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A TOWN LIKE ALICE first captivated me when I was only 14 and caught a
of it on T.V. in 1984. It has since remained one of my most favorite
romances on film. It is a modest, understated and "un-Hollywood" (thank
God!) work, yet it is epic in the way it depicts the two very likable main
characters, Joe Harmon and Jean Paget (played by Bryan Brown and Helen
Morse, respectively) meeting during a tumultuous backdrop of war and
despair, falling in love in spite of it, and then becoming blissfully
reunited. But don't worry--I haven't given away the "happy ending!" The
half of the film that follows is what gives this work its integrity. The
lovers then have to overcome the adversity of the differences of their
cultures and beliefs--her being English and he being Australian. Jean
is an admirable, headstrong character, who when placed in the backwards
Australian outback of the 1940's, is put to the test with her lover Joe,
making one realize that love relationships don't go perfectly, but if the
love is strong, it will persevere.
This movie truly pulls the viewer into the romance between Jean and Joe and you feel every heartache and every joy that they share in your heart as well. But these are not shallowly constructed "romance novel characters." They are complex and imperfect and through their hardships, show the audience that any love such as theirs is truly worth fighting for.
So, as long as this movie is on tape (being a two- part mini-series), please be patient with it (like you would with an E.M. Forster novel-to-film adaptation) because I guarantee the reward will be ever so sweet. It will draw you in and be compelling from start to finish with a story you will really care about. A wonderful, wonderful picture! Plus, the soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous and moving.
Apparently this Australian film based on Nevil Shute's novel exists in more than one form. Beware heavily cut versions sometimes shown on cable or satellite, running anywhere from 95 minutes to 2 hours. Only the full 5 hour miniseries version tells the story properly. It is a very close realisation of the story, suffering only from editorial faults commonly found in TV movies: choppiness and episodic progression. But this excellent cast carries the story forward very well with generally good production values accompanying their work. Yuki Shimoda is notable as "Gunso Mifune", one of the guards assigned to accompany the women on their agonising trek. In the end he becomes a friend. You will agonise with him when his loss of face leads him into death.Helen Morse as "Jean Paget", pretty but not a great beauty (she resembles Sigourney Weaver a bit)registers just the right amount of spunk and winsomeness as the occasion demands. The miniseries properly emphasises the beautiful love stories, three of them: "Joe" and "Jean", "Noel" and "Jean", and "Jean" and Willstown. Gordon Jackson plays "Noel Strachan" appealingly, but as a somewhat younger man than Nevil Shute indicated in the novel. The third love affair I mentioned doesn't get quite the emphasis it is due, and the full significance of the title is diminished. "Jean" is devoted to the goal of bringing businesses to Willstown that will attract young women and girls and their civilising influence to this god-forsaken out back town. She wants to make it "A Town Like Alice"; Alice Springs, that is. We get only a few hints of this in several scenes. If you have the five hours to spare, this miniseries is a truly rewarding experience. Nevil Shute based his novel about the cruelty of the Japanese military in shunting a large group of women and children from one place to another on the Maylay Peninsula on a true occurrence. It happened on Sumatra, according to Shute, though, rather than on the peninsula. The crucifixion of "Joe" by a Japanese officer for stealing chickens to feed the women is probably fiction, but the cruelty of the Japanese in dealing with prisoners is certainly a matter of record.
I have seen this film at least 100 times and I am still excited by it, the acting is perfect and the romance between Joe and Jean keeps me on the edge of my seat, plus I still think Bryan Brown is the tops. Brilliant Film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Henry Crawford and David Stevens' 1981 acclaimed mini-series improves on
Jack Lee's 1956 studio shot film with nearly triple the amount of time given
to more fully explore Nevil Shute's novel. Russel Boyd's photography (from
Picnic at Hanging Rock to the newly released Master and Commander) as ever
pays due respect to the exotic locations and the lush vegetation of Kuala
Lumpur and the unrelenting landscape of Queensland. Paralleling closely
with the `Tenko' TV series about a band of expatriate women taken prisoner
by the Japanese in 1941 in Singapore this production was, not surprisingly,
released in the same year. The saga's issues are further explored in the
later Australian mini-series based on Noel Barber's tale of multi-cultural
love in `Tanamera Lion of Singapore' (1988); Bruce Beresford's version of
a Sumatran war-prison's female choir in `Paradise Road' (1999); and ABC's
contentious `Changi' (2001) the musical (as envisioned by writer John
Doyle and director Kate Woods), following the fortunes of six friends in the
Singapore POW camp.
