McKenna Marches on Malaya
Having recently watched "A Town Like Alice" for the first time I couldn't help but be reminded of the popular TV series "Tenko", they are not the same but there are similarities and both are compelling viewing. But the thing about "A Town Like Alice" is that it was made when war movies were normally about the men who risked their lives on dangerous missions and so being a tale about the women and children caught in the midst of war makes it different. It also makes it very good as you are drawn into the emotional struggle of these women and children as they are marched all over Malaya by their Japanese captors, showing their fighting spirit, refusing to be broken by the treatment they are dealt. And whilst "A Town Like Alice" maybe a movie from a bygone era it is still a captivating movie, from the storyline through to the acting especially Virginia McKenna who takes the starring role.
The year is 1941 and the invading Japanese army take control of British territory forcing civilians to hurriedly try and leave. Caught in the midst of the trouble is Jean Paget (Virginia McKenna - The Cruel Sea) who along with a group of women and children are caught by the Japanese. Not sure what to do with them the Japanese force them to march for miles and months on end all over Malaya in search of a camp willing to take the women and children. On their arduous trek Jean meets Aussie POW Joe Harman (Peter Finch) who risks his own life to get them essentials such as medicine and food, leading to Jean and Joe having feelings for each other.
Whilst "A Town Like Alice" starts with Jean Paget heading back to Malaya after the war to help a village build a well the majority of the movie is her telling the story of why that village is important and what happened to her through one long flashback. So in reality "A Town Like Alice" really starts when Jean answers the phone when she had been ordered to evacuate which started a chain of events which lead to her, and a group of other evacuees from Kuala Lumpur being caught by the invading Japanese army. What follows on from there is the tale of how these women and children were marched all over Malaya by the Japanese being turned away from every single camp and port. Their trek was hazardous with mud, swamps, blistering heat and little food and water causing some of them to die. But their fighting spirit kept them going as do the friendships they form, not just with each other but also a couple of Australian prisoners of war.
It is these prisoners of war which add another element to the story with Jean becoming very close to Joe Harman who constantly smuggles in food and medicine for her. And it is due to Joe coming from a place near Alice in Australia that the movie gets its title. But rather than feeling like a fluffy add on this romantic storyline aids the drama with a heart breaking turn of events.
Whilst "A Town Like Alice" is different to the war movies which were being made as it focuses on the women and children it does share one thing in common and that is fighting spirit. And as such it is surprisingly inspiring as we watch these women fighting to keep on going, battling illness and exhaustion as to not be beaten by their Japanese captors. It's also very eye opening as to the struggle these women went through and the fact that the simplest thing such as finding an abandoned property with running water or a friendly villager who will help them out lifted their spirits no end. But it also shows the choices which some of them made as the pain and struggle got too much for them. As such "A Town Like Alice" is a moving experience which delivers drama and emotion throughout right up until the credits roll.
Whilst there are plenty of brilliant performances throughout "A Town Like Alice" such as Peter Finch as Joe Harman and Renee Houston as Ebby it is a movie which belongs to Virginia McKenna as Jean Paget. Right from those opening scenes as Jean heads back to Malaya right through to the emotional ending McKenna commands your attention with a strong but sympathetic performance. Yes her clipped accent sounds a bit odd but watching her deliver this woman who is full of spirit, leading the other women when they are down yet fighting her own emotional turmoil is simply stunning. And it is her sympathetic and realistic performance which also makes the romantic element of the storyline realistic rather than just a fluffy add on, which in other hands it could have easily become.
What this all boils down to is that "A Town Like Alice" is a very good movie and delivers a different look at how war affected people, in this case the women and children stuck in Malaya. Whilst there is not a single bad performance in the movie it is the strong performance of Virginia McKenna which makes it compelling viewing and it is through her own emotional struggles that it becomes uplifting and inspiring. Whilst "A Town Like Alice" maybe over 50 years old it is one of those must watch movies.