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Paradise Road (1997 film)

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Paradise Road
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBruce Beresford
Screenplay byBruce Beresford
Story byDavid Giles
Martin Meader
Based onThe diaries of
Betty Jeffrey
Produced bySue Milliken
StarringGlenn Close
Frances McDormand
Pauline Collins
Cate Blanchett
Jennifer Ehle
Julianna Margulies
CinematographyPeter James
Edited byTim Wellburn
Music byRoss Edwards
Distributed byRoadshow Film Distributors (Australia and New Zealand) [1]
Fox Searchlight Pictures (International)
Release dates
  • 11 April 1997 (1997-04-11) (United States)
  • 5 June 1997 (1997-06-05) (Australia)
Running time
122 minutes
Budget$19 million[2]
Box office$4 million (Australia/US)

Paradise Road is a 1997 Australian war film that tells the story of a group of English, American, Dutch and Australian women who are imprisoned by the Japanese in Sumatra during World War II. It was directed by Bruce Beresford and stars Glenn Close as Adrienne Pargiter, (based on Norah Chambers[3][4]), Frances McDormand as the brash Dr. Verstak, Pauline Collins as missionary Margaret Drummond (based on missionary Margaret Dryburgh), Julianna Margulies as U.S. socialite Topsy Merritt, Jennifer Ehle as British doyenne and model Rosemary Leighton Jones, Cate Blanchett as Australian nurse Susan McCarthy and Elizabeth Spriggs as dowager Imogene Roberts.


At Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a dance for soldiers and their families is interrupted by the Battle of Singapore and a bomb exploding outside the club. The women and children are immediately collected and carried off by a boat to a safer location. A few hours out, the boat is bombed by Japanese fighter planes, causing the passengers to jump overboard.

Three women - tea-planter's wife Adrienne Pargiter, model Rosemary Leighton-Jones and Australian nurse Susan Macarthy - swim their way to the shores of the island of Sumatra. The women are found by a Japanese officer, Captain Tanaka, and ushered firstly to a deserted village and then a prison camp in the jungle where they are reunited with the rest of the women and children from the boat. At the camp, the women are forced to bow to the Japanese officers and its flag, as well as enduring sexual violence, torture, and forced labour, despite the brutal living conditions and constant sickness. Some of the women choose to work in a brothel for Japanese officers for better treatment and decent food.[5][6]

Two years later, Adrienne and missionary Daisy "Margaret" Drummond decided to create a vocal orchestra in order to encourage the women, even though social and religious meetings have been prohibited by the Japanese officers. Although it provides a temporary relief, the women soon become disenchanted with it and dwindle in numbers. After some time, the women are moved to a new location where they will remain for the duration of the war.

Eventually, the war ends and the choir performs for a final time before rejoicing in their freedom.


In credits order:[7]


The story is based on the testimony of Betty Jeffrey, as written in her 1954 book White Coolies. The 1965 book Song of Survival by Helen Colijn (granddaughter of Hendrikus Colijn), another camp survivor, is not listed in the film's credits as being a source for this film, although Colijn is thanked for her help in the credits.

According to the media information kit for the film, Martin Meader and David Giles researched the story from 1991 and met with survivors from the camp and choir. Meader and Giles wrote the original screenplay, which was titled "A Voice Cries Out". Graeme Rattigan then joined Meader and Giles and together the three travelled the world, raising $8.275 million for the film. They met Beresford in London and he immediately became interested in the project. Together with Village Roadshow, Beresford took over the film, re-wrote the script and renamed the project Paradise Road.

Beresford and producer Sue Milliken then did their own research of the story for over more than two years, by reading books and unpublished diaries on the subject and by interviewing survivors. Meader and Giles got a "Story by" credit, and with Rattigan, they all received a Co-Executive Producer Credit. Their company, Planet Pictures, received an "In Association With" credit.[8]

The film represents an alternative take on female imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II compared with BBC's dramatic offering from the early 1980s, Tenko. Some criticism of the film's historical accuracy is discussed in an article by Professor Hank Nelson.[8]

Fox provided $19 million of the budget with $6 million coming from Singapore businessman Andrew Yap.[2]

The role of Dr Verstak was originally offered to Anjelica Huston, who demanded more profit share than the filmmakers were willing to give, so Frances McDormand was cast instead. The part of Margaret Drummond was to be played by Jean Simmons but she had to withdraw due to illness; the studio wanted Joan Plowright but she accepted another offer and Pauline Collins wound up being cast. Fox were reluctant to cast Cate Blanchett in the lead as she was relatively unknown at the time but Beresford insisted.[9]

Production took place in Marrickville (Sydney), Singapore, Port Douglas and Penang.

