‘Cultural depth-charges’

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CHAPTER 2
‘Cultural depth-charges’:

Nevil Shute, Leslie Greener, and the prisoner as Christ-figure


The prisoner-critic Ian Watt points out, as I suggested in the first chapter and explain more fully in the next, that at least one aspect of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese has become what he terms a modern ‘myth’. With the unques­tionable authority of an eyewitness and participant, Watt repeatedly takes the novelist Pierre Boulle and the film director David Lean to task over the ways in which they have ‘mythified’ historical events in the novel and the film of The Bridge on the River Kwai. The main part of my argument in this chapter, which offers an analysis of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Leslie Greener’s No Time to Look Back, follows Watt in examining the progressive ‘mythification’ through a novel and a film of a series of actual events involving prisoners of war of the Japanese.

The novels of Nevil Shute have attracted little scholarly attention, although Shute himself once ranked among the world’s most popular and bestselling authors. ‘Shute is not a great artist’, notes the Australian critic Jack W. Bennett: ‘Rereading his books confirms their tendency towards formulaic composition and pedestrian prose.’1 Bennett then goes on to recount a conversation he once had with a guesthouse receptionist in which the woman used the phrase ‘we’re all on the beach’ (in allusion to Shute’s nuclear-apocalyptic novel of that title), to illustrate an observation that makes a good introduction to a discussion of A Town Like Alice. He writes:

The point here is that like [Robert] Frost, Nevil Shute has created idioms generally shared and understood, that have entered the consciousness of English-speaking peo­ple throughout the world. He has written stories that in their telling, and retelling via television and films, bind millions of people together by giving them a common reference point for anxieties and events in their own lives. A Town Like Alice is one of these stories …

Another Australian critic, Robin Gerster, focuses his observations on the novel in his Big-noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing on what is arguably its central, defining scene – the crucifixion by the Japanese of the Australian prisoner of war Joe Harman:

A divergence in cultural attitudes to the prisoner-of-war provides much of the horror of Joe Harmon’s [sic] frightful crucifixion and whipping in Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice (1950). To Western readers, who take for granted the Geneva Convention rules regarding the care and custody of prisoners, the attitude to Harmon of his captor Captain Sugamo, is an incomprehensible mixture of sadistic barbarism and reverence. To prove the ‘element of holiness’ that dictated his treatment of the Australian, Sugamo gives him an opportunity to expiate his dishonour by suffering a lingering death. That Harmon’s ‘resurrection’ is aborted by his survival of the ordeal in no way influences our estimation of his personal worth.2


Yet Gerster is, I suggest, partly missing the point and also misreading here. Surely there is more to the horror of the crucifixion of an Australian prisoner of war for a Western audience than simply a ‘divergence in cultural attitudes’ and the Japanese failure to observe the Geneva Convention.
The Crucified Australian
In A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute represents the crucifixion of Joe Harman in two stages – firstly through the reported speech of the novel’s central character, Jean Paget, as recorded by its first-person narrator, the solicitor Noel Strachan:

Darkness was closing down in my London sitting-room, the early darkness of a stormy afternoon. The rain still beat upon the window. The girl sat staring into the fire, immersed in her sad memories. ‘They crucified him’, she said quietly. ‘They took us all down to Kuantan, and they nailed his hands to a tree, and beat him to death. They kept us there, and made us look on while they did it.’3

Harman’s crucifixion is described again some thirty pages later, on this occasion in historical ‘flashback’ but in the dramatic present, from a moment in time after that at which Jean’s narrative to the solicitor breaks off:
The body still hung by its hands, facing the tree. Blood had drained from the blackened mess that was its back and had run down the legs to form a black pool on the ground, now dried and oxidised by the hot sun. A great mass of flies covered the body and the blood. But the man undoubtedly was still alive; when Captain Sugamo approached the face the eyes opened and looked at him with recognition.4

In these passages, Shute employs two quite different literary techniques. In the second passage, naturalistic visual details, the dried blood and the flies, emphasise the gross physical actuality of the event.5 In the earlier passage, the effect is that of narrative ‘distancing’, a product of the framing device of a narrative-within-a-narrative, which, as one critic has observed of the novel, is an important feature of A Town Like Alice.6 But, at the same time, the familiar, fireside setting and the muted, matter-of-fact tone of the language of the passage in which it appears throw into sharp relief Shute’s introduction into his novel of the word ‘crucified’. The very word triggers one of what the poet Seamus Heaney terms the ‘cultural depth-charges latent in certain words and rhythms’.7 It calls up a potent network of associations for any Western reader: a uniquely significant act of individual suffering (for Christians and non-Christians alike), an ancient and barbaric form of execution, a peculiarly horrific way to die.

