with moments of real tension as the two lovers try to keep a relationship going under such conditions. And, it's during one of those meetings that Jean learns that Joe comes from Alice Springs.
Never boring, and with stand-out scenes, such as one of the little boys running in between the advancing Japanese soldiers with his toy gun, shouting "bang, bang" (reminiscent of Brandon de Wilde in Shane , doing the same thing, and annoying Jean Arthur, inside the farm house); the joy of the women when they come across an abandoned house with hot running water; and, Jean's bargaining with a Malay shop-keeper for tinned milk for a baby.
If this period in history is of interest, you could do worse to spend two hours of your time. And, as for how the romance turns out, well, you'll just have to see the movie, won't you?
A Town Like Alice is now an old film. However it has a certain directness
and freshness which makes it quite watchable.
A Town like Alice is the story of an English nurse, who is trapped in Malaya with a group of Englihs women during the Japanese invasion. As the group can't be categorised by the Japanese army into a useful pigeonhole, they are forced to walk from city to city looking for a place to be prisoners-of-war.
The story is a strong one and the movie doesn't let the book down. Shot in excellent locations in Malaysia, the only problems are fitting the breadth of the story into a limited time.
I have the video of this movie which I got a few years back. I wish they would bring this movie out on DVD. Its wonderfully acted. Hard to believe this was based on a true story. I can't believe these women marched hundreds of miles, having nothing to eat much of the time and some of their companions dying along the way. They must have been a hardy bunch. Its too bad more people couldn't see this movie. Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch were excellent as the main characters and the rest of the supporting cast were very good too. I'm glad to have the video, but would very much like to see a DVD come out on it. The movie is in black and white but this in no way detracts from the story or the acting.
I have just posted a comment on "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" directed
by Nagisa Oshima in the early 1980s. The main originality of MCML does
not lie in its subject, as other films have dealt with Prisoner-of-War
camps under the Japanese rule, the most famous of them remaining "The
Bridge on the River Kwai" by David Lean (1957). As MCML is a much more
recent film, it might be considered as a more realistic approach to the
daily life in a camp under such circumstances; yet realistic films on
this subject appeared as early as in the 1950s with works like "A Town
like Alice" directed by Jack Lee, which was rejected in its time by the
Cannes Film Festival for its shocking content and violence a sharp
contrast with often romanticized productions where war has a glamorous
aspect. "A Town like Alice" is also original for it tells war from the
point of view of women, and women in conflicts are often ignored by war
It has been years now since I watched "A Town like Alice". I remember it as a good and honest film about the conflict with the Japanese in the Far East. Virginia McKenna as a British nurse and Peter Finch were both convincing. It may be not the best film on WWII, yet it has an authenticity and favors a psychological and realistic approach to the characters than can attract many viewers, not just war movies freaks.
By the way, the title is a reference to the town of Alice Springs, where the story ends.
I suppose that it should be confessed at the outset that I had the hots
for Ms McEnna in her youth. Nevertheless, I still think that this is an
excellent movie of the 1950's war genre.
Ginny and Peter Finch provide typically understated performances that are reminiscent of 'Ice Cold In Alex' and 'The Cruel Sea'. Solid, sterling, stiff-upper-lip-stuff that has no place in the spineless, simpering, metro-sexual third millennium.
I have never read Shute's novel, so I cannot comment on what liberties have been taken, but viewed without prejudice as a movie outlining Japanese brutality and human endurance it is still a well-realised piece of work. Everyone gives a thoroughly believable turn, both Caucasian and Oriental alike, as Ms McEnna's character concludes 'you can't really hate anyone' in the end. Though the Japanese - like their Nazi counterparts - did their very best to merit it.
Ms McKenna leads a group of unwanted western women and children, for whom no Japanese officer wants responsibility. So; they get shunted from one place to another, on foot, inadequately fed, and without medical assistance. Inevitably; they begin dying. Finch plays a captured Aussie running trucks for the Japanese. Filmed in black-&-white, in Britain and on location, it offers a very believable turn upon the miasmic swamps, crippling heat, humidity and deluging rain.
Of course, it's a love story too. And here again Ginny and Peter play their parts to perfection. I defy any true romantic not to be rendered lachrymose by her realisation of his survival and their final meeting at the end. Her hasty, last-minute application of cosmetics is particularly touching and well-observed. As if he'd care a hoot one way or the other.
It's a great old feel-good movie for the austerity generation. I give it nine stars and good luck to 'em all I say.
This film is in the same league as the series Tenko for it's realism. I have also watched the mini series which could have it's moments too but the film wins because of the fact that it was made around a decade after it had happened, when things must have been quite fresh in everyones minds. These women were taken captive as the men were but they were not wanted by anyone. These women were far away from home with no clothes apart from what they stood up in, no money and they didn't speak the language. Given those fact the thoughts are so scary!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not really a spoiler, but I was originally disappointed when I realized this movie was concentrating on just the death march portion of the book. Very warm and heartfelt, but kind of misses the point of the title, which is really about what happens after the movie version ends. The mini series gave a better overall translation. An alternate title for the book was The Legacy, and that might have suited this version better. Still good though. By the way, Jean was not a nurse, she was a secretary, and Joe was not from Alice Springs -- it just represented a sort of ideal to him. He was from Willstown, and hoped it would one day develop into a town like Alice.
