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Town Like Alice, A (1956)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Town Like Alice, A (1956)
35mm, black and white, 117 mins
Directed byJack Lee
Production CompanyThe Rank Organisation
Produced byJoseph Janni
Screenplay byW.P. Lipscomb
 Richard Mason
PhotographyGeoffrey Unsworth
Music Composed byMatyas Seiber

Cast: Virginia McKenna (Jean Paget); Peter Finch (Joe Harman); Marie Löhr (Mrs Dudley Frost); Renée Houston (Ebbey); Eileen Moore (Mrs Holland); Jean Anderson (Miss Horsefall); Maureen Swanson (Ellen)

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During WWII, a group of women and children are forced to trek across Malaya by their Japanese captors.

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Based on Nevil Shute's best-selling novel, A Town Like Alice gave audiences a World War II story with a different British perspective, concentrating on the conflict in Asia. Told through the eyes of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman, the film focuses on the early part of Shute's book, which describes expatriate women and children being forced to march across Malaya by the Japanese army.

Remarkably, much of the film was shot in and around Pinewood Studios - the oppressive heat of the swamp was actually a freezing cold pond at Burnham Beeches. A small second unit was sent to Malaya to film long shots of the march through the jungle, which was re-enacted by locals while the principal cast remained in the UK.

The prominence of actresses such as Marie Löhr, Renée Houston, Eileen Moore, Jean Anderson and Nora Nicholson also makes A Town Like Alice an unusual picture for its time, an era where women were rarely given lead roles of substance. Here the ensemble cast provides gutsy support for Jean (Virginia McKenna) to blossom as the leader of the group.

Director Jack Lee, who had originally cut his teeth working with the Crown Film Unit, sought realism over glamour and this particularly applied to McKenna. Although she had established a growing reputation through performances in The Cruel Sea (d. Charles Frend, 1953) and Simba (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1955), she had acquired a certain 'English Rose' tag. Lee gave her a grittier edge filming her in various combinations of mud, sweat and tears, which complemented her gentler side.

The film proved a triumph for McKenna, who won a BAFTA for her performance, as did co-star Peter Finch as Australian POW Joe Harman. The scenes between them suggest a believable intimacy without the need for melodramatic kisses or embraces. Their passion is understated but clearly understood by the audience.

By the end of the film humanity has triumphed over cruelty but Lee was keen to give characters grey areas. Joe uses racist language, while some women display attitudes of colonial superiority to their hosts and oppressors. The deployment of the kindly Japanese sergeant, played by Takagi, a Japanese lampshade maker from London who had never acted before, serves as a counterbalance to the hatred expressed towards the Japanese, and allows Jean to regain her compassion when he dies.

Eddie Dyja

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Video Clips
1. In God's hands (2:02)
2. Remembering Alice Springs (2:20)
3. Any drinking water? (2:23)
4. Please God, no! (2:30)
Finch, Peter (1916-1977)
Janni, Joseph (1916-1994)
Lee, Jack (1913-2002)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)
Unsworth, Geoffrey (1914-1978)