Andy Duncan had read the book, ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’, and so knew how the story ended before he saw the film in 1959.
The 1954 Western Mail book reviewer wrote,
Of course, the climax cannot be revealed here. It is sufficient to say that it is a good one, packed with suspense.
The story of Colonel Nicholson and his bridge across the River Kwai can be recommended as interesting reading.
But for those who were not familiar with the story, the film review published in The Canberra Times in Feburary 1958 gave away a little too much:
The film was made in Ceylon, and the Ceylonese scenery is superb.
The story does condemn the futility of war, but it seemed a pity that most of the leading characters had to die.
Sessue Hayakawa is the commander, Colonel Saito. Throughout the tension and brutality which characterises the beginning of the film, and life in the Japanese prisoner of war camp, he yet compels the sympathy of the audience, especially in his feeling of failure. He, too, is killed in the closing scenes, before he had an opportunity to kill himself.
William Holden is good as the American, Shears, who makes a miraculous escape and yet is forced to return and dies as the bridge crumbles to destruction.
Was the art of the movie review so different in the 1950s? Or was the book so well-known?
Andy was not a movie-goer. His routine was to walk to the Beaufort Mechanics Institute library and borrow a good book, perhaps an Agatha Christie mystery, and bring it home to read in his favourite armchair. This quiet escape into a book had become a habit when he served in India, and had helped sustain him as a Prisoner of War in Germany.
So it was quite unusual when Andy decided to go to the pictures. It was 1959 and he wanted to see ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.
The movie was showing at the Regent Theatre in Ballarat.
Travelling from Beaufort to see the movie took a bit of organising. Andy telephoned his grandson Robert in Ballarat and asked him to make the arrangements. As well as the seat reservations at the Regent, Robert needed to book tickets for the Beaufort-Ballarat train.
Robert took the train to Beaufort, stayed overnight at the Duncan home, then travelled back to Ballarat with his grandfather.
Their seats were in the dress circle, near the front and on the aisle, so that Andy could get up and move about, if need be. The film was over two and a half hours long, and Andy had not been in a cinema for at least twenty years.
It is a gripping war story of outstanding personal courage, and undoubtedly one of the outstanding films of the past year.
It is however, emotionally exhausting, reviving after more than a decade of peace the stark realities of jungle warfare.
Extract from The Canberra Times, 5 February 1958
Andy seemed a little shaken when he left the theatre. Perhaps it was partly because his first Technicolor cinema experience was overwhelming, but the film must have brought his own Prisoner of War memories to the surface.
He did not say much, except to admire Alec Guiness’ portrayal of the British colonel. This character, an officer who refuses to allow his officers to work even though it means solitary confinement and punishment, must have resonated with Andy, who had refused to work for the Germans in 1918.
Featured image: 1959 ‘Advertising’, Western Herald (Bourke, NSW : 1887 – 1970), 3 April, p. 9. Newspaper article found in Trove and reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article103994632 [Accessed 5 Jun 2016].
Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in. That’s what Andy wanted Ern to understand. Ern had never been to war; he had no right to question Andy’s sacrifice.
But Ern wasn’t listening. As the two men split logs for firewood at the Duncan home, Ern held forth on the futility of war. Then he said that Andy had been stupid to enlist.
That was enough for Andy to throw down his axe and raise his fists.
Jane heard the fight from her kitchen and rushed outside to separate the two men. She shouted at her brother Ern to leave and never come back. Ern did just that. He soon left Beaufort and had no further contact with Andy and Jane. He returned to the town years later and lived close by in the next street, but did not even attend Jane’s funeral.
Jane had always been close to her younger brother, and Andy had quickly warmed to him. Rene was like the daughter that Ern and his wife Lucy never had. When Ern was working near Shepparton in Northern Victoria, he had used his railways connections to send the Duncans damaged cans of fruit from the Shepparton Preserving Company. In the first half of the 1940s Andy and Jane had taken at least two trips to visit Ern and Lucy at Toolamba.
Those friendships came to an abrupt end at the woodpile.
Andy’s woodpile was in some ways a symbol of his determination not to let his war injuries get the better of him. When he was not confined to bed he would take to physical activities with a vengeance, as if making up for lost time. The woodpile was exactly the wrong place for Ern to question the worth of Andy’s military service.
What caused Jane to banish her brother? Would she have ordered Ern away if Andy was winning the fight? Perhaps she rounded the corner of the house to see Ern with the upper hand. Perhaps she feared for Andy’s health, and saw Ern sending Andy on another hospital stay.
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 22 Sep1944. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 11 Aug 1945. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 25 Aug 1945. State Library of Victoria
Featured Image: Andy and Jane Duncan’s grandson Robert in the Duncan family yard circa 1945. In the background Andy’s woodpile stretches towards the Ararat Road.
Despite the war grinding on, the routines of daily life continued much as before in country towns like Beaufort. Long, hot summers came each year. The dry, shimmering heat, brought with it snakes and threat of bushfires, which formed a backdrop to the town’s activities.
Andy Duncan organised the Beaufort Thistle Club’s traditional Boxing Day sports and New Years Eve dance. He arranged for the sports day to be held in aid of the Prisoners of War Fund. He knew from personal experience that money was needed for this fund, the Riponshire Advocate noted.
The sports day was not a successful fundraiser, however, with poor attendance. The lack of public support went beyond the Boxing Day event. By February 1942 there was concern whether the Beaufort Thistle Club would continue. Andy Duncan offered to a take a 50% reduction in his £15 secretary’s stipend.
Andy and Jane continued to attend cards nights and Beaufort Band socials. They were regular prizewinners at these events. Jane had joined the Beaufort Fire Brigade Ladies Auxiliary and played in carpet bowls tournaments, often on the winning team.