In 1948 a young English woman receives an inheritance enabling her to repay a debt to the Malayan village where she survived her war years as a prisoner. Having dealt with the formal setting up of a trust fund for Jean Paget (Helen Morse) and the budding cross-generation friendship with her solicitor Noel Strachan (Gordon Jackson in typically kindly fatherly mode though without the edge of his sterner creations as Mr Hudson of `Upstairs, Downstairs' and governor George Cowley in `The Professionals') the film switches back to events in 1941 as the Japanese invade Malaya. A band of women are forced to march on the pretext of catching a train to Singapore for the nearest prison, though it soon becomes apparent that the motley captives are a very unwelcome nuisance for the Japanese. The rigours of the journey are too much for some of the women and children, and lacking any medication dysentery takes its toll on the rest. Their saviour eventually turns up in the guise of an Australian mechanic, Joe Harman (Bryan Brown), who purloins medicines and food for them and soon an obvious attraction and deep bond is formed between him and Jean. However Joe's kindness and risk taking eventually goes too far and delivers him into the vengeful hands of the camp commandant for stealing his chickens. A bloody retribution is exacted on Joe who is literally crucified in front of the women he sought to help, a thoroughly believable example, and not without precedent, of the atrocities inflicted on prisoners in this barbaric world. Mrs Frith (Dorothy Alison), whose mind is severely strained by the trauma, rather labours the corollary of a saviour who heals with medicines but is crucified for his pains. Echoes of the Canadian sergeant crucified by German soldiers around Easter in April 1915 resonate here, as well as the fictional storyline of a Russian style crucifixion in an episode of this year's `Spooks' for the BBC. November 2002 also provided further humanitarian outrages as a Catholic car thief in Belfast was nailed to a fence and beaten, and an angry Cambodian mother in Phnom Penh nailed her 13-year-old daughter's foot to the bamboo floor of their home because she had neglected her household chores.
Without further ceremony the women are dismissed along with an elderly guard for minder, who expires soon after the women have sought shelter in a village, that is to become their resting place for the remainder of the war and the reason for Jean's eventual return. During her revisit to Malaya, Jean ecstatically discovers that for the want of a cold beer Joe miraculously cheated death, and impetuously she sets off for Australia in search of his cattle station. In one of life's extraordinary twists Joe turns up at Strachan's office in London who gently tries to put him off the trail; however these star-crossed lovers are destined to meet up with each other in spite of the interference by well-wishers. In the interim Jean discovers her mission to build a town like Alice Springs in the dusty backwater of Willstown that passes as the closest thing to civilisation and her lover's home. With her mixture of determination and quiet strength Jean battles to overcome the mistrust and apathy of the locals as well as theirs and Joe's inherent chauvinism.
Continued in Part II
I remember watching this series avidly and being so disappointed when it came to an end. Over the years since then, I have tried to find out if I could obtain a copy of it on either video or d.v.d., to no avail. However, I was delighted to find this website with details of it, only to be disappointed again at the point of purchase, that the videos available will not play on English recorders! This production was so wonderful, being absolutely accurate with Nevil Shute's novel, taking the storyline through after the end of the war, with Joe and Jean's subsequent life together - absolutely marvellous - and I just wish I were able to see it again, as since it's original screening, there have been no repeats of it on British television.
