“I was 17 from a fishin’ family, a family that was starving. I was always a bit wild. I should have listened to my father. I should have listened to my mother. But I didn’t.”
And so begins The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, the tale of a provincial young woman who is shipped off to Botany Bay after being convicted of stealing food. From the beginning, it has the makings of a tawdry novel: a heroine with child; a love triangle—a handsome fellow prisoner or the powerful lieutenant; schemes and necessary betrayals. But before you imagine yourself watching a bodice ripper, know that the setup is merely the enticement.
Despite historical inaccuracies that make the film tragically romantic, The Incredible Journey is a miserable movie mostly because it’s a miserable story. People starve, women are raped, children die and what’s worse, it’s based on actual events. There is, however, something inspiring going on about all the stench and despair and that’s Mary. She’s a quick study with a surprising sense of loyalty and a fighting spirit.
After surviving both a punishing voyage and the violent convict uprisings , she calls Botany Bay a paradise. Determined to claim her piece of happiness, she convinces Will Bryant to marry her because married couples are allowed to build houses (it doesn’t hurt that he’s an Alex O’Loughlin). The clever girl then secures a fishing job for her husband along with a percentage of the catch. All’s well and good until the English crops, failing in the arid soil, convince her that she can’t feed her children if she stays put. In the “real” story, by all accounts Will got 100 lashings for selling fish without the governor’s approval, but onward with the drama.
Faced with the impending gloom of starvation–which Mary has suffered from before–Mary eats her fear. This is where her story gets incredible. Impossible though it seems, she plans to escape the penal colony which just so happens to be in the middle of the Australian nowhere. Along with her children and a seven man crew, she sets to sea on the governor’s stolen boat and navigates the uncharted Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Straits—a feat for any seaman, much less a motley crew. 66 days and 5,000 miles later, she and her companions land on the Dutch island of Timor. Styled as merchant class shipwreck survivors and afforded the luxuries that come from well-fashioned lies, Mary and her fellows live a life of ease until a chance encounter with her lovesick lieutenant, whom she has seduced and abandoned during her scheme to escape, ends in tragedy.
I won’t tell you the rest, as it ruins the suspense. As an historical curiosity, however, it should be known that Mary was rumored to have an affair with the famous 18th century man of letters and biographer, James Boswell. As he did her a kindness, resulting in the eventual betterment of her life, who knows the truth of their relationship given Boswell’s reputation for tendres with lower class women? Either way, she’s a fascinating woman who defied the odds and made history by doing what she was told was impossible.