The image of the crucified English-speaking prisoner of war carries with it other associations which, while perhaps less obvious today, may possibly have been familiar to some of Shute’s readers of the 1950s. The idea of the soldier as a Christ-figure is an often-used analogy, almost a literary commonplace, among British soldier-poets of the First World War. It appears in the poetry of Wilfred Owen (‘Greater Love’), Siegfried Sassoon (‘The Redeemer’), Herbert Read (‘My Company’) and others, and, perhaps most famously, in a letter of Owen to Osbert Sitwell of July 1918:

For 14 hours yesterday I was at work – teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine the thirst till after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.8
However, the idea of the soldier as Christ on the way to his Crucifixion had a deeper cultural impact during the First World War than a letter from the trenches to Bloomsbury since accounts of the crucifixion of a Canadian prisoner of war by the Germans on the Western Front became one of the war’s most widely reported atrocity stories.9 Historians and literary scholars, including Paul Fussell, have dismissed the story as a fabrication – a soldiers’ rumour embellished by British and American propagandists in order to vilify the German enemy. However, information first published in a British daily newspaper as recently as April 2001 presents at least circumstantial evidence that the event actually did happen.

Paul Fussell discusses the story of the Crucified Canadian in his The Great War and Modern Memory:

Another well-known rumor imputing unique vileness to the Germans is that of the Crucified Canadian. The usual version relates that the Germans captured a Canadian soldier and in full view of his mates exhibited him in the open spread-eagled on a cross, his hands and feet pierced by bayonets. He is said to have died slowly …

The Crucified Canadian is an especially interesting fiction both because of its original context in the insistent visual realities of the front and because of its special symbolic suggestiveness.10


In April 2001, a Cambridge historical researcher, Iain Overton, claimed in a report in Britain’s Daily Express to have ‘unearthed new evidence that the crucifixion did take place’.11 Overton named the victim as Sergeant Harry Band of the 48th Canadian Highlanders and published a detailed, apparently eyewitness description of the discovery of his corpse, pinned by eight bayonets to the door of a shed near the village of St Julien in Belgium in April 1915. The report suggested that Band’s horrific execution (or post-mortem mutilation) was probably carried out in retaliation for the killing of a group of German prisoners by Canadian soldiers, itself an act of retaliation for the war’s first poison-gas attack. If this account is correct, it suggests that not all supposed wartime ‘myths’ associated with prisoners of war can be dismissed as ‘fictions’. Whether it is factual or not, it demonstrates the remarkable persistence of events of the First World War in the collective memory of the British people.

Nevil Shute soldiered briefly in the British Army during the First World War (although he did not serve in the trenches of the Western Front) and would almost certainly have been aware of the story of the Crucified Canadian.12 Thirty years later, in 1948, Shute visited Australia to gather material for a novel and, while travelling in Queensland, heard of and later met an Australian former prisoner of war, Herbert ‘Jim’ (or ‘Ringer’) Edwards. The Australian had a truly remarkable story to tell. In 1943, while a prisoner of war in Burma on the Burma–Thailand Railway, he and two other prisoners had been sentenced to death by the Japanese for killing native cattle for food. Bound at the wrists with fencing wire, the men were suspended from a tree and beaten with a baseball bat. When Edwards managed to free his right hand, his punishment was continued with the fencing wire driven through his palms. Incredibly, Jim Edwards somehow survived his ordeal, which lasted for sixty-three hours, although both his comrades died. He died, aged eighty-six, at his retirement farm at Gingin in Western Australia in June 2000.13


