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I came upon this film by accident Sunday afternoon as I channel surfed by
PBS station. I expected to laugh at it for a few minutes and then shut
its caricature of noble Brits and Yanks resisting their evil Asian
For the black and white glow from the screen prejudiced me to anticipate
another farcical exemplar of Edward Said's "Orientalism" transposed for
land of the rising sun.
So, unlike the first commentator on this film, I was actually pleased by the balance in its presentation. For although these days of Ozzie and Harriet rarely projected overt brutality realistically onto the screen, this film does provide a palpable sense of the suffering endured by European prisoners of war. At the same time, it did not end on this note: one of the more powerful Japanese camp directors suffers a loss in his family due to the Hiroshima bombing. And it is this counterbalance later in the film which I think causes me to disagree with the first commentator's view that this is something of a propaganda film.
Several things about this film stand out to me as justly bold for that era of film-making:
*an attempted rape is portrayed as well as a realistic presentation of its consequences. Accordingly, a complex moral lesson is imparted to the audience: far more complex, I might add, than the lessons Hollywood chooses to impart in many contemporary films with respect to such events. Perhaps this is simply an accident of the narrative being based on true events.
*the main character is a woman who is educated, brave and yet sympathizes with Asian culture (she is a scholar who has published an anthropological study which had been translated into Japanese) even if she vehemently opposes Japan's aggression.
*Hiroshima and the firebombings of Tokyo are presented from the Japanese viewpoint as horrific events and their effect in this movie is to engender sympathy for the ambiguous figure of the camp commander.
Of course this is still a Hollywood movie of the 50s and some of the behavior seems stilted and implausible to contemporary audiences. But compared to some other films made then - or even today - it is a breath of fresh air. I never expected to watch this whole film but was quite happy I did. I highly recommend it to others (which is why I bothered to write this!) as a date movie (in spite of the subject matter the strong female character and love story recommend it here) or a film to show children over ten (get a map so the child can locate Borneo) to introduce them to the many moral and political questions arising out of the war in the Pacific. Enjoy!
Good performances and scripting enhance this tale of hardship and
endurance set in a Japanese internment camp in Borneo during World War
II. Miss Colbert's performance in particular is always convincing and
often riveting. Also noteworthy is Sessue Hayakawa's sensitive
portrayal of the outwardly stern but inwardly humane Col. Suga.
Considering that this film was released only five years after the end of World War II, when anti-Japanese feeling was still very much present in the U.S., it's surprising that the horrors of life in Japanese captivity aren't played up more. Several instances of casual and calculated brutality are shown, but there is little here to compare with the shocking (and realistic) scenes in the much more recent film "Paradise Road." And the range of characterizations among the Japanese should be a welcome surprise to those who dismiss wartime and postwar American attitudes as uniformly jingoistic and racist. Yes, some of the Japanese are wantonly cruel, but others are obviously sympathetic to the prisoners, and as noted above, Col. Suga emerges not only as a reasonable commander but also as a noble man who can resist the temptation to take out his own grief and anger on the prisoners. Sadly, there were few men like Col. Suga in the real Borneo camps.
One unfortunate oversight: the action of the film covers almost four years of imprisonment and deprivation, but the prisoners appear just about as well-fed and energetic at the end as when they arrived.
This movie probably could not have been made during the war or immediately afterwards because although the Japanese are definitely bad in the film, they are not one-dimensional and Sessue Hayakawa plays a Japanese Commandant that is believable and not 100% wicked or sex-crazed. Instead, this is a compelling true story of a woman who is interred in a camp for the duration of the war and her relationship with the commandant. The commandant is NOT typical of many ultra-brutal and inhumane camp leaders and tries to treat the detainees firmly but reasonably. While they never become best friends (that would be creepy and ridiculous), over time, she was able to see and appreciate his humanity. In fact, over time, both began to find things to respect about the other. A fascinating look at history and the people who lived through it.
This is the fourth and last of the heart-wrenching Claudette Colbert
World War II films, the previous being SO PROUDLY WE HAIL! (1943),
SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) and TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946) in which she
played, respectively a brave Army nurse, a struggling home-front wife
and mother and a WW I widow who passionately tries to keep her only son
from participating in WW II.
In THREE CAME HOME she plays Agnes Keith, an American author married to a British colonial officer (Patrick Knowles) living in Borneo. When the Japanese invade the island they imprison the American and British residents. The Keiths are interned in separate jungle camps one for women and children and another for men for three and a half grueling years. It is true that at times Colbert doesn't quite look like a prison camp starveling but in those days movies did not offer the sort of hyperrealism we've grown accustomed to since the 60's, but she certainly does not look like she stepped out of a beauty salon. In fact I can think of no other film in which she appeared more plain and unvarnished. Few if any actresses of her stature in that era would have taken on the physical demands of this role. Unfortunately it was also her final socko performance on film. None of her 50's work came close to her substantial work here and she was all but wasted in PARRISH (1961). But here both she and Sessue Hayakawa as the prison camp commander deliver true and memorable performances as mortal enemies whose mutual interest in literature and shared experience of parenthood create a tenuous bond that augments the suspense and dramatic impact of the story.
