Nevil Shute and the Cinema
by C. A. Wolski



One source of movies worth watching has been the books of English-born Australian Nevil Shute (1899-1960). The author of more than 20 books, Shute created works that were both popular and contemporary, filled with heroes and heroines oriented to inspiring values.

As a novelist, Shute was remarkable because writing was not his primary career. An aviation engineer by trade, Shute owned a successful aircraft company and during World War II worked on secret aviation projects for the British government. His stories rely heavily on strong characters, usually an aviator, engineer or other professional, who find themselves in circumstances which require them to take heroic steps to meet.

Although his early writing career focused on thriller-type stories, his mature writing, which made a bigger impact on screen, relies on human scale stories involving characters solving problems particular to their career and background, No Highway in the Sky and A Town Like Alice being typical.

A Shute character, it has been said, lives well. He or she is engaged in purposeful work, has goals, may be married, and has an unshakable sense of being in control and getting the job done. “Work” is probably the single way in which a Shute hero can best be defined. There is no envy in his soul. He admires the competent and able.

Perhaps because of this focus, there are few antagonists in Shute’s worlds. Human conflict is rare, usually taking the form of bureaucratic indifference or ignorance. More likely than not, weather or the elements form the chief danger for man, not other men. Even in On the Beach, which chronicles the last days of human civilization after a nuclear war, there are no overt antagonists. Blame is placed on bureaucracy and the “vacuum tubes” of computers. A Town Like Alice contains one of the few instances of a human antagonist, the Japanese captain who crucifies Joe Harmon. But he is incidental and gets his dose of justice.

Indeed, Shute’s world is a just one. Everyone gets what they deserve in one way or another, even if disappointment is involved. His is not a Pollyanna world. Tragedy strikes, disappointment occurs, but there is a sense that the characters have lived as best they could.

This is the background informing the three most popular film incarnations of Shute’s books: A Town Like Alice (1980 version), On the Beach (1959) and No Highway in the Sky (1950). Each film has its strengths and weaknesses, and like the books upon which they are based, are among the few works by Shute readily available for purchase or rental.

If there is a character in the three films who epitomizes Shute’s values it is Jean Paget, the heroine in A Town Like Alice. Independent and self assured, Jean first survives a death march across Malaya in World War II and then singlehandedly revitalizes a town in the gulf country of Australia. She falls in love with the hero, Joe Harmon, primarily because of his value orientation and because he is good at his job. Wherever she goes, she buoys her friends and inspires those who hear about her. (Interestingly, this is the only Shute novel based on a true incident—there was a group of women who marched across Malaya in the way the book and film depict.)

The film version of A Town Like Alice follows the first three quarters of the novel rather faithfully, detailing a dedicated lawyer’s attempts to discover the whereabouts of the heir of a large legacy. Discovering Jean Paget, the lawyer learns about her background and how she met the Australian prisoner Joe Harmon. The presentation is straightforward and detailed, intercutting between the jungle and dreary England of 1948. Jean, now a wealthy woman, asks that she have some of her money and travel back to the small village to pay her debt to the villagers by building a well for them. It is during this time that she discovers Joe did not die and is now home in Australia managing a cattle station in the gulf country of northern Australia. The dialogue in the film is crisp and clean, showing the underlying value system of each character. Early in the flashback sequence, a British Army captain who is in love with Jean tells her (after she snubs him) that she’s right and that she’s always practical. This summation is proved throughout the film (originally a mini-series on PBS). The film then transports Jean to Australia, where through a series of circumstances she must wait for Joe to return from England. The strength of the story is in this section, showing how Jean adapts the small backwater to her, making it a place where others would want to live, bringing the virtual ghost town to life. By revitalizing the town, she gives not only the others there but everyone she meets along the way purpose in their own lives. (Unfortunately the film presents this almost as an afterthought, not adequately explaining why she is doing it other than to escape boredom while waiting to marry Joe.) The final sequence in which she helps save another rancher who was injured is done very cinematically, using the soundtrack to flashback to contemporary events—but the viewer should be warned that, despite this technically adept presentation, the ending of the film is somewhat flat. Having focused all of its energy on the war sequences, the narrative seems to be exhausted by the Australian setting. By contrast the book clearly shows that Jean’s wartime feats are only a sample of what she can do. Her productive abilities and focus are not a result of extraordinary circumstances, but of who she is.

The characters in On the Beach are examples of the best Shute people in the worst of all scenarios: the end of the world. The situation as Shute saw it in 1959 has since become something stereotypical, trite, and overdone, in addition to being terminally bleak—so it is all the more surprising how much life there is in the story. In this nightmare context, Shute shows people committed to fulfilling their dreams and achieving values, even as a radioactive cloud is approaching to end their lives.

