Reviewed by: Brett Willis
This is one of the most emotionally wrenching WWII films I’ve ever seen. It features women in a Japanese prison, so is similar to “Women of Valor”; but is better acted, better made, and based on a single true story rather than a composite. “Paradise Road” deals with relationships among the prisoners and the positive and negative ways they adapt to their situation; therefore it’s worthwhile, but not for the fainthearted.
During the Japanese takeover of what is now Indonesia and Malaysia, women and young children from many backgrounds (nurses, nuns, Protestant missionaries, island natives, Jewish and Chinese refugees, and the families of Dutch and British politicians and industrialists) are interned together in a jungle prison camp. Some of the prisoners display a race and class prejudice that’s as bad as that of their captors, while others are kind and respectful to everyone.
As a means of channeling their fellow-prisoners' attention away from their surroundings and into something constructive, an upper-class British prisoner (Glenn Close) and a missionary (Pauline Collins) propose forming a vocal orchestra which will perform classical music by means of oohs, aahs and hums. Collins scores the works from memory, and Close finds volunteers (with a little arm-twisting) and directs the orchestra. (The actual musical scores survived the war and were used to recreate the performances, which are simply beautiful.)
Content warnings: There is almost no vulgar language in the ordinary sense (I can’t vouch for the non-English dialog since there are no subtitles), although the prisoners do make a few sexual-related comments. And there’s no actual sexual activity. But there is: the bombing and machine-gunning of a ship full of women and children; mistreatment of the prisoners including torture and execution for minor offenses and beatings at random; an attempted rape, with the victim punished for fighting back; a scene of nonsexual female frontal nudity (a shower fight between Dutch and British prisoners); a scene of male nudity (side and back views) in the guards' sauna; a scene in which the more attractive female prisoners are offered decent living conditions if they “serve” in the Japanese officers' club; a number of “scary” scenes which do not lead up to violence but give the feeling that they will; and the battle of lifestyles throughout the film as some prisoners are consumed by prejudice and hate while others try to survive the war without compromising their souls. This is certainly not “The Hiding Place”; any explicit Christian message is pretty well confined to the words and actions of Collins' character and is very vague. But as a recreation of WWII events, based on the recollections of the survivors of this camp, it has value in reminding us of the price of our own freedom.