In post-Second World War London, a young woman, Jean Paget, is informed by solicitor Noel Strachan that she has a large inheritance. Asked what she wants to do, Jean decides to travel to Malaya to build a well in a small village.
Jean goes to the village and arranges for the well to be dug. The women will not now have to walk so far each day to collect water, as they have always done. She recalls her life in the village for three years of the war.
The film flashes back to 1942 when Jean was working in an office in Kuala Lumpur in Malaya when the Japanese invaded and she was taken prisoner. As part of a group of women and children (the men having been sent away), she is the only one to speak Malay fluently, and so takes a leading role in the group.
But the Japanese refuse to take any responsibility for the group, marching them from one village to another. Many of them, unused to physical labour, die. Jean is only able to survive because she understands local ways and is prepared to 'go native'.
The group meets a young Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a truck for the Japanese. He and Jean strike up a friendship and he tells her about the town of Alice Springs, where he grew up. Appalled at the women's treatment by the Japanese, he steals food and medicines to help them. Jean does not correct his impression that she is married.
When the thefts are discovered and investigated, Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is crucified on a tree and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The distraught women are marched away, believing that Joe is dead.
To further humiliate them, the Japanese assign only one guard to the group, an elderly sergeant. They become friendly with him, although they can barely communicate. They even help to carry his pack and rifle when he is ill. When he dies of exhaustion, Jean asks the elders of a Malayan village if they may stay and work in the paddy fields, asking only for food and a place to sleep. The elders agree and they live and work there for three years, until the war ends.
The film returns to the present, and Jean discovers from the well-diggers that Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia.
She decides to travel on to Australia to find him. On her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe has become the manager of a cattle station.
Meanwhile, Joe has learnt that Jean survived the war and that she was not married. He travels to London to find her, using money won in a lottery. It is some time before they are reunited in Alice Springs and they fall in love immediately.
Leslie Norman expressed interest in making a film of the novel in 1952.
The script was written by W.P. Lipscombe, who concentrated on the first half of the novel (the second half being set in Australia). Producer Joe Janni sent a copy of the script to director Jack Lee who later recalled "the script made me cry and I knew it would make audiences cry too." Janni and Lee took the script to Rank, who agreed to finance. Lee did further work on the script with Lipscombe and then with Richard Mason.
Lee flew to Singapore and Malaya and "soon realised that if we cast the film in the UK, decided on their exact clothing, and filmed their characteristic way of walking, we could find a second cast in Malaya and, if we were careful, we could work very close to them on location."
Lee shot some footage in Malaya then went back to Britain, where the majority of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios in London.
At one stage it was announced that Olivia de Havilland would play the lead. Anna Kashfi screen tested for a small role and was given it, but had to turn it down to do another film.
Jack Lee had worked with Peter Finch on The Wooden Horse and cast him as the male lead. "I don't think we ever considered anyone else for the part."
The film was withdrawn from the 1956 Cannes Film Festival because of fears it would offend the Japanese. "The festivals are just a joke – a film-selling 'racket' which offers the chance for vulgar display and reckless extravagance", said Peter Finch. "They serve no cultural purpose and the awards don't mean a thing."
The film's Australian premiere was held at Alice Springs.
It was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1956.
The film's success saw Rank put Jack Lee and Joe Janni under contract for two years as a team. They went on to make Robbery Under Arms with Finch.Virginia McKenna – Jean Paget
Peter Finch – Joe Harman
Kenji Takaki – Japanese sergeant
Tran Van Khe – Captain Sugaya
Jean Anderson – Miss Horsefall
Marie Lohr – Mrs Dudley Frost
Maureen Swanson – Ellen
Renée Houston – Ebbey
Nora Nicholson – Mrs. Frith
Eileen Moore – Mrs Holland
John Fabian – Mr. Holland
Vincent Ball – Ben
Tim Turner – British Sergeant
Geoffrey Keen – Noel Strachan
June Shaw as Mrs. Graham
Armine Sandford as Mrs. Carstairs
Mary Allen as Mrs. Anderson
Virginia Clay as Mrs Knowles
Bay White as Mrs. Davies