While there may be truth in Robin Gerster’s statement that the horror of Joe Harman’s crucifixion derives from a ‘divergence in cultural attitudes’, the stories of Jim Edwards and the Crucified Canadian show that the historical and cultural contexts of A Town Like Alice leave it open to other, more complex interpretations. Nevil Shute’s fictional representation of the crucifixion of an Australian prisoner of war derives much of its power, and its horror, from the way in which it combines multiple levels of cultural and historical reference: to the biblical accounts of the Crucifixion (familiar to all Shute’s readership); to a widely reported atrocity story of the First World War (familiar perhaps to some readers in 1950); to an actual event in the life of an Australian prisoner of war. It seems clear that Shute shaped his representation of Joe Harman’s crucifixion from elements of each of these. There seems also to be significance in the circumstantial details the novelist includes as against those he omits. While Shute remains essentially faithful in his novel to the historical facts of Jim Edwards’ ordeal, he suppresses its more grotesquely (and incongruously) ‘modern’ features – the fencing wire, the baseball bat – and substitutes for them more traditional elements that recall the biblical Crucifixion: the nails, the blood of a scourging. Here Shute can clearly be observed ‘mythifying’ an actual historical event.14
Chivalry and bushido
Writing in 1947, when memories of the war with Japan were still painfully fresh, Eric Partridge noted in his classic guide to good English, Usage and Abusage:

Japan, in late 1941–5, familiarized us with bushido and re-familiarized us with hara-kiriBushido, the Samurai code of honour, is bu-shi-do, literally ‘military-knight ways’; the code of the well-born soldier; hence, to the British and American public, the code of military honour – loosely, the code of national honour, or the national code of honour. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that honourable, so often issuing from Japanese lips, has taken to itself a somewhat ironic tinge.15

Behind Partridge’s ironic, postwar sense of the word ‘honourable’ lies the notion that bushido is the Japanese equivalent of the feudal European code of chivalry. Indeed it was through this particular analogy that early twentieth-century Western commentators on Japanese culture and Japanese scholars interpreting their own culture for the benefit of Westerners presented the code of bushido:
Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history. It is still a living object of power and beauty among us; and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it none the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell.16
There is thus a grim, cultural-historical irony present in Nevil Shute’s description of Captain Sugamo’s behaviour towards his prisoner Joe Harman since it is Sugamo’s ‘code of military honour’, his notion of ‘chivalry’, which leads him first to order the Australian’s crucifixion and then (less plausibly, I suggest) to spare his life. Robin Gerster is misreading, I believe, when he states that Sugamo gives Harman ‘an opportunity to expiate his dishonour by suffering a lingering death’. Presumably the ‘dishonour’ is that attached in Japanese eyes simply to being a prisoner of war. But this is not suggested as the captain’s motive in either the novel or the film of A Town Like Alice. Shute presents the Australian’s crucifixion as simply his punishment for stealing the captain’s chickens.

In the novel, Joe Harman survives because Captain Sugamo is unable to grant his dying request for a bottle of beer:

It is doubtful if the West can ever fully understand the working of a Japanese mind. When Captain Sugamo saw that the Australian recognized him from the threshold of death, he bowed reverently to the torn body, and he said with complete sincerity, ‘Is there anything that I can get for you before you die?’

The ringer [Harman] said distinctly, ‘You bloody bastard. I’ll have one of your black chickens and a bottle of beer.’17

The captain sends his orderly to see if a bottle of beer can be found anywhere in Kuantan, to be told it cannot. At this point in the novel, Shute attempts to penetrate ‘the working of a Japanese mind’. While his attempt lacks what I think many Western readers would regard as psychological plausibility, his representation of the concept of bushido does follow its own peculiar and (no doubt intentionally) inhuman logic:
Death to Captain Sugamo was a ritual ... If a bottle of beer had been available he would have sacrificed one of his remaining black Leghorns and sent the cooked meat and beer down to the dying body on the tree; he might even have carried the tray himself. By doing so he would have set an example of chivalry and Bushido to the troops under his command. Unfortunately … [he] could not carry out his own part in the ritual; he could not show Bushido by granting the man’s dying wish. Therefore, the Australian could not be allowed to die, or he himself would be disgraced.18

Whether this passage contains an accurate representation of the concept of bushido as it was conceived and practised by the Japanese military in the Second World War, I simply cannot determine. Nor have I so far been able to discover if it has any basis in fact in relation to the experience of Jim Edwards. Certainly, descriptions of this type of behaviour by a Japanese officer are not easy to find in Australian or British prisoner-of-war memoirs. From a purely intuitive viewpoint, Shute’s account is deeply implausible – not because it suggests that one human being can condemn another to death on the slightest of pretexts (since narratives of the Holocaust show this is so), but because it suggests that the same human being may then be willing to spare the other’s life on an even slighter pretext. I suspect that here Shute’s attempt to represent the unfathomable ‘otherness’ of the Japanese mind, coupled with the requirements of his novel’s plot (Joe Harman must survive somehow), may have led him into an absurdity. The issue of plausibility aside, Shute’s main point in this passage relies on the bitter irony implicit in the phrase ‘an example of chivalry’. Like other Western (and Japanese) writers before him, Shute equates the words ‘chivalry’ and bushido; unlike them, he does so in a monstrously ironic context.

