Tuesday 1 December 2020

Movie Review: Three Came Home (1950)

A World War Two prison drama, Three Came Home is an autobiographical survival story infused with heart and compassion.

The setting is Borneo in the early 1940s. American author Agnes Keith (Claudette Colbert), her husband Harry (Patric Knowles) and their four year old son George are members of the small foreign community, with Harry part of the island's British government structure. The attack on Pearl Harbor increases anxiety, and indeed the Japanese army arrives and occupies Borneo with no local resistance. Agnes encounters the polite Colonel Suga (Sessue Hayakawa), who is familiar with her published book. 

Initially allowed to stay home, the Keiths are eventually confined to separate prisons at Berhala Island, Agnes with George at the women's compound and Harry at a nearby men's camp. Forced to survive arduous conditions and disease on minimal nutrition, Agnes befriends other prisoners including Betty (Florence Desmond). After a relocation to the bigger Batu Lintang camp near Kuching under the command of Lieutenant Nekata, Agnes fears she may never see Harry again. Throughout her captivity she has intermittent contact with Colonel Suga as the war grinds to its conclusion.

An adaptation of Agnes Keith's book based on her experiences during the war, Three Came Home gives away its ending in the title, but nevertheless finds sufficient drama in the story of an aristocratic woman and her young child thrust into a prison camp and a grim survival ordeal. With some second unit on-location shooting adding authenticity, director Jean Negulesco deploys dreary black and white photography and frequent tropical storms to underline a gnawing sense of despair. 

Some scenes play like a thriller: a feverish Agnes sneaks under a fence and stumbles in the jungle for an illicit rendevouz with Harry when they still occupy adjacent prison camps. Other sequences are more poignant: Agnes digs into a gourmet meal of garbage scraps, discussing the mystery ingredients between ravenous swallows.

While most of the Japanese soldiers and actions are typical of occupation forces, Colonel Suga is a kind and refined commander. He goes out of his way to display politeness towards Agnes, and shares his family background at the start and end of her ordeal. With Sessue Hayakawa injecting doses of dignity, the humanization of the enemy is a mature stance and elevates the narrative beyond routine.

Claudette Colbert is up to the challenge of carrying the heaviest acting load in a physically and emotionally demanding performance. As Agnes, Colbert juggles the imperatives of survival with worry about her fragile son and absent husband, and still summons the strength to stand up for herself in a late confrontation with Lieutenant Nekata after an attempted rape incident. Beyond Hayakawa, the rest of the cast sticks to predictable notes.

Three Came Home does suffer from a protagonist mostly at the mercy of actions by others, but nevertheless celebrates the phenomenal human ability to adapt and endure.

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