Historical context[edit]

During World War II, many women became prisoners of war and faced a twenty to fifty percent death rate in Japanese prison camps. However, many women prisoners of war stories have been overlooked, with the exception of the women POWs of Sumatra. Thousands of British and Dutch colonists made the East Indies their home. Singapore was the most popular living option with the Raffles Hotel, shops, and beautiful houses, which attracted many soldiers and their wives. The Japanese armed forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong on 7 December 1941. Europeans held the Japanese forces to an inferior level and put their trust in the British navy that guarded Singapore. But the Japanese advanced on British military lines, captured the British airfield, and dropped bombs on the city, which led to a retreat by the British forces. On 15 February 1942 the Japanese took Singapore.

Due to the belief that the city was safe, many women and children had remained in Singapore when the city was attacked. The inhabitants of the city, including women and children, ran to board ships to flee the island. Some of these ships housed the women POWs of Sumatra. The "Vyner Brooke" contained 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service.[10] It reached the Banka Strait before the Japanese attacked and released bombs over the ship. The women and children were forced to jump overboard to save their lives, but the Japanese continued to fire on the women in the water.

The survivors swam ashore to Banka Island. One of the Australian nurses suggested the women and children to head toward a village on the island while the nurses remained on the beach to care for the men's wounds. When the Japanese discovered them, the men were rounded up and twenty-two of the nurses were forced back into the water where they were shot by the soldiers. Only Vivian Bullwinkel survived after the soldiers opened fire. Bullwinkel later found the rest of the nurses that survived the sinking of the ship. The women were transferred from Banka Island to Sumatra. Some survived the multiple voyages back and forth between the islands for three and a half years. The women were living in the Sumatra prison camp when the war ended and a rescue came for the survivors.[11]


On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 43% approval rating, based on 23 reviews, with an average rating of 5.9/10.[12] On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 48 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[13] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.[14]

The film opened 11 April 1997 on 9 screens in the United States and Canada and grossed $62,518 for the weekend. It went on to gross $2,007,100.[15] It opened in Australia on 5 June 1997 on 85 screens and grossed $692,788 for the week, placing fifth at the Australian box office.[16] It went on to gross A$2,970,653.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Paradise Road (said to be the Director's Cut) (35mm)". Australian Classification Board. 30 August 2019. Retrieved 24 August 2021.
  2. ^ a b Milliken p 224
  3. ^ Milliken, Sue (1 November 2018). Selective Memory: A Life in Film. Hybrid Publishers. ISBN 978-1-74298-242-7.
  4. ^ "A map to Paradise Road: A guide for historians | Australian War Memorial". www.awm.gov.au.
  5. ^ "Film review: Paradise Road". 11 May 1997.
  6. ^ Holden, Stephen (11 April 1997). "It Takes a Saint to Keep a Prison Camp Humming". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  7. ^ "Paradise Road". IMDb. Retrieved 13 April 2019.
  8. ^ a b Nelson, Hank (March 1999). "A map to Paradise Road: A guide for historians". Journal of the Australian War Memorial (32). Canberra, Australia: Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 30 April 2012.
  9. ^ Milliken pp. 228-229.
  10. ^ "Women POWs of Sumatra". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  11. ^ "Australia's War 1939-1945". Behind the Wire. Archived from the original on 8 September 2015. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  12. ^ "Paradise Road (1997)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  13. ^ "Paradise Road". Metacritic. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  14. ^ "CinemaScore". Archived from the original on 20 December 2018. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  15. ^ "Paradise Road (1997)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  16. ^ "Australia Top 15". Screen International. 20 June 1997. p. 27. $692,788; $1=A$1.32
  17. ^ "Australian Films at the Australian Box Office" (PDF). Film Victoria. 23 September 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 March 2011. Retrieved 19 September 2022.


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