Cast & Crew
In 1941, Agnes Newton Keith is the only American resident of Sandakan, the capital of British North Borneo. She is married to British colonial officer Harry Keith and, unknown to him, is pregnant with their second child. Concerned about rumors that, in the event of war, Japanese troops could come through the East Indies, Henry suggests that Agnes and their four-year-old son George return to America. Agnes insists on staying but agrees to send George back. However, before that can happen, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the inhabitants of Sandakan are advised that they will soon be invaded, that they cannot be evacuated and that they must not cooperate with the Japanese. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese, led by Colonel Michio Suga, take over the area. Suga, who speaks English fluently, asks to see Agnes as he has read the Japanese edition of a book she has written about Borneo, and asks her to autograph a copy of the American edition. He talks of his children, a girl and two boys, one a little younger than George. The Japanese occupation of Sandakan is a very trying time, and after a month, Agnes has a miscarriage. In May 1942, the Japanese Army orders that all Europeans be evacuated to prison camps and that men and women be imprisoned separately. George goes with his mother by small boat to Berhala, a desolate, ill-equipped camp, where they endure nine months of filth, hunger and degradation. The men are only a few hundred yards away in a separate compound and, occasionally, notes can be passed between them. Thus, a meeting is arranged between Agnes and Harry. Leaving George, who is feverish, in the care of her friend, Betty Sommers, a terrified Agnes sneaks out under the wire, past the guards, to meet Harry for the first time in five months. However, while Agnes is away, George's fever worsens and Betty has to go to the camp's captain to plead for quinine. The captain decides to see George's condition for himself, and Agnes makes it back to the barracks just before he arrives. The women eventually leave Berhala but the men remain there. After ten days at sea in miserable conditions, the women arrive at another appalling camp, run by Lieutenant Nekata, who tells them that the war will last another ten years. Although the women are forced to labor in the rice paddies, their daily food ration consists of one cupful of thin rice gruel, five tablespoonfuls of rice, an occasional vegetable and a cup of tea. One day, Agnes is summoned to Nekata's office to discover that Suga is there, having been put in charge of all camps in the area. He has brought a copy of Agnes' book, which he took from her house, and she autographs it "To Colonel Michio Suga-a lover of beautiful letters." One night, a group of Australian male prisoners-of-war from a nearby camp come to flirt with the women and try to climb the wire fences. Suddenly, the compound is ablaze with light and the guards begin shooting the men, horrifying the women with the sight of bodies impaled on the wire. Months later, Agnes is brutally attacked by one of the guards and complains to Suga. He assigns Nekata to conduct an investigation but Agnes cannot identify her assailant as it was too dark. Suga apologizes to her but, once he leaves the camp, Agnes is again interrogated by Nekata, who insists that she identify the man from a line-up. When she cannot do this, Nekata orders her to sign a document denying that she was attacked. Agnes refuses to sign as, she knows Nekata can have her executed for falsely accusing a Japanese soldier if she does. Agnes is tortured but refuses to sign. Later, Agnes is summoned for another interrogation, and fearing she will not return, she asks Betty to look after George. Nekata is about to torture her again when Suga returns to the camp and learns that Agnes has now decided to drop all charges. In May 1945, the women are working in the fields when the area is bombed by Allied planes. Although they hope the attack means their freedom is imminent, three months pass before the Australian Air Force drops leaflets announcing that Japan has surrendered and that help will arrive as soon as possible. Suga tells Agnes that his wife and children have been killed in the Hiroshima bombing. Later, when Suga finds George and two young friends scavenging for food, he invites them to a picnic at his house where, upon seeing the happy children, he breaks down. One morning, the women awake to find that their captors have left. Soon, trucks loaded with Australian soldiers and liberated male prisoners from surrounding camps arrive, and Suga is captured. Agnes' friend Betty reunites with her husband but there is no sign of Harry. After Agnes and George keep a vigil at the camp's entrance, Harry finally appears on crutches. Although barely able to walk, Harry runs toward Agnes, but falls in the dusty road. Agnes and George rush to help him, and the family is together once more.
Yamato Cain Yamasaki
Masaji "butch" Yamamota
Sam "isami" Ono
Charles G. Clarke
Charles Le Maire
Fred J. Rode
E. Clayton Ward
Darryl F. Zanuck
Three Came Home
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
Three Came Home
It was while filming this movie that Claudette Colbert sustained the back injury that forced her to give up the part of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) to Bette Davis.
Agnes Newton Keith's account of her captivity in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps became a best seller when published in 1947. In October 1948, a Los Angeles Times news item reported that Olivia de Havilland would portray Keith in the film. In the spring of 1949, the studio dispatched a second unit crew to Borneo where, for four weeks, director of photography Charles G. Clarke shot scenics, establishing shots and background plates. According to Clarke, Keith provided lodging for two of the four men in the crew and participated in the filming. She can be glimpsed on a process plate behind Claudette Colbert and another actress as they "walk" along a pier on their way to the Berhala camp.
Most of the Japanese soldiers in the film were played by Nisei veterans of the U.S. Army. Trade reviews include Kermit Whitfield and Kim Spalding in the cast, but the brief scene in which they appeared as U.S. Naval officers who warn the Keiths to leave Sandakan was cut before the film opened.
An article in the March 20, 1950 edition of Life states that the film gives a more favorable impression of Colonel Suga than the book does. According to the article, Keith was grateful to Suga for having been kind to the children and having, she believes, saved her husband from execution, but also hated him for being the overseer of a degrading system of torture and starvation. In a letter to the New York Times published on March 26, 1950, Keith wrote, "...I find that one or two critics (not The New York Times) question why the story was written....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."