A Town like Alice (1956) is a fine, if incomplete, version of the novel by Nevil Shute. Many of us may be more familiar with the five-part miniseries that was shown on Public Television’s Masterpiece Theatre in 1981. It is the story of how lives can be changed by the intriguing combination of love…and economics.
The novel explores the aspect of economics in the story more fully than this film does. A young Englishwoman is the heir to a relative’s fortune, which he acquired in Australia, exploiting some that country’s mineral worth and taking it back to the UK (or Pommyland, as the case may be). Because of the prejudice this chap had for what he felt were the limited abilities of women, insisting that “a lassie is at the mercy of her sex”, this money was left to his female heir only at the discretion of a male solicitor, who was in charge of how she could spend it. When the solicitor informs Jean Paget of her legacy, she informs him she wants to go to Malaya and dig a well for some poor villagers. Then she tells him why, and here we have the unfolding of the story.
The Australian-produced TV version, as is typical with a mini-series, had the luxury of time to spread the novel out over several hours in several episodes. This 1956 British-made film is a more capsulated version, and ends before the story really carries us to Australia. Despite that, it is striking for showing the consequences of the 1941 Japanese invasion of the far-flung British Empire as it was in Malaya, and filmed only a little over a decade after the setting of the story. This is what gives this version a kind of authenticity. No matter how good or realistic a film is made today about a past event, it always carries a telescoping view of it.
Virginia McKenna is radiant as Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman working in an office in Malaya before the outbreak of war. Peter Finch plays the Australian soldier Joe Harman, whom she meets when they are both prisoners of the Japanese.
Much of the film is devoted to the scramble of the English in their self-made British colony to escape the advance of the invading Japanese, and then how they make do as prisoners once they are caught. We are shown how the women, separated from the men, are forced marched for several hundred miles, crisscrossing the Malay Peninsula because the Japanese Army has no camps for them and no one wants to take responsibility for them.
We are shown how these women, who in peacetime were separated into class divisions by wealth and pedigree, are now thrown together with no class distinction, how they must cooperate or die. We see how former relations with the Malays, whom they once regarded as their social inferiors, are now humbly appealed to for help. Jean is the most successful at this, as she appears to be a woman who, more than level-headed and resourceful, is also gracious and courteous. Her humility might have once made her a wallflower at a governor’s dance at Singapore’s old Raffles Hotel, but now it makes her a successful prisoner and admired among the native population who want to help her. This is truly a case of where the last shall be first.
This is also the story of the peculiar strength of women which springs from their empathy for one another. As some of the women die, the others assume responsibility for the orphaned children, just as Jean has taken on three of them. The women comfort each other, and even take care of their Japanese guard when he falls ill. A Malay woman bullies her merchant husband into giving Jean precious cans of condensed milk for the baby Jean lugs on her hip. We are shown the female bond is stronger than class distinction, nationality, or war. Their capacity for nurturing saves them.
I find amusing one scene this film which bears (or bares) I think an ironically Victorian outlook, and that is the representation of the women as they stumble upon an abandoned complex in which there is running water. So joyous are they to be able to bathe after weeks of marching through swamps and jungle that they strip and succumb to the comfort of showers, while carefully placed camera shots infer that they are naked. We are shown legs and underarms without body hair. As illogical as this is, evidently, the producers feel impelled to try and shock us with the brutality of a prison camp, but seem to think body hair would somehow offend us. It is not to be shown. We could chalk it up to being a 1956 film, except that I’ve seen this same thing in some other present-day made dramas about similar experiences of World War II female prisoners of war. There might be something here about a preference for idealizing women protagonists with flattering photography. There is more than one way to “sanitize” a story. Maybe you have some ideas on this.
Having lost all their belongings, including razors, the ladies remain sweaty, but hairless. Mrs. Frith, played here by Nora Nicholson, is a hypochondriac who proves to be more physically fit than anybody. Another lady, aghast at Jean’s wearing a sarong, scoffs at the notion of an English lady letting down her standards. She is aped by little Malay boys who laugh at her in her proper suit and hat, carrying her luggage. The musical score playfully launches into a bit of “Rule Britannia” to underscore the lady’s foolishness and the irrelevance of her self superiority.
Perhaps no other culture can top the English for their admirable ability to make fun of themselves, particularly at a period when the sun did not set on the British Empire. We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as empirical and are sometimes annoyed when others do consider us an empire. Invariably, we are better at laughing among ourselves at ourselves, than laughing when other nations laugh at us.
Another part of the British Empire comes to the rescue of these women, when a couple of Australian soldiers, also prisoners, pull tricks to get them some food and medicines. Joe Harman, played by handsome and charming Peter Finch, is immediately taken with Jean, and goes out on a limb to get her more supplies. The chemistry between Mr. Finch and Miss McKenna is something terrific, and when they sit quietly in the dark, after the standard erotic lighting of her cigarette scene, he tells her of his home deep in the Outback, in the middle of Australia, on a cattle station near a town called Alice Springs. Her eyes are riveted on him as he speaks. Her cupping of his hands as he lights her cigarette is the only physical contact, but the scene is intense.