The naval officers look forward to their last mission with expectation, prepared to fulfill it in the proper way. The scientist Julian Osborn pursues his dream of being a race car driver during the last Grand Prix on earth. But it is Moira who sums up the Shute character’s acknowledgement of the importance of values. In the film version, during this last grim, deadly race she asks Towers why Osborn is taking such risks.

“It isn’t important,” she says.

“It is to him,” Towers replies laconically, his eyes fixed to the racetrack.

This is the heart and soul of Shute. His characters do what is important to them.

On the Beach is also the most artistic of the three films, with both the camera work and soundtrack adding to and underscoring the theme. In an early scene, Towers and Moira are talking on a porch after a party. The discussion is biographical in nature, Moira is asking Towers about his family and background. But the camera tilts slightly, indicating that this normal scene is a bit “askew.” The soundtrack underscores dramatic moments. When for example the Sawfish, Towers’ submarine, investigates a mysterious radio signal coming from radioactive San Diego and a crew member is sent ashore at great hazard, the soundtrack takes up the musical refrain of the radio wave’s dots and dashes until the truth is discovered.

There are no debates or speeches, just people trying to live out the last moments of their lives on their terms. The book is slightly superior to the film in that it details much more clearly how, even in the face of the end, all the characters in the last bastion of humanity look to the future, unwilling to buckle while they confront annihilation in their individual ways.

Shute’s style downplays the horrors. There are no scatological details about the effects of radiation sickness. The narrative says that they are dying, they begin acting sick, and they die. What’s most important to Shute is how the protagonists live. Death is met on their terms, most cheating the inevitable fact of the radioactivity to die as well as they lived. It is important to note that justice is granted by the author to these protagonists, every one of whom achieves their values.

The only major plot difference between the film and the book is that Moira and Towers consummate their relationship. In the book, more ink is given to the idea that Towers is literally haunted (in a psychological sense) by his dead family, and that he feels he’ll be disloyal to his wife if he “cheats” with Moira. The only serious (but quite forgivable) flaw with the film is the hamfisted last shot, now very dated, warning the audience that there is “still time… brother.”

Time is a major factor to Theodore Honey in No Highway in the Sky. This film, perhaps one of the most popular of Shute’s film adaptations, is based on his book No Highway (1948) and is not only the weakest of the three, but the most loosely adapted. It is enjoyable and captures the overall theme of Honey’s rediscovery of values, but it has an overall comic tone, presenting Honey (played by James Stewart) as an eccentric character instead of a brilliant, hurt one. In the book Honey is described as exceedingly ugly, but Stewart with his mid-western good looks has to play off Honey’s peculiarities.

In both book and film, Honey is sent to discover the reason for the crash of a new type of airliner on a mountain in Newfoundland. He theorizes that a flaw in the plane’s metallic structure will cause the tail to fall off after a particular number of hours of service time. Realizing that he is on one of the doomed planes and has only hours before disaster, Honey does what he thinks is best to save everyone. The results are dramatic, and the scenes of the flight are close to the book and just as strong. The rest of the film, however, shows Honey as a bumbling Falstaff, not taken seriously even when he is being serious. While the characters in the other films are strongly silent and live well, Honey gesticulates and raves. In this regard, the filmmakers miss the point of the book entirely both on the importance of values and the fact that Honey is taking “no highway” in a literal sense—that his work does not follow the set parameters, and leads him into new territories. This is not uncommon in Shute’s other works and would not have been missed by a more careful director.

Many of Shute’s books and even some of the films based on them are no longer available—which is puzzling, considering the popularity of A Town Like Alice, a continuing bestseller both in its film and print versions. On the Beach is routinely placed on school reading lists because of its anti-nuclear war theme. Several of Shute’s other books have been made into films and are available sporadically. These include: Pied Piper, The Far Country, Landfall, and Scotland Yard Commands (Lonely Road). Yet there is something curious about the film treatments of Shute, which perhaps explains why so much of his work is now unknown. Even though worth watching for their many virtues (especially in contrast to today’s largely shallow film offerings), they all seem to misuse Shute, to some degree, by looking away from his core values to some other genre. They almost seem like works by different authors. A Town Like Alice is presented in film as a wartime melodrama and lacks enthusiasm for Jean Paget’s entrepreneurial energy and vision. On the Beach, faithful to the letter of Shute’s work, nevertheless gets classed by filmmakers and audiences as a kind of horror story and does not fully capture the loyalty his characters feel to their values. No Highway lapses into comedy and loses its point. The essential unity of Shute’s world seems to hover just outside each film’s focus.

Still despite these flaws, those seeking heroes in the world of work have ample reason to seek out Shute. Indeed, given seven films and twenty novels all filled with the Shute spirit, we are in a similar position to his heroes and heroines—with much to cherish and little to regret.

Christopher A. Wolski is a journalist whose work has appeared in various publications, including Atlantis and The Atlantean Press.

Copyright © Christopher Wolski. All rights reserved.