Beautifully filmed, it tells the story of the book in wonderful detail. Conveys the courage of the heroine against horrible conditions in Malaya and her commitment to the virtue of productivity in turning a decrepit Outback village into a thriving "town like Alice (Springs)". No environmentalist her, she's definitely pro-development. The only downside, rather minor, is the injection of a gratuitous (and out-of-character) conflict between the two leads. Also captures the spirit of the Outback and inspires one to visit it (as it inspired me to visit Alice Springs and a Queensland cattle station).
I first saw the series on Msterpiece Theater on PBS in weekly hourly installments tgat went for about 14 or 15 weeks in the 70's. If there was a movie from that, that's too bad because the entire series had to be viewed in its entirety with the detail that 14 or 15 hors of plot give. The theatrical movie version that was done in the 50's with Peter Finch doesn't do justice to the story. The plot divided into two parts...1)the World War II agony of the trek through the jungle and stay in a prisoner of war camp and 2) the relationship that develops in the Outback of Australia. One of the most vibrant scenes I recall was the character Paget being elated that Harmon was, in fact alive, skipping and jumping for joy down the beach after having thought he died years previously. Wonderfully filmed throughout the series.
Helen Morse (`Picnic at Hanging Rock'; `Caddie') delivers a notable
performance as the graceful and determined quiet English woman with a
thoroughly convincing strength of character, able to withstand the trauma of
the Malayan trek and the challenges of a cross-cultural relationship in an
environment alien to her. Although in many ways it is disappointing not to
have seen Morse develop her promising film career beyond the following
year's `Far East', for the past twenty years she has chosen to concentrate
her prodigious talents on the Australian theatre instead where she finds the
roles both challenging and fulfilling, something she suspects would not be
available from current films. I find the comparisons others have made to
Sigourney Weaver particularly significant as Morse gave by all accounts a
harrowing portrayal of Paulina in `Death and the Maiden' for the Sydney
stage to rank alongside her screen counterparts haunting rendition a year
later in 1994. Curiously, they also both starred in Australian productions
of Asia based `Casablanca' remakes released within months of each other in
1982; Weaver as Mel Gibson's love interest in Peter Weir's `The Year of
Living Dangerously' and Morse as the prurient wife of a crusading journalist
in John Duigan's `Far East'. Morse's recent outing as Theodora Goodman in
Patrick White's difficult, both in adaptation and performance terms, `The
Aunt's Story', which tells of her migration from dusty Australia to the
relative calm of America via the maelstrom of Europe on the brink of the
Second World War, has already received critical acclaim in Melbourne, Sydney
Though ably cast as Joe Harman, Leonard Maltin writing in 1994 believed that
Bryan Brown has a likeability that had not been sufficiently tapped by the
parts he had taken up till then, which included the romantic lead in
`Gorillas in the Mist' also with Sigourney Weaver. His more recent
Australian work in `Two Hands' (made in 1999 and ranked among Empire
magazine's movie buffs top ten local films, though rather obviously heavily
influenced by Tarantino's `Pulp Fiction') suitably cast Brown as a Sydney
mobster boss with an unusual degree of compassion, providing along with the
intensely black humoured heist the high spots of the film in an uneven mix
of comedy and tragedy. Brown has also turned his hand to producing and last
year returned from Hollywood to make local Australian films such as the
gangster flick `Dirty Deeds' in which he took a starring role, and was
released in the UK this summer.
Tragically, Arkie Whiteley who played the young barmaid Annie, died from cancer at the end of 2001 at the far too early age of 37. She was the daughter of the renowned painter Brett Whiteley, the subject of the original David Williamson play `Up for Grabs' which last year enjoyed a run in London's West End with the pop-goddess Madonna, before he and Australia, at the star's insistence, were unjustly usurped by Jackson Polock and America for an international audience. Whiteley's painting `Arkie Under The Shower' has come home ten years after the actress sold it, and it fetched $810,000 at auction in Sydney this August. Arkie was memorably the beauty against a backdrop of beasts in the squalid horror of `Razorback' before she made a successful career on the London stage, as well as appearing in TV productions in the UK such as `The Last Musketeer' in 2000. Also for the keen-eyed viewer, Anne Haddy can be spotted in a minor role as Aggie Topp, Jean's English friend who is brought to Australia to help out in her venture. Haddy, as I am sure we all know, went on to become as Helen Daniels the much loved and long serving matriarch of `Neighbours', that phenomenal export to the UK, before her life long battle with ill health was sadly lost in 1999.
