Classic Film Review: Colbert is a prisoner of WWII in “Three Came Home”

“Three Came Home” is a fascinating curio from a Hollywood and America on the cusp of change.

This 1951 POW drama was the first to cover ground that “A Town Like Alice,” the movie and later TV series, the series “Tenko” and the 1990s Bruce Beresford/Glenn Close film “Paradise Road” recreated — stories about the Western women, wives of European, Australian and British foreign service personnel kept prisoner by the Japanese after their invasion of most of the South Pacific at the outset of the war.

What we see in Jean Negulesco’s 1951 film is a hint of the end of the old Hollywood studio system, a mostly-sound-stage bound “on location” production, acting that dates from that same “last days before The Method” era and America’s on-screen softening of attitudes towards the hated enemy of just a few years before.

It’s a bit old-fashioned, but there’s much to recommend this Oscar-nominated production even today.

Based on a memoir by Agnes Newton Keith, already a published author (“Land Below the Wind”) when the war broke out, it briefly sketches in the British Empire bubble Keith (Claudette Colbert), an American married to British forestry manager Harry (Patric Knowles) lived in until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and seized Hong Kong, The Philippines, Singapore, Java and their corner of North Borneo, Sandakan.

There’s the Pearl Harbor news on the wireless, which only their little boy (Mark Keunig) hears on the day it happens, the concerned “Do you really think they’ll come?” from Agnes, and Harry’s stiff-upper-lip, “It’s liable to get a little rough out here” calm and sense of duty in the face of the inevitable.

The Japanese commander put in charge of their district, Col. Suga, is played by Sessue Hayakawa, giving us the first version of the commandant he’d play in “Bridge on the River Kwai.” He’s an American-educated fan of Mrs. Keith’s writings and her seeming “understanding of Orientals.”

As husband and wife are separated and Agnes is forced to raise their sometimes sickly boy under brutal, starvation conditions, she deals with mostly lower level brutes in the Japanese chain of command. But Col. Suga wants her to autograph her book for him, is eager to share stories of his children back in Japan, and makes overt gestures of gentility (“Tea?”) in sharp contrast to the privation Keith is living under.

Their barracks, with her the lone American among crusty Brits, can be fractious. Agnes is desperate for any news of her husband, any chance to see him or meet with him via passed notes. The film captures nerve-racking efforts to rendezvous with Harry, and in a scene that begins giddy and turns starkly real, has randy Australian POWs try to woo the women through the barbed wire, getting so carried away we know the Japanese will find out and there’ll be reprisals.

Colbert’s performance has more Old Hollywood glamour about it than the stoic suffering of Keith’s situation would suggest — flawless makeup and clean costumes for the adoring close-ups. She was a leading lady who knew how to crane her neck in the clinches with her leading man, moments framed more naturally by later generations of directors.

The Romanian born Negulesco, a former painter and stage decorator, learned his craft in the 1930s but was entering his most productive period when he made “Three Came Home,” which came after “Three Strangers” and before “Three Coins in the Fountain.” It’s a film of sympathetic performances and workmanlike craft — nothing fancy.

The film has plenty of evidence of the racial attitudes of the day, and the pre-war days it depicts. The women in the camp freely mock their captors — the ones who don’t speak English, anyway. But the racial caricatures of war films shot during and immediately after WWII are mostly gone.

The Japanese soldiers are quick to anger, quick to slap or point a bayonetted rifle, but also polite enough to say “Thank you” in a sort of “This war will last ten years” effort to just get along in this situation.

I was surprised by the frank addressing of attempted assault, with the Japanese officers furiously trying to pretend their cultural practice of turning captives into “comfort woman” wasn’t happening.

And I was struck by the niche the always-dignified Hayakawa was forced to carve out for himself with this performance, a villain with an urbane, Westernized and “reasonable” side. Col. Suga becomes a screen paragon of “Well, they’re our allies in the Far East, now” American/Japanese relations. We can’t have him come off as a sadistic brute, can we?

Keith’s memoirs about her time in these camps, from privation to liberation, have been the anchor account for pretty much every factual and fictional recreation of that experience to be put on the screen. And while there was only so far this “on location” (some of it) depiction was going to go in 1950-51, Colbert and Negulesco and the cast do a decent job of remembering “life reduced to one simple, stubborn purpose — to keep alive.”

“Three Came Home” manages to be both of its time and ahead of its time in that regard, a dated Hollywood classic well worth referring back to as the seed from which many more more grimly realistic versions of that “women prisoners of war” experience would sprout.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Patrick Knowles, Florence Desmond, Sylvia Andrew, Mark Keunig, Howard Chuman and Sessue Hayakawa.

Credits: Directed by Jean Negulesco, scripted by Nunnally Johnson, based on the memoir by Agnes Newton Keith. A Twentieth Century Fox release now on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:46

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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