WHAT IS THE REST OF THE WORLD UP TO?: A Town Like Alice (1981)

Technically, “A Town Like Alice” disqualifies from our discussion because it was not produced in the United States and was actually shown on PBS rather than network television when aired in the US.  But, at a time when the American miniseries was dominant world-wide, even an British/Australian miniseries was starting to act almost American in its output.  “A Town Like Alice” is far from the stagey one-set British miniseries that dominated the 1970s until American miniseries broke those confines (the British helped, of course, as no one can deny how “Brideshead Revisited” altered the landscape of the miniseries worldwide) and it does take place during World War II, though from a very different perspective than most American miniseries. 

Since this very international miniseries took such pains to behave like the sweeping historical narratives on US network television, though managing to strip the war down to just a handful of characters in a remote output let’s include it.  Plus, it’s so damn good, it’s well worth the sidebar. 

“A Town Like Alice” certainly has pedigree, based on Nevil Shute’s classic novel, and starring a man who would become famous the world over once “The Thorn Birds” aired, Bryan Brown.  Enough exposition, we are jumping in.

The story starts in 1937.  Gordon Jackson is summoned to alter a will.  The old man has designated his sister as his heir, as she has a son.  She also has a daughter, but the old man can’t fathom leaving her the money, constrained “by her sex,” he says with horror.  If she’s to inherit the money, he wants it in trust until she’s 40 with Gordon as a trustee.  “Perhaps you want my senior partner,” Gordon says snidely, since the man is so old-fashioned.

It takes until 1948 for Gordon to find the family, down now to just the niece, Helen Morse.  The war has made it difficult to get in touch with anyone.  Helen’s mother has been dead years and her brother died in the war, on “the railway,” a Japanese construction project on which “one man died for every rail laid,” she says.  She herself has been in Malaya most of the time, but now works in London. 

In explaining what has happened to her, she goes back to 1941 when she was living in Malaya with her brother, seemingly untouched as part of the British enclave there.  The United States has just entered the war and Christmas is upon them.  Worries do not extend further than the tennis court, though talk of war is part of ordinary conversation.  “It would be quite impossible for the Japs to reach Kuala or Singapore,” her brother John Howard says, like everyone else, believing the war to be far away.  “If they do come, I want us to be together,” she insists, telling him she will be quitting her job.

Unfortunately, Helen is instantly proven correct.  “The Japanese have landed and they will be here in two hours,” the collected British are told.  Not everyone is able to escape initially, but there is promise of a boat coming to pick them up, but when the boat arrives, the Japanese are helming it.  The remaining folks are told they will be taken to a prison camp, and “if you do bad things, you will be shot, so do good things.”  There is something very eerie in the Japanese tone when they are told, “the Japanese Imperial Army does not make war on womens and children” as the men are forced to part from the others. 

The snobbiest of the English ladies insists on seeing the man in charge and demands beds and mosquito nets.  She is refused because “all Japanese sleep on floor.”  Citing her “very bad thoughts,” Captain Hatsuo Uda slaps her in front of all the others.  It won’t get any better.  When food is delivered, there are no utensils and the toilet never gets cleaned.  They are to be moved to Singapore once news comes that the Japanese have taken it.  The women are to be marched to Kuala Lampur, some 50 or so miles from where they are.  No trucks, no buses, just their feet.  “Womans staying here will be beaten,” they are told, and once again, “no bad thoughts.” 

The first part of the walk is not pleasant.  The women and children are slow, not fed and start arguing almost immediately, with one spinster suggesting the ones without kids separate from the others.  Bedraggled, they must continue on, though the Japanese soldiers show flashes of sympathy, like when they carry the children.  Helen’s friend Cecily Polson isn’t sure she can make it, so she asks Helen to take the children if she doesn’t.  Matronly Pat Evison, the largest of the ladies, is also the first to die. 

Okay, the writing isn’t always sterling.  Helen is one of the women elected to tell Sergeant Yuki Shimoda that they need another day off.  He does not speak English, so Helen repeats what her friend says, but haltingly and loudly.  “Tomorrow. No. Walk. Rest.”  But, he understands what she is saying and agrees to let them walk one day and rest the next, which will hopefully stop them from being so tired.  When the Captain hears about the death and exhaustion, he relents and agrees to get them a truck. 

