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Based on Agnes Newton Keith's bestselling 1947 memoir, Three Came Home (1950) tells Keith's harrowing true story of survival in a POW camp during World War II. In the film, Mrs. Keith (played by Claudette Colbert) is an American writer living in North Borneo with her British husband Harry (Patric Knowles) and young son George (Mark Keuning) when the war breaks out. When Japanese soldiers invade the area, Mrs. Keith is separated from her husband and taken to a POW camp with George where they spend the next three years. Keith must endure agonizing hardships in order to survive and care for her son, each day holding on to hope that they will all one day be reunited as a family.
Nunnally Johnson produced Three Came Home and adapted Keith's book into the screenplay for Twentieth Century-Fox. Johnson wanted the film to be as true to the source as possible and capture the harsh reality of Keith's ordeal, which included violence, starvation, torture and rape.
Claudette Colbert gives one of the best performances of her career in Three Came Home. She knew that the role would be rough and physical at times, but like writer/producer Nunnally Johnson, she believed that the more realistic the movie was, the more powerful it would be. The usually glamorous actress gave up her vanity to show the physical effects of starvation and hardship inside a POW camp. The film also called for Colbert to be beaten and tortured on camera, something unusually graphic for its day, which took its toll on the actress physically. While filming a particularly brutal scene in which her character is being tortured, Colbert suffered a severe back injury. The injury, which would plague her for years, cost her the starring role in what was supposed to be her next picture: All About Eve (1950). Still, Colbert had no regrets making Three Came Home, which she considered one of her best films. "You know I'm not given to exaggeration," she told Three Came Home director Jean Negulesco after filming was complete, "so I hope you believe me when I say that working with you has been the most stimulating and happiest experience of my entire career."
The great Japanese silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa is moving and memorable in a supporting role as a sympathetic Japanese colonel who takes a liking to Mrs. Keith. In 1950 so soon after World War II, it was unusual to see any Japanese characters portrayed in a sensitive light in an American film. However, Three Came Home makes an effort to be fair in its depiction.
Three Came Home was released in early 1950 with little fanfare, though reviews were positive. The New York Times said, "Agnes Newton Keith's tremendous story of some marginal barbarities of the recent war she saw and bravely endured as a prisoner of the Japanese in Borneo has received surpassing illustration from Twentieth Century-Fox in a bold and heroic screen drama of the same title...Soundly written, sincerely directed and honestly played by Claudette Colbert and an excellent cast, this picture...bids fair to stand as one of the strongest of the year...It will shock you, disturb you, tear your heart out. But it will fill you fully with a great respect for a heroic soul." Time magazine said, "As a movie, done with reasonable fidelity to the book, it is often as harrowing (and) moving...as what the war did to the Keiths. The picture thoroughly deglamorizes Claudette Colbert in the leading role, and takes pains to recreate authentic Japanese prison compounds against jungle backgrounds filmed in Borneo. It shows considerable restraint in its treatment of Japanese soldiers; there is even a sympathetic Japanese colonel feelingly played by the silent screen's Sessue Hayakawa."
Three Came Home is a powerful film of unusual frankness and sensitivity that depicts some of the horrors of war that happen off the battlefield. In a letter written to the New York Times after the film's release, Agnes Newton Keith said, "I wrote Three Came Home for three reasons: For horror of war. I want others to shudder with me at it. For affection of my husband. When war nearly killed me, knowledge of our love kept me alive. And for a reminder to my son. I fought one war for him in prison camp. He survives because of me...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."
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson; Agnes Newton Keith (book)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner; William H. Daniels (uncredited)
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Claudette Colbert (Agnes Newton Keith), Patric Knowles (Harry Keith), Florence Desmond (Betty Sommers), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Suga), Sylvia Andrew (Henrietta), Mark Keuning (George Keith), Phyllis Morris (Sister Rose), Howard Chuman (Lieutenant Nekata).
BW-106m. Closed Captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume