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The Purple Plain
Page Count
Word Count
Michael Joseph
Saturday Evening Post
Publication Year
Document Types
Film & Television
Pilots, War, Asia

London: Michael Joseph, 1947 (November 27).; Boston: Little Brown and Company (an Atlantic Monthly Press Book), 1947 (December).
Serialized weekly in the Saturday Evening Post from September 6 to October 25, 1947. It was also included in a 1980 collection, The Best of H.E. Bates: A Selection of Novels and Short Stories.

In The World in Ripeness (pp. 60-102) Bates writes extensively of his travels to Burma and India from February to April 1945, on military assignment to write short pieces portraying the Burmese war for American readers. The experience inspired three novels of the far East, The Purple Plain, The Jacaranda Tree, and The Scarlet Sword. Bates writes of his first morning in Burma (pp. 89-98) where he was exposed to the "ideas and pictures" that formed the "genesis" of The Purple Plain; in addition (pp. 107-108) he writes of learning, on his return to England, about a pilot whose story immediately inspired Bates to begin the novel. Like that soldier, the novel's protagonist has lost his wife to a German bomb on their honeymoon and has become war hero. Forrester, commander at an air station on the "purple plain" of Burma, is a man lacking purpose or emotions, but upon meeting a young Burmese woman, Anna, herself the survivor of a gruesome wartime escape, he finds a renewed will to live. He survives a plane crash, heroically rescues his navigator and leads him out of the desert, and in the end is reunited with Anna in an affirmation of love and life.

The novel repeated the huge sales set by Fair Stood the Wind for France (selling some 850,000 copies, according to Baldwin, 1987, p. 166) and was selected by the Literary Guild in the United States and the Book Society in England.

Bates acknowledges that the novel (and its successors) displeased "certain of my friends, whose critical acumen I highly esteem" and who wanted Bates to return to Midland themes, but he cites the "catastrophic impact the East had had on my sensitivity...the blistering effect of its fatalism" as "an explosive revolution in my life that simply had to be set down" (The World in Ripeness p. 108).

In November 1947 Bates discussed the novel with Arthur Calder-Marshall in a BBC radio interview.

A 1954 film version was directed by Robert Parrish, with a filmscript by Eric Ambler, starring Gregory Peck; Variety (22 September 1954) called it a "fine dramatic vehicle for Gregory Peck's second British-made film" and mentions the cooperation of the Royal Air Force in its production. The New York Times (11 April 1955) refers to the bulk of the movie as "that ordeal in the jungle...impressively transmitted to the audience in vivid and unrelenting scenes." Bates discusses the film adaptation in an article called "When the Cinemagoer Complains that 'It Isn't Like the Book' - Who's to Blame?" The movie was produced in Britain by Two Cities Films and distributed there by General Film distributors, and in the U.S. by J. Arthur Rank and United Artists.

Marie Hannah in The Times Literary Supplement considers that Bates "is at his the kind of novel like the present, which is really a long short story constructed round a single dramatic experience. Grim and horrifying enough in detail, it is in essence a lyrical exposition of the qualities of courage and endurance in the human soul." James MacBride in The New York Times however feels that "Mr. Bates has let pattern take the place of depth; instead of a genuine attitude toward life, there is far too much posturing in the tradition of slick-paper romance." While Julia Strachey in New Statesman and Nation finds it a "very good adventure story" she also finds "Bates's new manner far less convincing than his earlier. There are now so many disappointing lapses into conventional literary box office." In contrast, Robin King in The Spectator calls it "one of the four or five really distinguished English novels published in the past year...Mr. a rare writer today—a romantic whose descriptions, particularly in this novel, verge on lyric poetry...Beauty is the one permanent value in all Mr. Bates's books, but never before has it been given such power; never before has it been invested with such significance."


  • New Statesman and Nation (December 20, 1947, p. 496, Julia Strachey, attached)
  • New York Times (December 14, 1947, p. BR5, James MacBride, attached)
  • New York Times (March 14, 1954, p. X5, Al Van Starrexcolombo, film review, attached)
  • Saturday Review of Literature (December 13, 1947, o. 13, Harrison Smith, attached)
  • The Spectator (December 19, 1947, p. 782, Robin King, attached)
  • Times Literary Supplement (December 6, 1947, p. 625, Marie Hannah, attached)
  • Christian Century (May 26, 1948, p. 513, Ralph Hinsdale Goodale, attached)