At one stop, they have water enough for a bath.  Helen’s best chum Anna Volska notes, “who’d have ever have thought that having a bath would be enough to make us feel wonderful!”  “Maybe we took those things for granted.  I never will again,” Helen replies.  One of the soldiers plays with the kids and another even flirts with one of the women.  Just as they are beginning to feel human again, the plans change.  They have to get to Singapore another way because bridges have been bombed, and there is no truck to take them.  “I don’t think they know what to do with us,” Helen wisely discerns, when all the others are calling the Captain a liar. 

Helen speaks Malayan, so she’s an asset to the Japanese and is able to make herself understood by the soldiers.  They stop in a village where Helen makes friends with the locals and gets herself some more comfortable clothing, but one of the children is dying of malaria and the Japanese soldier in charge of the village wants them out, not caring if they have to walk “hundreds of miles” to a “good women’s prisoner of war camp,” the latter said almost cheerfully.  They can stay until the child recovers, but Cecily’s daughter dies.  Cecily gives her baby to Helen and then dies herself (suicide, of course, but they don’t say how).  The next day, the battle ax of the group dies, also leaving behind a child. 

An oasis shows up in the most unlikely of places.  Leaving the jungle, the Sergeant and his followers see a truck.  It’s being fixed by…two Australians!  Bryan Brown pops out from underneath the truck, unshaven and sweaty, but so handsome, and Helen tells Gordon in her remembrance that she was so happy to see a white man, the “first white man in six months, since the husbands.” 

Bryan informs Helen that there is no prison camp where they are going, “just a little barracks.”  A bit crass and rough, he then notes that “I never thought the first time I spoke to an English lady, she’d be looking like you.”  He volunteers to get them supplies and to break the truck even more so they have to spend the night with the women.  He’s taken a shine to Helen, though he thinks she’s married and the baby is hers. 

That night, Bryan brings the promised contraband and stays to chat a bit with Helen, telling her about his hometown near Alice Springs, dead center of Australia, where she thought there was only desert.  He’s a “stockman” and his father was from England.  It’s only after a description of the cattle station where he works that he even gets around to telling her his name.  “I’m sorry I talked so much about the Outback,” but he’s lonely.  He’s also sensitive and has a great smile to flash.  Unfortunately, when morning comes, he’s unable to persuade the Japanese to let the women and children ride in the truck.

Contrary to what older crab Dorothy Alison thought, Bryan does actually get them the soap he promised to Helen.  The women adore just the smell of it, four whole bars!  In fact, Dorothy promises, “he’ll turn up again, just like a bad penny” and laughs.  Not only does he return, he returns with a whole pig that he caught. 

The two have a private talk in the jungle and each learns about the other’s hometowns and ways of life.  He’s clearly smitten, and she begs him not to risk constantly coming back to bring supplies to them, but there’s no way he’ll stop.  Nothing is too good for Mrs. Boong, as he calls her (a Aussie term for native).  He sends back a bunch of chickens, but Helen is vexed.  They have to “work out a reasonable story and stick to it no matter what happens” before even starting to pluck them.  She’s more worried about the Japanese reaction than her cohorts.  The kindly sergeant in charge doesn’t ask questions since she gives him one (though he tries to bargain for two). 

The local command realizes five chickens are missing and want the truth about the chickens, smacking the women around to get it out of them.  Bryan arrives, hoping to save Helen, but the soldiers overcome him.  They are taken to Captain Richard Narita, who says that she is unworthy because she lies.  “Japanese women don’t lie,” he explains.  She begs leniency for Bryan, but he is not to have it.

Instead, he is literally crucified as the women watch.  Nails are driven through his hands, each thump of the hammer affecting everyone nearby.  Then he’s beaten severely.  This is one of the most ghastly scenes ever in a miniseries, but it’s handled so beautifully here that one can’t turn away.  Dorothy prays loudly, louder than the sounds of Bryan’s beating.  “They beat him to death,” she tells Gordon. 