Based on a memoir by the real-life Mrs. Keith (who was quite a character in her own right, and not remotely like Colbert), there is a vein of intelligence running through the proceedings, lifting them out of the mainstream of the often jingoistic wartime prison film genre. The Japanese are depicted in a dignified and fair manner without being whitewashed; in fact, in an early scene Hayakawa praises Mrs. Keith for the balanced views in her book about the Orient which he had read before the war. It is precisely his respect for her broadminded attitude that probably saved her life. Nunnally Johnson's script is tight and focused, as is the whole enterprise. The emphasis is on human relationships, so that by the end we are swept up in the emotional life of the characters. A bright note is the casting of a winning boy actor named Mark Keuning who has to be one of the best and most believable child actors ever. He appeared in only two movies, both in 1950, before retreating permanently from films.
This is a film worth seeing again and again. It has lost none of its essential power over the decades. Other films are grittier, with more blood and pus and exaggerated savagery, more breathtaking location shooting and exotic cultural immersion, but few can pack the kind of punch this one does. The ending is one of the most moving you will ever see.
Claudette Colbert plays Agnes Keith, prisoner. The time period is WWII. Agnes is a married woman with a child that has no idea of what is about to happen to her. She will be taken to a woman's prisoner of war camp. Her boy stays with her but her husband is taken away. There is no hope for any of the women. Life is hard. Forced physical labor is the rule of the day. Soldiers show no feelings for their captives. Sessue Hayakawa plays Colonel Suga, in charge of the camp. A man that follows orders and yet does seem to try to treat the women with some respect. As the months carry on. Will help ever arrive at the camp? Will this war ever end the punishment of being a prisoner? Will the women ever see their husbands again? A fine performance by Claudette. The ending ends with both human sadness and victory.
Always enjoyed the great acting of Claudette Colbert,(Tomorrrow Is Forever",'46 and especially her role in this picture as Agnes Keith, who is captured along with her husband and son in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during WW II and towards its Victory. This film clearly shows how people in our past Wars were treated by their captives during this terrible time in American History. Agnes Keith is a successful writer and is admired by a Japanese Colonel who enjoyed her writings and even asks her for an autographed copy of her books. However, once the Colonel turns his back, all Hell breaks loose. Hollywood did a great job of trying to show the American Public what horrors went on in this Prisoner Camp and others during the entire war in the Pacific, which is quite mildly accomplished. War creates monsters out of many people and the opportunity to seek power over other human beings is an on going struggle in this world. After viewing this picture I became very interested in this subject and read,"The Rape of Nanking", by Iris Chang. This is definitely a great film that should be view by many generations in the future.
Claudette Colbert got one of her best late career roles in Three Came
Home, the moving story of the experiences of Agnes Newton Keith and her
time in a Japanese POW camp. Keith earned her status by dint of being
married to a British colonial official in North Borneo who is played by
Patric Knowles in the best stiff upper lip tradition.
On the screen and in real life Keith was a novelist who faithfully recorded oriental life with some empathy in her books. That got her some favorable treatment from the Japanese, in the film in the form of an ally of sorts in a colonel played by Sessue Hayakawa.
Hayakawa's performance is the highlight of the film. It may very well have been the first time post World War II that a Japanese character was given three dimensions. Of course the brutality of the Japanese prison camps is also shown in the best tradition of that other World War II film Sessue Hayakawa did, The Bridge On The River Kwai.
1950 was definitely the year for women in stir. A few weeks before this film came out, MGM released Caged which certainly has some of the same themes as Three Came Home. Of course the big difference is that over at MGM the women were criminals in a civilian setting.
Three Came Home directed by Jean Negulesco who normally did lighter material than this, holds up very well for today's audience. Colbert, Knowles, and Hayakawa do some of their best screen work here and definitely try to catch this one when broadcast.
This is an excellent movie for all ages. I saw this film when I was 5 and cried my eyes out and here I am more than 20+ years later and still crying my eyes out. I think it stands as a great companion movie to "Bridge Over the River Kwai". The movie takes the high road regarding P.O.W camps in that part of the world because as we all know, thousands of prisoners died in the camps under the Japanese and during the horrific death marches. This movie is more like someone who had been in a P.O.W. camp(which the author had been) and tells you only the stories they think you can take but glosses over the more horrific parts. That said the acting and direction is superb. This is my most memorable of all of the wonderful and under-rated Claudette Colbert movies. So all in all, great movie and in order to get balanced view "Letters to Iwo Jima" also great movie!
Claudette Colbert is remembered for her performances in comedy roles, but she was a fine dramatic actress as well. This is by far her best dramatic performance. My only problem with the film is the fact that Claudette is confined to a Japanese prison camp for several years, but maintains her hairdo throughout!
The story is good and has you wondering how it will end. Colbert suffers through taking care of her son and coming to terms with POW life. Sessue Hayakawa gives a great performance as Colonel Suga who suffers through problems of his own. The movie is done in old Hollywood dramatic style. Not being a big fan of older films, I still enjoyed this movie and recommend it to fans of any era. 6/10
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