Virginia McKenna

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A Town Like Alice: Special Edition UK Dvd (1956)
P E T E R  F I N C H

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  • Director: Jack Lee
  • Format: PAL
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 2 (UK & Europe)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Classification: PG

  • Studio: Carlton / Network
  • DVD Release Date: 24 July 2006
  • Run Time: 462 minutes

    Based on Nevil Shute’s bestselling novel, A Town Like Alice is the story of a band of women who are force-marched through the Malayan Jungle as prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War

A Town Like Alice (1956) is a compelling story of love and survival against harrowing odds. It is a tale of endurance, cruelty and comradeship, starring two of British cinema's top stars, Peter Finch (Oscar winner for Network) and Virginia McKenna (BAFTA winner for Carve Her Name With Pride) giving memorable BAFTA-winning performances.

Jean Paget (McKenna) is among a group of women trapped in Malaya during the Japanese invasion in World War II. Taken captive, they are compelled to trek through the jungle. As the women come to terms with their appalling hardships, they are befriended by a tough Australian prisoner (Finch) bringing with him food, friendship and his dreams of getting back to his hometown, Alice Springs.


On this Dvd is a new and exclusive documentary featuring illustrious interviewees, Virginia McKenna, the late Jean Anderson and director Jack Lee giving insights and experiences of making this ground-breakingly realistic war classic.


Did It Happen?

The first question I thought of after seeing the film was whether this actually happened. From the author's note in the book he says:

    ON the publication of this book I expect to be accused of falsifying history, especially in regard to the march and death of the homeless women prisoners. I shall be told that nothing of the sort ever happened in Malaya, and this is true. It happened on Sumatra.

    After the conquest of Malaya in 1942 the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.

    In 1949 I stayed with Mr and Mrs J. G. Geysel-Vonck at Palembang in Sumatra. Mrs Geysel had been a member of that party. When she was taken prisoner she was a slight, pretty girl of twenty-one, recently married; she had a baby six months old, and a very robust sense of humour. In the years that followed Mrs Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to those which I hacve described. She emerged from this fantastic ordeal undaunted, and her son fit and well.

    I do not think that I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to resist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met. - NEVIL SHUTE

I came to the 1956 film A Town Like Alice having neither read the book or seen the 1980s mini-series starring Bryan Brown, Helen Morse and, best of all, Gordon Jackson. I knew nothing about it other than vague recollections that this was a classic. And that is what it is. It is a couple of hours with a simple but beautiful premis: namely that love conquers adversity. As a cynic I wouldn't have believed that possible. But the tender, magical friendship and love that forms between the main characters, the enchanting Virginia McKenna and the charismatic Peter Finch (McKenna would later say that people would come and see Finch on the set on their day off just to be near him) just wins me over.

The story of the British women marched all over Malaya during the 2nd World War by the Japanese conquerors and the help that Jean Paget (McKenna) and the group get from the Australian prisoner of war Joe Harman (Finch) which results in tragedy and ultimately, triumph, is one of the most uplifting tales to come out of all the British war films of the era. Indeed I can't remember any film moving me as much as this one. The tenuous, fleeting flickers of love that Jean holds onto at the start of their relationship is akin to one of those moments in life where your eyes fix on someone who looks at you at the same time and there is that 'chemistry', that secret world, a moment you will never forget though you know you will never see that person again.

The UK release offered below comes with a 25 minute documentary of the making of the movie so if you want to get into the minutiae of the film then this is for you. I wouldn't blame you. After seeing the film I did exactly the same.

At the end of the movie I wanted to know what happened to the couple. I felt the end was a kind of beginning and I felt a little flat that I would never know what happened. I didn't realise then that the film only made up the first half of the novel by Nevil Shute (first published in 1950). Thus I bought the book and sought out the Australian mini-series which, it turns out, covered the whole of the book. They both filled in the blanks, though, and some I know will disagree with me, in terms of screen presence Brown and Morse couldn't hold a candle to McKenna and Morse. Brown plays Australians better than anyone I guess because he is Australian but Morse lacks the acting range of McKenna. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh and the mini-series leisurely takes you through the whole drama and is definately worth watching. It is one of those titles that, inexplicably, has hitherto never been released on Dvd in the UK so the only way you can watch it is on the old-fashioned video. sometimes has copies via their 3rd-party marketplace sellers and further details can be found here.

The book has been released in a multitude of editions over the years. Amazon have pages on the releases so you can take your pick by clicking here. It is a compelling read and I love the way Shute's fleshes out the secondary characters that the film has to truncate.

None of this is meant as reproaching the slimlining of the film - it obviously had to be done to make a film of a couple of hours. I doubt 1950s cinema audiences or, for that matter, today's audiences, would have wanted to sit through 5 or 6 hours of a story. Though, thinking about it, I would! But after the book and the mini-series, it's interesting to note some of the changes. The important part of Jean's trustee, Noel, who tells the story in both the novel and series, is pared down to a minimum and yet it is achingly beautiful as played by Jackson in the mini-series (though he was at least a decade too young to have played it) and the delicate melancholy of the old man finding love 40 years too late in the book eats away at the heart. Finch was at least a decade too old to play the character Shute envisioned in the book (though Finchy could have been a 140 and still have played it better than anyone); McKenna does not match Shute's physical description of Jean Paget; and the fact that the women when first captured in the book have to stay in the place they are caught for over a month whereas in the movie are on the march almost immediately tells you everything you need to know about how different the mediums of the written word and movie-making are.

These changes and smaller other ones are skillfully done and I only mention them out of completeness.

I can't get enough of A Town Like Alice at the moment though I'm near the end of the various formats. Maybe I'll investigate an audio version but, whatever, it has me hooked.

© Paul Page, 2020.

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Official UK release. 3711506153.

The black-and-white picture is presented in 4:3 format, with English subtitles if required.

Special Features:

    []  25-minute documentary
    []  Behind-the-scenes-stills gallery
    []  Theatrical Trailer
    []  Cast & Crew Biographies
    []  Interactive menus

Condition: New.

Price: £12.99 (UK Sterling) (UK / Europe / Australia Postage Inclusive)

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