Gordon finds himself very attracted to Helen and takes her to the opera and the National Gallery, though he has himself convinced it’s really to make up for the time she spent as a prisoner missing such things as art.  Of course, he also wants to hear her stories.  His clumsy attempts at wooing her are quite charming.  He tries to reconnect her to her past by taking her ice skating (when she returned from Malaya, she went to her local rink and it had been bombed), but he’s terrible on skates.  His law partner is a bit wary.  “It’s it strange no one has snatched her up?” he asks, citing her beauty and wealth as two reasons why someone should have (though, to be fair, she’s only been wealthy a little while).  Dancing one night, she says she wants to go back to Malaya and “build a well.”

Back in the main plot, Captain Richard Narita tells them they are “bad people” and he doesn’t want them.  Typical of their entire journey, the Japanese do not want to be responsible for them at all.  Having prisoners of war means having to treat them a certain way.  So, the little gaggle sets out again with Dorothy now the one pushing them all.  They make their way to the ocean, which gives them some very happy moments of refreshing fun.  Dorothy catches dinner, more fish than anyone can eat.  She also shares her theory that Bryan was very much like Jesus, bringing gifts without asking anything in return and then being crucified.  She’s very religious, but the other women don’t all believe it.  Helen tells Anna, “the man I knew was very human” and feels terrible guilt over the risks he took for her and the others. 

The Sergeant suffers from heatstroke and though the women try to help him, he’s stubborn and drags behind them as long as he can before collapsing.  He’s become a part of them, so they help him walk to the nearest village.  The local village chief tells Helen, “we have no place where English ma’ams want to sleep.”  Helen replies, “we are no longer English ma’ams, we are prisoners” and that they have adapted to rudimentary living in the countryside.  “All we ask is a floor to sleep on and a little fish and rice,” she tells him.  The Sergeant refuses to take medication, and Dorothy thinks he wants to die, that “he’s packed it in.”  Something has changed since Bryan’s death for him as well as the rest.  He dies as well. 

Rather poignantly, Helen suggests he be buried with Christian prayers.  Dorothy is not happy initially, but she delivers a hell of a funeral.  What do they do now?  Most are happy to stay in the village, but Helen is practical.  She worries that the Japanese will get in trouble for losing them, but they also can’t stay and expect the village to feed them forever.  Helen’s idea is to go to the village leader and ask if they can work a rice field and earn their keep.  If he is pleased with their work, she will go to the Japanese and report of their success, with the village leader reaping the potential benefits of being able to feed the Japanese soldiers.  “I will think about it and I will talk to my brothers,” he tells her.  The council agrees.

The women work the fields for three years until the end of the war. The male prisoners are released and the baby’s father comes to claim her.  He offers to “make this arrangement permanent,” but Helen refuses, despite her closeness to the child, who refers to her as her mother. 

After spending three years in the Malayan village, Helen now wants to build them a well as thanks and to help them with their crops.  Gordon warns it’s a long expensive trip, but Helen is determined.  She even jokes that if she can’t get transportation, “I can always walk!”  Gordon has filled her state room on the boat to Singapore with “English flowers” to remind her “not to stay away too long.”  She promises to return, as “there is nothing to keep me in Malaya once I’ve built the well.” 

“I had a premonition even then that she was never coming back,” Gordon says as he waves goodbye to her. 

Helen first pays a visit to Sally, who has stayed in Malaya with her husband and children.  She then makes the long journey to the village and offers to build the well.  The village leader is leery, once again, though he knows how badly the women want it, so he calls on his brothers again.  A well Helen will get.  While the well is being built, Helen tells that Captain Richard is dead, a suicide once the English returned.  But, the news she gets is even more shocking: Bryan lived!  Here’s what happened.  The Captain asked Bryan for his last wish, and the cheeky Aussie asked for a black chicken and a beer.  Since there was none, the Captain couldn’t let him die or he would “lose face” for not being able to grant the last wish.  Could he still be alive?  We shall have to watch the second part to find out.

