Three Came Home (1950)
How surprised I was to find a World War II POW drama told from a woman’s perspective, and almost 50 years prior to “Paradise Road,” a high-profile — and somewhat disappointing — film from 1996 starring Frances McDormand, Cate Blanchett and Glenn Close.
“Three Came Home” stars Claudette Colbert, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and ’40s, though her popularity was starting to wane by 1950. The movie also stars Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese camp commander, a role very similar to the one he would play seven years later in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
His Col. Suga is much more sympathetic than Saito, the colonel from “Bridge.” Suga is a stern but fair hand, even inviting Agnes Newton Keith (Colbert) into his office to share tea. Keith was a real-life American author, married to a Brit, living in North Borneo when the Japanese invaded, and Col. Suga asks for an autographed copy of one of her books.
The depiction of the Japanese in the film is often harsh, but somewhat nuanced considering the era. At least there are no Japanese wearing Coke-bottle glasses and speaking English in a racist ching-chong patter. But many of the guards are shown to be brutal bullies who beat the women purely for the enjoyment of it. In one scene, a guard demands a woman stick out her tongue, and when she does he punches her under the chin, causing her to injure herself.
Since the film is based on Keith’s autobiographical book about her experiences as a prisoner of war, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of these events.
Colbert gives a layered performance as a brave woman who spent most of her captivity in fear. Her husband (Patric Knowles) and the other men are kept in a different camp, while she must look after their 4-year-old son, George. Interestingly, the boy is played by a single child actor, Mark Keuning, despite the fact that the story spans several years. I guess director Jean Negulesco didn’t want to confuse the audience by suddenly having another kid show up.
Negulesco had a rough start to his career. He was fired off his first film, “Singapore Women,” though he still received a screen credit. His next movie was “The Maltese Falcon,” which he filmed for two months before being replaced by John Huston. He eventually made a name for himself, working regularly for the next 20 years, including an Oscar nomination for “Johnny Belinda.”
There’s one great scene that will linger with me. The women are about to be sent to a distant camp, and are allowed a few minutes to see their husbands before leaving. But they line them up across from a small gully, so they can only reach out far enough to clasp hands. It’s quite an image, that long row of almost-embraces.
Another harrowing sequence (earlier on) has Agnes sneaking out of camp for a brief tryst with her husband under a tall palm tree. I think the scene where she sneaks through the brush on her belly while a Japanese soldier stalks her inspired Steven Spielberg for a similar moment in “Empire of the Sun.”
The film’s most controversial section is easy to name. Agnes is attacked one night by Japanese soldier intending rape, though she fights him off. She makes the her “bravest mistake” by telling the colonel about it, who is most disturbed at the accusation. Since Agnes can’t identify her assailant, there’s nothing to be gained except riling up the soldiers against her.
While Suga is away, the brutish lieutenant has her beaten to get her to sign a confession that she made up the whole story. Knowing that this would substantiate a case for false accusation, and effectively mean signing her own death warrant, Agnes refuses and nearly has her arm broken and her ribs kicked in. Worse yet, the lieutenant warns her not to tell the other prisoners about her treatment, lest even worse punishment follow.
I can only imagine how these scenes must have played in America in 1950, when painful memories of Japanese war crimes were still fresh. The scenes are still hard to watch even 60 years later.