The producers of the 1956 film of the novel seem to have held similar reservations about Shute’s description of Captain Sugamo’s behaviour. They appear to have considered the captain’s condemnation of Harman simply for stealing a few chickens as an insufficient motive (although, historically, Jim Edwards was condemned for killing animals for food). In addition, a crucified man demanding a cooked meal and a bottle of beer would clearly have introduced an incongruous and semi-comic note into the solemn and tragic event witnessed by the film’s other characters and its screenwriters ignore Harman’s dying request. The film does, however, preserve Shute’s ironic use of the chivalry–bushido analogy. As Joe Harman hangs crucified off-camera, Captain Sugaya [Sugamo] tells his Australian fellow prisoner Ben:

Australian soldier die not for stealing, but for striking Japanese soldier. This is law of bushido. Japanese bushido is like European law of chivalry.19
All that is implied through the chivalry–bushido simile in its post-1945 context reached a kind of apotheosis towards the end of the 1950s in two books written by a British war crimes prosecutor and an Australian former prisoner of war. The prosecutor, Lord Russell of Liverpool, chose for his book about Japanese war crimes the pointedly ironic title The Knights of Bushido (1958).20 In the same year, Russell Braddon found an equally extreme application for the analogy. A certain ambivalence seems to characterise contemporary Australian attitudes towards Braddon. On the one hand, he is an egalitarian – and highly readable – Digger voice who castigates the snobbery and stupidity of British colonialist attitudes at the time of the fall of Singapore. Yet, on the other, he is an unashamed anglophile (who abandoned Australia for Britain) and a writer who maintained his rage against the Japanese during a period when many Australian public figures were seeking a rapprochement with Japan. Moreover, his unrelenting hatred of the Japanese seems to have bordered on paranoia; he believed, for example, that Japan continued to pose a military threat to the West long after the Second World War. In his second volume of memoirs, End of a Hate (1958), a title which contradicts the book’s actual message, Braddon argues that Japanese war crimes were the natural product of the code of bushido and that ‘cruelty to their enemies is as honourable with the Japanese as is kindness to dogs with Britons’.21 He continues:

The wartime atrocities of the Japanese were not, to them, atrocities … Still less were they perverted distortions (as were the crimes of the Nazis) of a national culture. They were, on the contrary, the products of the normal Nipponese code of military honour. To support this point:

The British have made two films which depict violently the cruelty towards their prisoners of the Japanese. The first was A Town Like Alice, in which an Australian prisoner was shown being nailed to a tree, as if in crucifixion. At the Cannes Film Festival, out of regard for the susceptibilities of the Japanese delegation, this film was voluntarily withdrawn by its British promoters. It was, however, screened at a small cinema elsewhere in the town. The Japanese delegation flocked to see it – and loved it. They could not understand why it had been withdrawn from the Festival.

The second film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, depicts a Japanese commandant ordering his prisoners to be immured in tiny, sun-baked cages, left there for weeks, battered and starved. These sequences are long and savage. The Bridge on the River Kwai was voted one of the two most popular films to be exhibited in Japan in 1957!

In neither film is there anything in the least distasteful or dishonourable to any Japanese mind. Their culture embraces the crucifixion and brutal confinement of helpless men just as naturally as does our culture vomit it out, protesting, ‘This is monstrous and criminal!’22