Andy was now in his 60s and his health was inconsistent. The Gallipoli shrapnel in his back gave him trouble, and his weakened body was more susceptible to illness. Beaufort’s Doctor Little made regular visits to the Duncan home.
Around Anzac Day 1942 Andy suffered a severe attack of influenza.
Influenza was reported widely in Victoria in the first half of 1942. Nurses at Castlemaine Hospital, office and factory workers in Melbourne, schoolteachers in Shepparton were among those suffering from the virus.
Andy would have been isolated in his bedroom and kept away from his daughter Rene who was heavily pregnant. His family must have been relieved when he recovered just before Rene’s son was born in May.
Andy was quickly back to work, making arrangements for a Thistle Club patriotic social evening a few weeks later. All proceeds from the event went to the Prisoner of War fund.
Jane was also engaged in fundraising with the Fire Brigade Ladies Auxiliary. A fundraising social was held in July. Was it a coincidence that funds raised went to the Prisoner of War fund close to Andy’s heart, or had Jane suggested the idea? Andy and Jane attended the evening; Andy won a prize at cards.
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 6 Sep 1941. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 9 May 1942. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 16 May 1942. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 23 May 1942. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 25 Jul 1942. State Library of Victoria
7 January 1942 saw the town of Beaufort battered by the worst dust storm in memory.
By mid-morning the temperature had already reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32° C). Strong, unpredictable gusts of wind were making outdoor work more and more difficult.
Did Jane Duncan have Eurambeen homestead laundry drying on the line that morning? The day had started out as good drying weather, but changed into something more worrying. She would have run to her six clotheslines as the wind threatened to whip the sheets away.
Once back inside the house, perhaps Jane and her daughter Rene began the major task of folding six rows of laundry. As the wind rose to gale force Jane would no doubt have been relieved that she had brought the washing in, just in time.
The gale continued for the rest of the day.
One minute the air would be perfectly calm, the next a gust of wind would race from zero to almost 50 miles an hour
Extract from ‘Queer Weather.’, The Age, 9 January 1942
Within a few hours huge, red dust clouds rolled in from the northwest and swallowed the town. People covered their faces with handkerchiefs and struggled against the gale. It was hard to see more than a few metres ahead through the thick dust.
Andy, Jane, Rene and Jane’s father John Stewart would have spent the day sheltered inside their small miner’s cottage. The wind whistled through any gaps in the weatherboards, bringing with it the red dust. The windows rattled. Debris from fallen trees and damaged buildings clattered and crashed against the cottage’s tin roof.
The heat and wind sparked bushfires across the state. Not far away Ararat district firefighters battled to save four townships around Lake Bolac. Forestry Commission officials were vigilant for outbreaks on Crown land. Perhaps this was on Andy Duncan’s mind, too, because of his work for the Forestry Commission at Mount Cole.
The storm reached its peak near nightfall and continued to batter the town until around 11pm. Then the wind dropped, the dust subsided and everything was still. The temperature remained over 90 degrees.
Finally around midnight a cool change blew through, bringing rain. The red Mallee dust that had choked and blinded now became red spatter on cars and buildings, and mud on the shoes of those who ventured outside.
The Stewart cottage had weathered the storm without any significant damage, but Jane’s beloved garden would not have survived.
The day will be long remembered as the gale swept through huge trees and the snapping and crashing branches were observed. The presentable gardens of citizens showed a “scorched earth” appearance after the storm had subsided. Housewives yesterday had the busiest time for many years; it was their big “at home” day as they were kept steadily cleaning up inches of dust inside and outside their homes
Extract from ‘A Day of Dust and Wind.’, The Horsham Times, 9 January 1942
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 10 January 1942. State Library of Victoria
Japan’s entry into the Second World War was not a surprise: as 1941 progressed, Australian newspaper reports of the war in Europe were accompanied more and more by commentary on the possibility of war with Japan. But the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Singapore, and the speed with which Singapore had fallen, shocked Australians.
The most momentous happening in Australia’s history took place this week when a declaration of war was made on Japan … The war has been brought right to our doors and a new phase of the world-wide conflict entered upon.
Extract from ‘At War With Japan.’,Jerilderie Herald and Urana Advertiser, 11 December 1941
For the close-knit Stewart and Duncan families in Beaufort, the war in the Pacific had an immediate impact.
Much as her mother had done in 1914, Rene farewelled her husband just weeks after their wedding. On 15 December 1941 Corporal Ron Palmer left Beaufort to commence full-time garrison duty with the Provost Squadron of the 2nd Australian Motor Division. It would have been some comfort to Rene that Ron was stationed initially in Victoria and not deployed overseas.
Allan Duncan Stewart, Jane’s nephew, was captured by the Japanese at Rabaul, New Guinea, on 23 January 1942. Allan served with the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, and was part of the Lark Force garrison that defended Rabaul. He was held as a Prisoner of War at Rabaul, and forced to labour for the Japanese under harsh conditions.
On 22 June 1942 Allan was one of over a thousand Prisoners of War placed on board the Imperial Japanese Navy ship, Montevideo Maru, for transport to Hainan island. On 1 July the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed and sunk by the American submarine, Sturgeon. The Montevideo Maru sank in less than fifteen minutes. All Prisoners of War were reported drowned.
It is likely that the Stewarts spent the rest of the war thinking Allan was a Prisoner of War, and waiting for news of his release. Perhaps they used Andy Duncan’s survival as a POW in the First World War to give them hope, but this would have been tempered by newspaper reports of Japanese atrocities after the fall of Rabaul.
Another relation, Raymond Lowe, was killed in action during the Fall of Singapore on 11 February 1942. Almost exactly ten years earlier, Andy Duncan had been a pall-bearer at the funeral of Raymond’s sister, Madge.