A Town like Alice (1956)
Director: Jack Lee.
Cast: Virginia McKenna (Jean Paget), Peter Finch (Joe Harman), Kenji Takaki (Japanese Sergeant), Tran Van Khe (Captain Sugaya), Jean Anderson (Miss Horsefall), Marie Lohr (Mrs. Dudley Frost), Maureen Swanson (Ellen), Renee Houston (Ebbey), Nora Nicholson (Mrs. Frith), Eileen Moore (Mrs. Holland), John Fabian (Mr. Holland), Vincent Ball (Ben), Tim Turner (British Sergeant), Vu Ngoc Tuan (Captain Yanata), Munesato Yamada (Captain Takata).
British women & children fight to survive under the non-care of the Japanese
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Jean Paget wants to go back to Malaya where she was a captive for three years during World War II. She wants to return to the village that took in her and her female compatriots. Jean wants to pay something back to the people of the village.
Jean gets off the bus at the village in Malaya. She is greeted by one of the Malay women who knows her. Jean puts a water pump in the village. The villagers dance for her. They are a little surprised that such a pretty woman is not married, but Jean tells them that she will not marry.
Flashback. Kuala Lumpur, 1942.
Jean is a secretary/typist for the British government in Malaya. The boss tells the bank of typists that passage for England has been arranged. The women must get out of the area because the Japanese are on their way. On her way out, the telephone rings, and Jean (foolishly in hindsight) turns back to answer it. It's the boss's wife. She tells Jean that she needs help with her three children. So Jean goes to help the woman. The sounds of explosions can be heard in the distance. The boss arrives and tells everyone to hurry and get into the car. On their way back, the car breaks down. Machine-gun fire can be heard in the distance. They have another six miles to go. They hear the sound of a truck coming and they hide in a ditch. But it turns out to be a British truck. Jean and the family get onto the truck. The boss's car is doused with gasoline and set on fire so the Japanese won't be able to use it. In the truck are 16 women, 12 men and seven children for a total of 35 people.
The truck arrives at its destination. The staff says they must get fishing boats or nothing for their escape. Then they discover that there are no boats available. An order is given to get ready the launch. But all of a sudden, they see a boat coming. It's the Japanese. Approaching the dock they shoot some of the British soldiers. The 35 escapees hide in one of the barracks. The Japanese enter the barracks and force the men to face the wall. All jewelry, watches and money are taken by the Japanese. The men are sent to a prison camp. The women and children will have to start walking to their destination, some 50 miles away. Two Japanese soldier are assigned to be with them.
Carrying their luggage, the women and children are soon exhausted. One of the women prisoners dies. Jean is able to get some condensed milk from some Malays. They also give her a native outfit to wear.
Walking again, the women and children pass a truck. Two Australian captives are working on (or pretending to work) on the truck. They speak English to the legs of the women passing by. When Jean replies, they are shocked to realize they are speaking to fellow captives. They quickly come out from under the truck to talk to the women. One of the guys, Joe Harmon, takes a liking to Jean. At night he steals some gasoline from the truck and sells it to a Malay truck driver. Joe then uses the money to buy some quinine medicine for malaria. He takes the medicine to Jean. They are able to talk for a short while. Joe tells her that he comes from a town in Australia called Alice. They establish a real bond between them.
At every place where the women might be taken in by the Japanese and given food and shelter, they are turned away. Temporarily, they find a place that has running water and they can take a bath or shower. One of the children goes into the forest to get some bananas, but he gets bitten by a snake and dies. The Japanese inform the women that they cannot stay and so they soon are back on the road again walking. Four women and one child have died along the way so far. They stay in a school house over night. The women receive the news that no more British prisoners will be sent to Singapore. Their destination is then set as Kuantan, a total of 200 miles away from where they started.
A Japanese officer asks Jean if she will agree to be a "hostess" to the Japanese soldiers in return for good food and shelter. Jean refuses, but the officer does have good luck with another pretty captive, who leaves with them.
Driving a truck, Joes sees the group of women walking along the road. He drives to the women and sees Jean again. She tells him that there is no camp for them anywhere. The Japanese just keep moving them. Jean then has to say good-bye to Joe. The women now have to walk through swamps. Four children are very sick. An older woman dies. Then the four children die.
On another occasion, Joe drives by them and throws them a package he made for them. He then breaks his truck down and gets to talk with Jean again. This time he gets to talk with Jean in the trunk during the night.
The women and children arrive at the Kuantan Supply Depot. Joes arrives later. The new commander, Captain Sugaya, is a real bad fellow. Joe raids the chicken coop to get chicken for the women to eat. When the Captain finds out, he goes ballistic. He sends men out looking for the thieves. They find the women and the older Japanese sergeant with them eating chicken. The women tell the Japanese that they bought the chicken, but they know the women are lying. Driving his truck by the area, Joe is flagged down by the Japanese. He sees Jean being roughed up. He jumps out of the truck and knocks the Japanese sergeant down. For this he is grabbed and taken away.
The women and children, plus the Australian prisoners, are brought out for a public punishment of Joe. They crucify Joe against a huge tree. Jean faints. The prisoners have to stay and watch as Joe suffers more and more. Later a Japanese soldier tells Jean and the women: "You very bad people. You disgrace your Japanese sergeant. He feels bad shame." And the women, along with the shamed Japanese sergeant, have to start walking again. They are told that the prisoner was executed for striking a Japanese sergeant.
The women and children walk, walk, walk. But now they have to carry their Japanese sergeant who is sick. They get him to a village. The women sit with the sergeant. They show him pictures of his children. The poor fellow dies. Jeans asks the village leader if they can stay in the village. She explains that no Japanese will take them in. More than half of their number have died. Jeans says: "I want to stay here and work." The village leaders says that white women have never worked in the rice paddies. True, but these women will work. Even though the villagers could be punished by the Japanese, the decision is made to let the women and children live and work in the village. One of the British women teaches English to the village school children.
Back to the present. In the village, Jean writes a letter to the little boy named Robin who she took care of after his mother died. She writes: "I watched you grow." She had to let him return to his father after the war. In conversation with the village elder one day, Jean hears him speak of Joe Harmon in the present tense. She immediately asks if Joe is still alive. The man checks with his son. Yes, Joe spent a lot of time in the hospital. Now he is back in Alice, Australia. Jean travels to Australia looking for Joe. She learns that he went back to his old job, way out in the bush. Jean takes the trip to Millstown. There she learns that Joe has left the country for about two months.
In London Joe Harmon is tracking down Jean. Much to his surprise, he learns that she has gone to Australia to look for him.
Alice Springs Airport. Jean waits for Joe to arrive. Joe arrives and walks to the airport desk. Jean walks up to him. They are reunited.
Pretty good movie. Once again we see how rotten the war-time Japanese were, this time to women and children. They sent the British women and children on a death march to die from exhaustion, hunger and malnutrition. None of the Japanese commanders would take them in and provide them with food and shelter. They just kept passing them on from one camp to another. Half of the group died. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, thank goodness, the women were finally taken in by a Malay village. In addition to this tale of cruelty, is a story of the determination of some to survive despite the odds against them. There is a love story also.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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