The well works!  With her work done, she leaves the village, though the leader tells her that she is always welcome there, even if he is dead when she returns.  Helen writes to Gordon that she’s made a decision to go to Australia and find out what happened to Bryan.  The moment Gordon hangs up with Helen, Bryan walks into his office.  He’s very much alive.  With wounds on his hands and everything.  He’s there to find Helen, having gone to great trouble to do so.  Gordon isn’t forthcoming with details, as he knows it will mean the end of any possibility he has for a life with Helen.  “She’s traveling in the East,” is all he’s willing to say.

Helen arrives in Alice Springs, but no one seems to know Bryan there.  Back in England, Bryan explains how he made it to England.  He won the lottery!  He’s come to England to see where his father was born and to see Helen.  Bryan is unimpressed when Gordon mentions how wealthy Helen now is.  He suggests that Bryan write Helen a letter, bring it to him and he will send it to her to see what she wants to do.

Meanwhile, Helen is able to get some information on Bryan.  She remembers he returned, but then left three years ago to become a station manager, but she doesn’t know where.  Gordon’s secretary tells his business partner that Bryan was there, but that Gordon “did everything necessary to protect his client’s interest.”  She secretary is a big gossip and hopes “roughneck” Bryan “doesn’t cause any violence.”  Sadly, Bryan does not show.  No doubt he sensed Gordon’s tentative feelings on the subject of Helen’s whereabouts and knew he wouldn’t get far meeting him again. 

Instead, Bryan is in a bar doing what the British think Australians do best, starting a bar fight.  As for Helen, she travels around town going from bar to bar hoping to find out something about Bryan.  In town, Helen meats Lorna Lesley, who already knows why Helen is in town, so she’s friendly.  Her handyman was also a friend of Bryan’s and tells her he’s managing a station in Willstown.  She manages to sneak in a question about whether or not he’s married, just to find out.  “We better go look Willstown up on the map,” Lorna jokes, but actually has to. 

Feeling guilty, Gordon tracks Bryan down and bails him out of jail.  Now it’s time to get his side of the war story.  Like Helen, he happens to hear by chance of Helen in a bar, finding out she was never married.  When he heard this news, he withdrew all of his lottery money and went to find her.  Why didn’t he write first?  “I never thought about it,” he says, rash as always, but so sweet!  The reason he didn’t return to Gordon’s office is that once he heard about the money, he knew Helen would never go to the Outback.  As Gordon is convincing Bryan to take a cheap slow boat back to Australia, Helen flies from Alice Springs to Willstown, though it takes a lot of connecting mini planes to get her there.  I know, I know, it’s all way too contrived, with Gordon keeping secrets while Bryan pours out his heart and Helen hops from one small Australian town to another.  However, where other movies might lag here, “A Town Like Alice” is so well-written that this patch of time actually ends up with a huge amount of tension rather than slack. 

Arriving in Willstown, Helen hears that Bryan is in England and won’t be back for a while.  “Not much point in my staying if he’s not here.  I guess I’ll go home…to England,” she says.  After that, Gordon puts Bryan on the boat and notes that he’s “sure” Helen will be upset at having missed him.  “Yeah, well, it’s all for the best,” Bryan says, with the same flat attitude he’s had the whole time.  Gordon then feels the sting of guilt again, rambling to his partner about how the whole thought of the two getting together is ridiculous.  Bryan is to coarse for England and a lady like Helen could never live in the Australian Outback (meaning, away from him). 

There is only one room to be had in Willstown, and the woman who manages the hotel (which just caters to cowboys) is not happy to have her.  She tells her to prop her luggage up against the door so no one can get in and, oh, make sure to tell her if she hears any noises coming from the waitress’ room.  She’s even less thrilled to hear Helen will stay a week, which is when the next plan out arrives.  It’s a rustic living, where breakfast is only steak and eggs (sans steak is not allowed), the waitress can’t read and the only women who ever come to town are nurses.  That would be helpful to the waitress (Arkie Whiteley), who is pregnant and wants to get rid of the baby.  She can’t marry the father because she doesn’t know who it is, and the poor thing is only 16 years old, but, as she explains, there isn’t much else to do in town.  The local men approach her with a bit of fear and tell her there used to be 30,000 people in town when it was a “gold town,” but now there are only 150 people.  There are also only two “bachelor girls” in Willstown. 