Though they sit together and whisper in the dark, there are still walls between them. They are prisoners, their moments together are stolen. They are of different nationalities and likely would never have met but for their subjugation by the Japanese. He also believes she is married, because she always carries a baby. When he talks of Alice Springs, it sets them both free from all that for a moment. They are free among the red earth of the mythical Outback.
Ultimately, Mr. Finch pulls one hat trick too many for Miss McKenna’s behalf, gets caught, and is tortured by crucifixion. The women are whisked away on another march, and their guard, now in disgrace, an outcast among his fellow soldiers for innocently eating chicken stolen for the women, is left by himself to shepherd them to nowhere. Played by Kenji Takaki in this 1956 film, the guard is shown to have helped the women, to have watched over their children, and mourned with them. Had this film been made during the war, we would have seen a wicked caricature instead of a human being.
Even Jean, with her graciousness and humility, succumbs to hatred for the kind guard after the torture of Joe, panicking when he goes near her baby, and calls him a Jap.
But when he dies, the women find themselves in an even more precarious state. Jean appeals to the headman of a village, asking that the English women be allowed to work in their rice fields in exchange for a place to stay until the war is over. She approaches him respectfully, and asks permission to speak with him as woman on behalf of women, since their guard is dead and they have no man to speak for them. She squats in the dirt as they do, a little away from them to emphasize her unworthiness, and the village elder considers her outlandish request.
She adds, cleverly quoting from the Koran since he and most of the Malay people are Muslim, “Is it not also written that ‘if ye be kind to women, God is well acquainted with what you do’?”
“Are you of the faith?” he asks, amazed.
“No, but wise words are well in any faith.”
We see that Jean is a survivor, not the kind that clings and scratches, but one who makes a gift of her dignity and kindness, and thereby survives with her humanity intact. One day the village elder will refer to Jean fondly as “Daughter.” Again Nevil Shute examines the inconvenience of being a woman and turns it into strength, displaying his own remarkable empathy. This novel could not be more understanding of a woman’s place and prospects in that era if it had been written by a woman.
The war ends, and Jean must hand the baby, now a four-year old, back to a father he does not remember. And she discovers by accident that Joe Harman had survived his torture. She thought he had died. She asks for her lawyer’s permission for more money to go to Australia to find him. In the meantime, Joe has won a lottery, uses the money to travel to England and is in her lawyer’s office seeking her. Surely a twist on the interdependent relationship between love and money.
It makes a wonderfully ironic finale, and when they reunite in Alice Springs, this is where the film ends. There is a tentative, shy hesitation, and then a breathless hug as the old walls between them crumble. It’s a romantic ending, but leaves the novel truncated. In the novel, and in the 1981 miniseries, the story continues in Australia, as Jean aids the lonely dying outback town which is losing men because there are few women, by establishing a business, and then another, giving jobs to women. Again, women are the focus as they achieve financial independence and empowerment, and nurture the community into thriving.
Through her enterprise, she has revived the town, which brings the story full circle. Her relative who left her the legacy took wealth from Australia, and in her way, she returns it.
There is a shot in this 1956 film from what would appear to be the top of Anzac Hill in Alice Springs. It shows the distant
McDonnell Ranges, and below the grid of three or four streets which make up the town. What struck me upon seeing this film was how familiar the view was to me. Captivated by both the book and the 1981 miniseries, I went to Alice Springs some years ago. I had business in another part of the country and this was a side trip, an opportunity I couldn’t miss. It is a long way to go because of a book you’d read nearly a couple of decades ago. It’s that kind of book.
I’m not the only one to think so. Also pictured here is the plaque dedicated to British author Nevil Shute on the Australian Writers Walk in Sydney. Among other literary heroes commemorated here is Banjo Patterson, who wrote “The Man from Snowy River” and the lyrics for “Waltzing Matilda.” Shute, a non-Australian, is included in the Aussie pantheon, honored specifically for A Town Like Alice.
Alice Springs is a bit larger now, and the McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are businesses that would not have been frequented by Jean and Joe Harman back in the day, but the view from Anzac Hill is strikingly similar.
On the top of Anzac Hill, which is only a small hill but because of the immense flatness of the landscape, it seems much larger and gives an incredible view, there is a monument, an obelisk dedicated in 1934 to the fallen of World War I. Since that war, plaques have been added to commemorate the service of Australian military personnel in other conflicts, World War II, the Korean War, the Malaya conflict of 1950 to 1963, in Borneo from 1962 to 1966, and the Vietnam War.
We don’t see the monument in the 1956 film, and neither would have Virginia McKenna or Peter Finch, for I believe a second film unit took the few establishing shots of Alice Springs. I don’t believe the actors even went there.
The film has, despite its limitations, an intriguing freshness that even the excellent 1981 miniseries lacks. Perhaps it is the lack of innocence in the 1981 film. Perhaps it is just the telescoping of so many more decades, a wall between our interpretation of the past and what the past really was, not unlike the tantalizing wall between Joe and Jean talking in the darkness about a town like Alice.
All color photos in this post by J.T. Lynch. All rights reserved.