The Rank Organisation went whole hog in producing A Town Like Alice
with location shooting in Malaya, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
The results were well worth the effort and the film was a big boost to
the careers of Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna. In fact as Finch was
becoming more and more an international star he would get fewer roles
like this one, playing a native Australian.
I was expecting when deciding to view this film that it would be similar in nature to the American film Three Came Home that starred Claudette Colbert as a woman prisoner of the Japanese in World War II. The woman prisoners were segregated, but quickly housed and fended for themselves as best they could, but in a static setting.
When the male prisoners are separated from the females after the fall of Malaya, these woman are put under guard and just sent around like vagabonds with their children if they had them. Why they were selected for this rather special brand of torture we can speculate on end, but whatever the Japanese idea of chivalry was to the women, they couldn't just outright kill them. In fact none are during this film.
The film is seen through McKenna's eyes, she's working as a secretary in Kuala Lampur when the Japanese takeover. She takes over too as guardian of her boss's kids after their mother dies early on in the strange odyssey. Peter Finch plays an Australian soldier who with his mates they constantly run into and who offers them help when he can sneak food and medicine from the Japanese. He pays a heavy price for doing this when he's caught.
When he was killed by Irish Terrorists in 1979, it was learned that Lord Mountbatten had specifically requested that at his funeral no representation from the Japanese was to be permitted. As Supreme Commander of that theater Mountbatten remembered all the horror stories he heard from people survived Japanese internment, even the strange internment where apparently the whole country was their jail.
How McKenna and those that remained survived is quite a story, let's say it involved breaking a lot of cultural barriers to do it. One of the women who did it her own way was Maureen Swanson who after McKenna refuses his proposition, she takes up with a Japanese captain. Swanson is another you'll remember from A Town Like Alice.
Alice refers to Alice Springs in Northern Territory where Finch reminisces he'd like to return. It sounds like heaven, looks pretty good too after the years in Malaya. The film is a really good war film from the not often heard from point of view of woman prisoners.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's often interesting to read comments that are clearly written in haste and not checked before they are posted. For example one comment on this film says it's almost in the same league as Tenko, the author clearly not aware that the BBC television series Tenko, which aired a good two decades after the film, was inspired by the film - and arguably the best selling novel by Nevil Shute on which the film was based. A separate reviewer describes the main protagonist, Jean Paget, as a nurse when we are clearly shown in the initial 'flashback' scene that she is, in fact, a secretary in an office in Kuala Lampur. Virginia McKenna has all the 'English Rose' masking an steely inner core quality that the role requires and it's difficult if not impossible to imagine any other actress of the time inhabiting the role so well - McKenna of course made something of a specialty of world war two heroines and this performance is only a whisker behind her outstanding portrayal of Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride. Peter Finch, as a native Australian, acting in England less than a decade, was also perfect casting for Joe Harman but as someone has already pointed out, the main thrust of the book was how Jean Paget, receiving a substantial legacy after the war, was inspired to 1) build a well for the Malayan village who had taken her and the rapidly diminishing number of technical prisoners of war, and allowed them to see out the war there working alongside their own women, and 2) create a town in the Australian outback to rival the idealized memory of Alice Springs that Joe had spoken about during the war. It's a fine novel, Shute interviewed at length a woman who had endured such a journey, but as a Master storyteller he blended fact with fiction and there is one notable emission in the film that was crucial to the novel: By the time she first encountered Joe, who was underneath his lorry, she had long abandoned her 'Western' garb for the single, wraparound garment worn by the native women. Joe has only ever seen her clad that way so that when they finally do meet after the war there is a palpable uneasiness between them until Jean realizes what the problem is and exchanges her 'Western' clothes for the wraparound garment. In the film - which makes no reference to Jean creating a virtual town - he steps off the plane, sees her in the waiting room and they fall into an embrace. Despite these cavils it remains a fine film, worth two hours of anyone's time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've never read the novel upon which this film is based upon, but I'm interested in reading it now after seeing this very good film. Told in flashback, it's a WW2 drama with a difference, as we trade in the battlefields for the harrowing experiences of a group of English women who are forced on a Japanese death march through Malaya. It's a starkly realistic film, with many confronting scenes as the women have to drawn on every last emotional and physical reserve they have to survive. It feels so realistic and draws you into the storyline so much that when character after character succumbs to the awful trek it's like a knife through the heart. And when the women finally get to bathe after weeks of marching through the swamps, we feel their relief too. Virginia McKenna is the lead actress as young Jean Paget, and while McKenna may not be the world's greatest actress she's a good fit for the role, determined with a winning smile and warmth. The supporting actresses are colourful and each bring something different to the film. Peter Finch plays the Australian soldier Joe who falls for McKenna, and she for him. The "Alice" of the title is of course Alice Springs, NT, where Finch works on a station. Alice becomes a symbol of hope and comfort. He's charming and they have terrific chemistry together. I understand the ending is romanticized (but, hey, that's Hollywood for you!), but I liked it. Great cinematography and location shooting in Malaya and Australia (is this the first feature film to show the interior of Australia?), and strong direction from Australian Jack Lee
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