Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An extremely satisfying wartime story, author Nevil Shute's beloved A Town Like Alice has been adapted for film several times, even becoming an extended miniseries in the early 1980s. This most notable version helped cement the stardom of actor Peter Finch, and also put actress Virginia McKenna in the front rank of British box office attractions. Between this picture and the powerful Carve Her Name with Pride, Virginia McKenna came to personify heroic English womanhood for an entire generation.
Although it takes place during wartime, A Town Like Alice is not about patriotic victories. Hollywood had produced a couple of fairly realistic pictures about civilians captured by the Japanese at the outset of WW2 in the Pacific -- the Claudette Colbert vehicle Three Came Back is one. Although a work of fiction, Nevil Shute's story sticks to the facts of what happened to English civilians in Malaysia. The fairly recent Glenn Close movie Paradise Road tackled the same subject but failed to displace the memory of this British film.
A secretary in British-controlled Malaysia, Englishwoman Jean Paget (Virginia McKenna) tries to help her employer Mr. Holland (John Fabian) get his family out safely. But a delay causes Jean, Mr. Holland, his wife and three children to be captured by the invading Japanese. Their military escort is shot and the civilian men are sent to a prison camp, but the Japanese officers have no official policy as regards civilian women and children. Rather than take proper responsibility, various overseers march the frightened group back and forth on the Malay Peninsula, feeding them little and offering them no shelter or medicine. Women and children alike begin to die from various ailments, or just exhaustion. Along the way Jean meets Joe Harman, an Australian POW working on trucks for his captors. Joe shares cigarettes with Jean and finds way to sneak the group medicine and food, at great personal risk. The officers are aloof and contemptuous of the "arrogant" English. One enterprising Japanese lures an attractive young woman away to be his "guest". One of the guards is the frightening-looking Sergeant Gunso (Kenji Takagi). He is soon helping the women in any way he can. Half of the original party perishes on this endless forced march, and Jean despairs that all will soon die. She very much wants to survive the war, to be with Joe. But Joe is caught stealing chickens, and is sentenced to death -- the group must watch as he is crucified to a large tree. Will Jean have the will to carry on?
A Town Like Alice makes a difficult subject acceptable as a commercial film, without demonizing the Japanese or diluting the historical truth. The cruelty of the Japanese army when dealing with prisoners is well documented, and the tribulations of nurses (American, UK) and civilians (mostly UK) captured in the Pacific theater are fairly shocking. In this case, the treatment given the dependent women and children is criminal neglect, plain and simple. Since no commander wants to take responsibility for them, the women are just told to keep marching. Officers won't feed them and don't want the task of 'babysitting'. Unlike exploitation efforts that focus on Japanese atrocities, Alice shows a more banal form of war crime.
The tension is high from the outset, and stays that way. The headstrong Miss Horsefall (Jean Anderson, The Three Lives of Thomasina) dispenses first aid, encourages women that don't think they can march in the heat and tries to protect the children. As Mrs. Holland (Eileen Moore) isn't very strong, Jean carries the Holland baby. Interestingly, as soon as things get tough, petty antagonisms disappear. The worst internal discord is minor, with a woman accusing Jean of hoarding medicine. The film doesn't shy away from the tragedies of the journey. Some of the more mature women turn out to be tough old birds and some find that they're stronger than they thought. But others, like Mrs. Holland, just can't muster the strength to walk ten hours a day in the heat, with very little to eat. Those that get sick, including the children, die quickly. A single night in a swamp takes a terrible toll.
Virginia McKenna is a delightful heroine. Her Jean Paget fronts an agreeable optimism but is no goody two-shoes. Like everyone else, she becomes so grimy that her skin seems a different color. (Frankly, she ends up looking quite a bit like David Bowie in another story about British prisoners of war). Ms. McKenna has an athlete's body. Not long into the trek her original clothes give out, but she maintains her dignity when a local woman gives her a sarong. She and Joe test how much the Japanese guards will tolerate when they sneak out to see each other. Joe eventually commits a terrible misjudgment.
One of the reasons A Town Like Alice satisfies is that even with so much dying going on, the ending is both uplifting and romantic. None of these people see themselves as warriors or martyrs, and the show ends with a fantastic, unexpected... (no spoilers) The film only covers the first half of the original book. Nevil Shute's work was adapted for two other films, 1951's No Highway in the Sky and the much more famous 1959 On the Beach.
I guess distributors thought that U.S. audiences wouldn't identify with the war experience of our English and Australian allies. The American version of A Town Like Alice was reportedly cut by ten minutes and re-titled The Rape of Malaysia. Viewers everywhere react positively to Jean's explanation for Shute's odd-sounding title. When conditions become really unpleasant and you don't know if they're ever going to change, thinking about an ideal place that you may go in the future can be a strong morale booster. Jean Paget is going through hell with everyone else, but she finds a way to keep up hope.
VCI's DVD of A Town Like Alice is a better-than acceptable transfer with a few issues presumably inherited from an ITV master. The B&W image is quite good but given a light encoding. The main titles show text blocks suitable for a 1:66 scan, but the film itself is much tighter North and South. Matting it off in a widescreen TV does not yield acceptable results. I believe that the video master has been blown up slightly, trimming a bit off the left and right of the original image. Just the same I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation and am grateful to finally be able to see the film intact. Optional English subs are provided for the hearing impaired.
For extras, VCI provides a stills gallery and an interview documentary with Virginia McKenna. She was married to actor Bill Travers and spent a lifetime with him promoting wildlife preservation. Their most famous co-starring movie is Born Free. Ms. McKenna explains that none of the stars went overseas to shoot A Town Like Alice. A second unit worked with doubles in Malaya, and expert matching in England completes the illusion. The supposedly sweltering swamp scenes were all filmed in a local English beach, in very cold weather! Also contributing are director Jack Lee and actress Jean Anderson. We hear stories about the brave and hardy actresses Renee Houston (The Horse's Mouth and Cul-de-sac) and Nora Nicholson working in all that mud and slime. Director Lee tells us that the remarkable Kenji Takagi was a non-actor discovered in London. His humanizing presence helps insure that A Town Like Alice does not become a hate film directed against the Japanese.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Town Like Alice rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Still gallery, interview featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2012
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson
See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the
2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.
Return to Top of Page