Finally, Gordon relents and cables Helen that Bryan was in London and is now on his way back to Australia.  While waiting, one of the local men brings her crocodile skin, and coincidentally, she used to work in a factory that made accessories from crocodile skins, so she tries to make shoes out of this skin because no one has ever seen what happens to the skins once they are sent from town. 

Helen writes Bryan a letter hoping they can meet in one of the towns on the way to Willstown, but “don’t lets talk about Malaya…let’s try to forget about it.”  How veddy English of her.  I’m sure he never thinks about it as he looks at his hands!  She spots him coming off the plane and runs to him, but this is not a couple who knows of romance, so there is no climactic hug or kiss, just an awkward reunion.  Both remain quite reserved, especially Bryan, who seems almost angry.  They confess that they went across the world for each other, but as Helen had earlier said to someone, they were really just two people who bonded in extreme circumstances and never got to know each other.  There is a little crack in the armor when Bryan invites her to see the Great Barrier Reef, though she insists “we go Dutch.”  There’s proof of that when Helen asks, “have I really changed that much?”  “It’s hard to say,” he replies, as he never completely knew her during the war. 

On their secluded holiday, Helen sees the lash marks on Bryan’s back, which throws her off kilter, and the tension continues.  Bryan asks if Helen will go back to live in her English suburb and she doesn’t know.  There is “no funny business,” as Bryan had made that a condition of the trip, but Helen suggests a nighttime walk and puts on a sarong.  “Is this better?” she asks and they finally fall into each other’s arms kissing.  There is indeed “funny business.”  “I’ve been thinking about this for six years,” he confesses with a smile afterward.  “Was it worth the wait?” she asks.  “What do you think?” he says, though she’s turned a bit shy.  They do agree that they want to get married and now that all of the awkwardness is gone, they are free to really get to know each other. 

He volunteers to give up ranching because it’s not for married men, though he really feels “a bloke doesn’t have a right to make an English girl” live in Willstown.  “Then we shall have to change Willstown,” she chirps, actually excited at the fact of living in the Outback. The only person upset is Gordon, naturally, who informs his partner that she wants money to start a business.  Gordon hems and haws, but he sends her the money.  Helen is brimming over with plans to reconstruct the whole town, but she has yet to see Bryan’s ranch. 

They rectify that on a Sunday, all smiles as he tells her that when the rainy season comes, he won’t be able to drive to town, but that he will find a way to be with her.  She finds the ranch “awful,” mainly because it looks like it’s never had a woman’s touch, or been cleaned for that matter.  Helen gets very frustrated with the slow pace of Willstown and lets the bank manager have it when he isn’t as helpful as he could be.  She throws a royal temper tantrum that seems to have come from nowhere. 

The waitress is canned by nasty hotel owner Maggie Dence, flippantly doing it because Helen told her she was expecting another woman from England, not to mention that the girl is pregnant.  Helen confronts her in the pub, where women are not allowed, and Maggie nastily snarls, “you ain’t running this town yet!” as they go toe to toe. 

Instead of defending her, Bryan lectures her and tells her to be polite.  “This must be the most close-minded narrow fly-ridden place on Earth!” she rails, upset at him for not taking her side.  “We don’t need someone fresh out of England to tell us how to feel,” he yells and she says, “I wouldn’t dream of marrying you.”  “Suits me,” he tells her and drives off.  Naturally, the town knows instantly what happened, but sweet Maurie Fields comforts her, telling her that Maggie is just afraid of the effect of Helen’s plans on her establishment.  Helen pours out her heart in a letter to Gordon, which he reads as taxi knocks him down. 

Anne Haddy, an old friend of Helen’s, arrives to help, but she’s doubtful when she sees the dusty town.  She will help Helen get the crocodile shoe factory going, with a few local girls to man the machines. 