By contemporary standards, Russell Braddon is as politically incorrect a prisoner-of-war author as there is. Both his thesis and his language here are extreme and intemperate: ‘Their culture embraces the crucifixion … of helpless men … as does our culture vomit it out …’. This is a sweeping and insupportable generalisation. And at this distance in time it is easy, I think, to point to the simplistic way in which it polarises the issue into a binary opposition between British and Japanese culture, between the West and an oriental Other. But two further points ought to be considered, I suggest. The first is that Braddon, when viewed within the cultural-historical context I have outlined, is by no means an isolated voice. He expresses discursively an interpretation of Japanese culture that was also suggested by Eric Partridge, fictionalised by Nevil Shute, and documented by Lord Russell. The second is that the chivalry–bushido analogy is essentially a figure of speech and not a valid historical statement. (It would be difficult, I think, to show that the ideal the word ‘chivalry’ represents in Western culture has ever been realised in actuality, especially in time of war.) Braddon is the writer who takes the modern, post-1945 meaning of this figure of speech to its extreme. Although his words may be neither politically nor historically correct, they form part of the debate, which is still unresolved today, about why Japanese soldiers committed the crimes that they did in the Second World War.
Christianity in A Town Like Alice

After launching the ‘cultural depth-charge’ of Joe Harman’s crucifixion into the narrative of A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute immediately sets about defusing it by first acknowledging and then subtly negating the religious symbolism it evokes. Shute achieves this through the character of one of the novel’s female civilian prisoners, the ‘devout little woman’ Mrs Frith:

The final horror at Kuantan was a matter that they never spoke about at all, each fearing to recall it to the memory of the others, but each was secretly of the opinion that it had changed their luck.

With Mrs Frith this impression struck much deeper. She was a devout little woman who said her prayers morning and evening with the greatest regularity ...

Mrs Frith sought for the hand of God in everything that happened to them. Brooding over their experiences with this in mind, she was struck by certain similarities. She had read repeatedly about one Crucifixion; now there had been another. The Australian, in her mind, had had the power of healing because the medicines he brought had cured her dysentery and Johnnie Horsefall’s ringworm. It was beyond all doubt that they had been blessed in every way since his death for them. God had sent down His Son to earth in Palestine. What if He had done it again in Malaya?23

Shute goes on to make clear that his central character, Jean Paget, is much too level-headed to accept such an interpretation and sees Joe Harman for precisely what he is:
… If this incredible event that Mrs Frith believed could possibly be true, it meant indeed that they were in the hand of God; nothing could touch them; they would win through and live through all their troubles and one day they would regain their homes, their husbands, and their western way of life …

Jean did nothing to dispel these fancies, which were evidently helpful to the women, but she was not herself impressed. She was the youngest of all of them, and the only one unmarried; she had formed a very different idea of Joe Harman. She knew him for a very human, very normal man ...24

What is striking here is how Shute marginalises the character of Mrs Frith, who, in a sense, embodies the traditional Christian world-view within the novel: she is a little, slightly dotty, old woman. J. G. Ballard employs a very similar narrative stratagem in The Kindness of Women, in which the voice of Christianity inside Lunghua internment camp is the widowed ‘busybodying missionary’ Mrs Dwight.25 Neither of these female characters is individualised to the point of being given a first name and both women are assigned what may be intended by each author as mildly ridiculous surnames. What seems to be implied here by both Shute and Ballard is that only a strictly rational ‘modern’ interpretation of the prisoner-of-war experiences they are describing in their novels is permissible. Anything that smacks of the metaphysical is not only to be shunned, but also derided.

Interestingly, the 1956 film of A Town Like Alice reverses Shute’s secularism by reinforcing rather than undermining the Christian symbolism of Joe Harman’s crucifixion. As Joe (Peter Finch) is led bound and stumbling to the place of his execution, the watching Jean (Virginia McKenna) repeats a kind of prayer to herself: ‘Oh, God … Oh, God …’. The film’s crucifixion sequence ends with a night scene – a static tableau in which Jean keeps vigil with the other women prisoners by the tree to which Joe is nailed. The scene, with its pale female figures watching from the darkness, clearly draws on images of the Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross in European religious art: ‘And many women were there beholding …’ (Matthew 27:55). It is especially reminiscent of Rembrandt’s heavily shadowed 1640s engravings of the Crucifixion. If Jean Paget represents the Magdalene figure in this tableau, Joe’s mate Ben (Vincent Ball) represents the Joseph who buried the body of Christ. When Captain Sugaya, apparently believing his crucified prisoner is dead, says to Ben in a line of dialogue unique to the film, ‘All right, you can have him’, a 1950s cinema audience would, I think, have been alert to the fact that here Sugaya and Ben are re-enacting the roles of Pontius Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea.




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