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A DIFFERENT PRISON-CAMP MOVIE.

Byline: Joshua Mooney Entertainment News Wire

``Three Came Home,'' a 1950 film starring Claudette Colbert, is a much-admired drama about British and American families taken prisoner by the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II. But as prison-camp movies go, says Helen Colijn, it isn't entirely authentic.

``A charming movie, but it was unreal,'' Colijn says. ``Because Colbert looks the same in the first shot as she does in the last. Her hair's in place and her eyebrows are plucked. And it just didn't look like a prison camp.''

Colijn knows all about such places. The elderly Dutch woman, who now lives in California, was held for more than three years by the Japanese in a women's internment camp in Sumatra during World War II. The conditions were horrible: The mortality rate was 40 percent, and Colijn, who is 6 feet tall, weighed only 90 pounds at the war's end.

But many in Colijn's camp did survive, thanks in part to a ``vocal orchestra'' formed by the inmates. Women like Colijn sustained their spirits through the years of confinement by transcribing complex classical music pieces from memory and singing concerts for the rest of the prisoners. Colijn's memoir of her experience, ``Song of Survival,'' was a source of inspiration behind Bruce Beresford's new film, ``Paradise Road,'' starring Glenn Close, Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (``Fargo''), and a strong ensemble of international actresses.

Having recently seen ``Paradise Road,'' Colijn pronounces the film ``Very authentic - especially the musical parts, and that's the most important part of the movie.''

Australian filmmaker Beresford, best known here for ``Driving Miss Daisy'' and ``Crimes of the Heart,'' says he set out to re-create the women's stories as accurately as possible. ``I spent a year doing nothing but research,'' he says. ``I spoke to every living survivor, as far as I know. I read everything that had been published, and I found some unpublished accounts, diaries kept in the Imperial War Museum in London.''

The central theme of ``Paradise Road'' is the women's vocal orchestra, but the film is also unsparing in its depiction of the inhuman conditions at the camp and the brutality of the men who ran it. Women in the film die of neglect, are coerced into becoming prostitutes, and are tortured or murdered for transgressing the strict rules of the camp.

Beresford says the reality of the camp was ``pretty horrific.'' As he wrote and directed the film, he tried to achieve the right balance between the story's dark truths and the film's ultimate, uplifting message of survival. ``When I was writing the script, I realized I had to make it realistic, but not so bad that people couldn't actually sit through it,'' he recalls. ``And I could have shown more, but I thought it was often enough to imply. There's a limit to how much people can take. After a point, it becomes tastelessly voyeuristic. And many of the women told me, `As odd as it sounds, we often laughed.' So I said, `I must put humor in it.' ''

Though Japan today is a close ally of both the United States and Australia, the war remains a painful subject for many on both sides. But Beresford insists that, from his point of view, ``Paradise Road'' depicts a reality no one can argue with. ``I haven't tried to vilify the Japanese. The only ones who were really terrible were the ones in the Japanese version of the SS. Those were terrible guys - indoctrinated militarists.''

Beresford notes that the Japanese prison guards in the film where played by young Japanese backpackers who happened to be traveling through Australia, where much of the film was shot. Our Japanese adviser on the movie said, `You'd be staggered at the different kind of mind-set in Japan today.' '' Still, one wonders how the Japanese will react to ``Paradise Road.'' ``I'm interested in that; I don't know,'' muses Beresford, adding, ``Sony (the Japanese entertainment giant) is putting out the soundtrack album.''

Beresford was introduced to the story of the women's vocal orchestra by producer Sue Milliken in the early '90s. Milliken, who had worked with Beresford on ``The Fringe Dwellers'' and ``Black Robe,'' was inspired to develop the film after hearing a re-creation of the women's vocal orchestra at a concert in Australia. Beresford himself found the idea of a war story told from the perspective of women particularly intriguing. ``Most war stories have been about men; in fact I made one myself,'' he says, referring to his critically acclaimed 1979 drama, ``Breaker Morant,'' about war in South Africa at the turn of the century. ``This one was a World War II prison camp with a big difference - the fact that these women created this gorgeous music. They didn't just sit down and sing folk songs; these were complicated arrangements of classical music.''

Glenn Close plays the British prisoner Adrienne Pargiter, the choir's conductor. The actress says the story of the women's camps was one she knew nothing about. ``I was ashamed that I didn't ever even know about the camps,'' she says. ``And I was very compelled by the story. I felt a passion for the project. I decided to do it after, I think, one reading of the script.''

Close also wanted the opportunity to work with Beresford, as well as the rare chance to be part of large ensemble of actresses. The film's cast includes British actresses Pauline Collins and Elizabeth Spriggs, Americans Julianna Margulies (from TV's ``ER'') and McDormand, young Australian acting sensation Cate Blanchett and Dutch actress Johann Ter Steege.

Close says making the film was a draining but enlightening experience. ``I think we were all very serious about trying to portray these women right,'' she says. ``Just the knowledge of what these women went through helps you evaluate your own life.''

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Photo: Australian director Bruce Beresford's new film, ``Paradise Road,'' focuses on a Japanese prison camp for women during World War II.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 18, 1997
Words:994
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