Three Came Home

THREE CAME HOME gave Claudette Colbert one of her best dramatic roles in this 1950 drama, the true story (as much as audiences could bear, anyway) of author Agnes Newton Keith’s survival of imprisonment by the Japanese during their WW2 occupation of Borneo. The quite remarkable Keith, her interned husband and young son made it out of captivity alive: she told the saga in a 1948 memoir which served as the basis for Nunnally Johnson’s script, quite well directed by Jean Negulesco. Just as Keith’s books (including “Land Below The Wind”) fetch high prices today, the movie is not easy to come by in a decent print, having fallen into the buyer-beware “public domain” region. Try to find one that does the best job parlaying the excellent cinematography, effective scoring and superior sound effects.

American writer Agnes Keith and her British husband, forester/conservationist Harry Keith, are among the Western civilians interned in Borneo when the Japanese strike following Pearl Harbor, bluntly (blunt, hell, it was savage) replacing European colonialism with “The Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (has a better ring than Mass Murder With Attached Protocol). Harry goes to a work camp, Agnes and their little boy George to bare bones facilities holding women & children. Before the ordeal ends late in 1945, starvation, beatings, sexual assault and torture are part of the diet already laced with disease and despair. Mrs. Keith and her son are accorded a few insertions of sympathy from Col. Tatsuji Suga, commander of the camps located in Borneo.

Colbert’s quite good running an emotional gamut; her commitment to the role resulted in a back injury so severe it not only kept her from the premiere but scotched her shot at playing in All About Eve, giving Bette Davis one of her most famous showpieces. As Mr. Keith, the dependable but typically reserved Patric Knowles has one of his best, most demonstrative parts. As the mercurial Col. Suda (who committed hara-kiri after capture before trial as a war criminal) the moviemakers made a smart choice in casting 63-year-old silent era star Sessue Hayakawa, who brings a dimension to the character (Suga, like the captive Keith’s, had an interesting life journey) that was unusual for the time period, and the movie does balance the expected atrocity portraits with the occasional display of humanity from the conquerors. Later in the decade Hayakawa would secure Imperial immortality on The Bridge On The River Kwai. As Keith related “The Japanese in ‘Three Came Home’ are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us.”

Crafting the cinematography stateside in California (using the L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden and sets in Arcadia) were Milton R. Krasner and William H. Daniels; Charles G. Clarke did a month of 2nd-unit location shooting exteriors in Borneo. Hugo Friedhofer composed the emotional but restrained score, and much credit goes to the sound crew; this tropical-set picture superbly employs some of the best “jungle noise” effects ever. Good as the movie is, it’s but a sketch of the book, a remarkable read.

Reviews were excellent, and at the box office the harrowing effort placed 50th in ’50, taking $5,400,000. With Florence Desmond, Mark Keuning (Keith’s young son George), Sylvia Andrew, Howard Chuman (brutish ‘Lt. Nakata’).

Agnes Newton Keith, 1901-1982



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