Inspiration for Nevil Shute, came from the true story of 80 Dutch women and children who spent 2½ years walking around the island of Sumatra, although less than 30 survived the ordeal. The invasion of Malaya in 1942 also saw the forced march of legions of civilians fleeing the marauding army with many perishing en route. Incidentally the author spent the remainder of his years in Australia after researching for his novel `On the Beach' in which he depicts a nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere engulfing all life except for a few survivors in the Antipodean continent. The novel was published just three years before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that culminated in the critical Black Saturday on 27 October. Fortunately for us all, sanity just about prevailed as Kennedy and Khrushchev climbed down from the brink of a catastrophic nuclear strike, as was revealed in last year's BBC Radio 4 documentary commemorating the 40-year anniversary, and in a further BBC4 programme screened a few weeks ago.
The TV mini-series faithfully follows the original novel, and though at times at the same plodding pedestrian pace it still makes for a splendid love story set against the brutality of the Japanese occupation in Asia and the toughness of the Australian outback. It is a fine tribute to those essential qualities of human endeavour, courage and determination in overcoming life's obstacles in order to achieve personal dreams.
Although ScreenSound Australia holds a master video it is not permitted to sell the film overseas, however NTSC versions can be obtained via Amazon's website.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The character of Joe Harman was based on an Australian soldier who was
a POW held by the Japanese and slaved on the infamous Burma-Thailand
railroad project along the Kwai river. James "Ringer" Edwards was in
fact crucified and left to die by the Japanese for the offense of
scrounging food for his fellow prisoners. After some days, still alive,
he was taken down, and lived to see the end of the war. He returned to
Australia and married a nurse he met in a Queensland hospital in 1947.
They eventually settled in Western Australia near Mount Edgar where
Edwards purchased a cattle station.
The Australian writer Nevil Shute was made aware of Edwards by a British officer who had known Edwards, and who advised Shute to contact the veteran to talk to him about his wartime experiences. The two men became friends, and just prior to the Australian publication of "A Town Like Alice" Shute sent Edwards a first edition inscribed "With thanks for so much information which made this book possible, and apologies for mistakes in it . . .."
Shute in turn put the author Hammond Innes in touch with Ringer Edwards and that author's visits to the cattle station at Mount Edgar formed a background for Innes' 1973 novel "The Golden Soak."
Edwards died in 2001. Much of the information here is drawn from a report in a March 2002 publication by the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland (see www.outbackheritage.com.au) and generously provided to me by the staff of the organization. However, on a personal note, I first became aware of the story of Ringer Edwards from my wife, Helen, who as an adventurous young American in 1969 spent some months working on the Edwards cattle station there in the Outback.
She saw the nail scars on Ringer Edwards' hands.
This movie is a sleeper - I've watched every miniseries that was ever on TV, some many times, and this one is the best. Wonderfully cast, superbly acted, and the characters are well-developed. Helen Morse perfectly fits the part of Jean Paget - strident, in control, sharp, and a bit belligerent. She bounces well off of Joe Harmon, the cowboy/taciturn/"It'll be okay" sort of guy. I was sorry that the movie didn't stick to the book, in that there was no romantic interest between Noel Struan and Jean Paget. For those who don't know, this is taken from a true story about English women marched around Malaya for 3 years by the Japanese, who indeed did not know what to do with them. Very few of them survived. Neville Shute talked to one of them, and this is her story. This movie deserves to be in everyone's collection who loves WWII stories.
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