As a piece offering, Bryan cleans the ranch and invites Helen to see the improvement.  They both apologize, but there is news of trouble, as a rancher’s horse has come back without the man.  She’s left alone, so she does some washing and putters around as a thunderstorm brews.  One of the workers returns to fetch the rancher who was supposed to be back already and since no one else can drive the truck, Helen has to go with the medical supplies.  She’s no pro with a truck and stalls out after crossing a river.  Bryan is his usual frosty self when Helen shows up in the truck.  The trip back across the river kills the car, but does give us a shirtless scene for Bryan, who was in his absolute prime back in 1981.  He started his career at roughly the same time as Mel Gibson and frankly, I would have had trouble choosing a winner in that sweepstakes. 

Helen has to ride to the ranch to get word to the plane so it will wait and take the injured man to the hospital.  Bryan is nervous packing her off (“keep your legs closed, didn’t your mother ever tell you that?” he asks the novice horsewoman), but Helen is as cocky as ever. 

However, she does complete a successful mission, able to get word to the proper people before collapsing and ending up in the hospital as a heroine.  Bryan eventually makes his way to the hospital, where Helen tells him of course she’ll stay and asks for a kiss, whether the nun on duty likes it or not.  When she is healed, Helen is fussed over by all the women and children in town.  Maurie and the men stay away and Maurie has to leave to meet the plane, which bears Gordon, now well enough to make the long journey to Australia to visit his pet client.  Bryan is shocked to see Gordon.  Maggie gets all flirty, introducing herself as “a widow” while fixing her hair.  Helen is thrilled at Gordon’s sudden appearance and he’s lost no adoration for her.  She assures him that she is happy, despite her letters sounding otherwise, and she asks him to give her away at her wedding.  She asks for his approval of her plans and her decision to stay in Australia and puts aside his personal feelings to give her that approval.

All that’s left is to get married.  The whole town turns out and hears a truly heartfelt speech by Gordon wishing them a happy life.  Telegrams are sent from England and Australia, even Malaya, from the village chief.  Gordon watches the first dance with some sadness, but the newlyweds are smiling and that’s what matters.  One would never know their journey had taken them from the jungles of Malaya to the Australian Outback, from war to peace, from unknown love to the blossoming of it. 

It’s hard to think of a sweeter miniseries than “A Town Like Alice,” like so many things Australian gritty and tough on the outside but tender on the inside.  The relationship between Helen Morse, who is not exactly an ugly duckling, but is certainly no swan, and handsome could-get-anyone-he-wants Bryan Brown is very interesting.  Shute’s characters fall in love without realizing it, in only a few days of knowing each other, and only because of extreme circumstances.  This is not a novel concept.  In fact, many war stories have unlikely relationships born out of stressful times.  But these two do not even know they are in love for a long time.  They meet after six years of thinking about each other, but neither understands why.  And then when they finally do get together, it’s not a smooth time.  They do not rush into each other’s arms and live happily ever after. 

Even more odd, and less likely to make a successful miniseries, is how small the story is.  There are only a handful of characters and for a war story, there is no talk of politics or Allies, just a few Japanese soldiers trying to plunder their way through Asia.  Its heartiness comes from the will of the leads, their internal passions.  That shouldn’t be enough to fill five hours, but it is.  Fine performances and a lovingly soft touch by the director and writers does not blow it up to proportions beyond its confines.  Had “A Town Like Alice” been made in 1981 in the United States, there would have been at least one battle scene inserted, a big cattle ranching scene, stars who were glamorous rather than realistic and heaven only knows what else.  But the creators here were true to the story, true to the local color (in Malaya and Australia) and true to the characters, and produced a beautiful intimate miniseries.  Intimate miniseries sounds oxymoronic, but “A Town Like Alice” proves it was possible.

For crying out loud, except for one huge exception, the miniseries is even nice to the Japanese soldiers!  Try finding any sympathy for the Japanese in Herman Wouk.

Questions?  Comments?  Warm-up-by-the-fire sweet stories?  I would love to hear at hpmaraka@gmail.com

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

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