“A Town Like Alice” is a British war film directed by Jack Lee (“The Wooden Horse”). It was entitled “Rape of Malay” in American theaters. It was based on the novel by Nevil Shute. It covers the first half of the book. Later, an Australian mini-series was made to cover the whole novel. The movie was a hit in Great Britain where it finished #3 at the box office for 1956. It was going to be shown at Cannes, but was withdrawn for fear of offending the Japanese.
“The characters in this film are fictitious. The story itself however is based on fact.” In London, a Miss Jean Paget (Virginia McKenna) is informed that she has just come into some wealth. She decides to go back to Malaya to dig a well for some villagers. A flashback will explain why. In 1942, she was secretary when the Japanese invaders arrived. She and a group of women (the men are taken off separately) are marched from village to village. The group is fairly heterogeneous and includes the usual bitchy rich lady and a slut. There’s a lot of walking in this movie. Cue the depressing marching music. The ladies are slow-moving, as is the movie during this stretch. They meet an Australian bloke named Joe Harmon (Peter Finch) who is a prisoner who has to drive a truck for the Japanese. Apparently, the Japanese can’t drive trucks. He slips the women food and develops a relationship with Jean. He tells her about his idyllic ranch near a town called Alice. The women (not all of them, of course) end up in the village that Jean returns to to dig the well.
“A Town Like Alice” is not a must-see, but it is entertaining. It is the uncommon war movie that appeals to females more than males. And it especially appeals to people who want their tears jerked. The movie mines tears with some emotional deaths. It is fairly bleak in spots, but for the most part, it pulls its punches as a 1956 movie would. There is little dysfunction in the group. The women never face any tough decisions. They don’t look like what they have been through. For women who have marched for four months straight, their hair looks remarkably good. You may pull your hair a bit as the movie is tedious a times and somewhat repetitive. It is also implausible and although claiming to be based on actual events, you can be sure the romance between Jean and Joe is cinematic fantasy. Fortunately, the two leads have a lot of chemistry and the acting across the board is fine. You will care about the characters and miss some of them. It’s certainly not a rom-com, but the romance is pretty predictable. Like an audience would have wanted in the 1950s. And today. As far as Cannes is concerned, the movie is surprisingly lenient with the Japanese. It does not offend them nearly as much as it should have.
“A Town Like Alice” is a decent movie and gets some good will for covering a story that was largely forgotten. I’m not talking about the romance between Jean Paget and Joe Harmon. I’m referring to the plight of women taken by the Japanese in the Pacific in World War II. Just be aware (see below) that Shute changed the story for entertainment purposes. It makes for a good date movie. Is it a forgotten gem? It is certainly forgotten. I would theorize that the British and American titles did not help. As far as it being a gem, it is nothing special.
GRADE = B-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Shute based his book on Dutch women who were captured in Sumatra. One of them was Carry Geysel. She and other women were marched from prison camp to prison camp for two and a half years. He estimates they covered about 1,200 miles. Later, it was determined that Shute was misinformed and the women actually were shuttled around by truck. That would have certainly made for a less compelling book and movie. Only 30 of the original 80 women in Geysel’s group survived. The Harmon character was based on Hubert Hames “Ringer” Edwards. Edwards was an Australian who was captured during the Malay Campaign. He was put to work on the Burma Railway. He was once crucified by his captors for 63 hours, which is probably how he ended up in the book. Shute just had to include that scene! I found no evidence that Geysel and Edwards ever met.