Jean Paget (Virginia McKenna) has made up her mind: now, a couple of years after the Second World War has ended, she wants to return to Malaya and the village she took refuge in for a long time so she can arrange a well for them. She is advised against this - could she not simply send them the funds? - but is adamant this is the correct course of action, and once there finds the experience immensely rewarding. On the day the fresh, clean water is finally available, the villagers are dancing when Jean is asked if she plans to return to London to marry, but her expression clouds, and she says she will never be wed, then thinks back to the reason for that. She was a secretary in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invaded...
Not to be confused with A Town Called Malice, which was a UK number one hit for The Jam in 1982, this was A Town Like Alice, the film based on the Nevil Shute novel of 1950 which had been a bestseller and therefore an obvious choice for adapting for the big screen. After a false start, director Jack Lee was brought on board having been impressed with the script which mostly concentrated on the wartime sections of the source rather than the later Australian-set part (Alice Springs was that titular town), and the results went on to be a major success at the British box office and indeed around the world, presumably helped by the controversy arising from the Cannes Film Festival banning it from their competition.
They thought it insulted the Japanese, though as many ex-P.O.W.s who were kept in Japanese camps would have told you, they acted reprehensibly during the conflict, especially where prisoners were concerned, and if anything this film toned down their atrocities. Nevertheless, it was pretty strong stuff for 1956, though McKenna was, with this and Carve Her Name With Pride, the poster girl for British stiff upper lip in wartime adversity for the decade of the fifties, her delicate features offset by a strong jawline indicating her force of will and determination not to let the bastards grind her down which was all over the proceedings here. Lee could not have asked for a better leading lady, and it became possibly the work she was most identified with after Born Free.
Though the fifties in Britain was a period of worrying over the war of before and how the victory compared with the age of austerity that arrived hot on its heels, the fact there were so many tales of bravery in the face of peril to choose from proved to the domestic audience we were great after all, no matter how dubious we might be feeling in the era of the Suez crisis and dismantling of the Empire. It was stated at the start of this film that it was a fiction based in fact, so while the characters were made up, the hardship they endured had a genuine basis, there really had been a group of British women who trekked across the Malay countryside on the orders of the Japanese, who then would deny them a place in one of their already overstuffed camps for women and children, to the point that members of the group began to die.
This meant a look at the war from a female perspective, not something often given much shrift in the male-dominated genre of the day, so if the ladies in question did not actually get to grips with any weaponry, they would not have been in this dire situation in peacetime. It also offered an opportunity for a bunch of actresses to shine when they would usually either be asked to be decorative (Maureen Swanson, Eileen Moore) or old biddies (Jean Anderson, Marie Lohr, Renee Houston, Nora Nicholson), and they came through with flying colours, each making an impression in their own way in an effort that if it was more of a so-called "women’s picture" than The Bridge on the River Kwai, for instance, then was easy to relate to whatever your background. Helping that was Peter Finch, well on his way to a stardom that this helped with, as the Australian soldier who places himself in danger by assisting the nomadic refugees, a performance of some charisma that indicated why Jean should fall for him, and also why she feels so awful about his fate. Though obviously studio-bound in too many places (locations were filmed in Malaya, but not with the stars), this was a very decent war tale from a time overburdened with them. Music by Matyas Seiber.
[The Network Blu-ray in its line The British Film looks better than the DVD, and as extras there's a featurette, two vintage interviews with McKenna and Finch, a trailer and photo gallery.]