War

The Joys of a P.O.W.

Claudette Colbert struggles in a POW camp.
Claudette Colbert keeps her head down and her nose clean.

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

Dear Reader: We hope you’re not going to feel ripped off. Not only are we including spoilers in this post, we’re bringing you a sad movie – the kind of sad that needs to have the tissues handy. You may need to reach for the tissue about four times while watching today’s film.

The 1950 war drama, Three Came Home, is based on the true story of American author Agnes Keith and her family who lived in Borneo during the Japanese invasion of WWII. Keith and her family were captured in 1942, and were imprisoned in POW camps until 1945. (Some of the exteriors in this film were shot in the actual locations that Keith described in her memoirs.)

Claudette Colbert plays Agnes Keith, and you’re quickly convinced that she is Agnes Keith. Her Hollywood glamour is toned down and she is believable as a woman capable of great bravery when protecting her family. Patric Knowles plays her colonial-official husband, a stalwart man who is duty-bound and unflappable.

Three Came Home is unusual because it examines the POW experience from a woman’s point of view. The early scenes make it clear that an invasion is inevitable; not only do the characters accept the coming invasion, they begin to normalize it, hoping for the best. “The men waited because it was their duty,” explains Agnes Keith. “The women, because it was their choice.”

Until the rainy night when the Japanese arrive, and the men set out to greet them with umbrellas. The Japanese greet them with guns.

The film portrays men in the Japanese army as quick-tempered and on edge – as any soldier would be. Some of the soldiers are decent people, some are not; but the movie makes it clear they are soldiers doing a soldier’s grim task.

Colbert meets the invading Japanese colonel (Sessue Hayakawa) who tells her he admires her work. An uneasy acquaintance is formed between the two. Although Hayakawa is the colonel of the occupying army, he is a likable and charming man. But, in our film, a pleasant moment like this merely sets us up for a sucker punch. For example, after Colbert has her first conversation with the genial Hayakawa, she leaves his office and nearly trips over the body of a dead Borneo national.

Now let us talk about the “tissue moments” in this film.

TISSUE #1: When the foreign nationals are taken captive, the women and children are placed in a camp about 100 yards from the men’s camp. To make things worse, the men pass by the women’s camp as they go to work in the fields, but contact between the two groups is forbidden.

Colbert slips out of the camp one night to spend a precious few minutes with her husband, despite the fact she has a crippling fever. She stumbles to the rendezvous point in the dark, sick with fear and nearly delirious with fever, whispering her husband’s name, frantic that he’s not there to meet her. When he finally arrives, you almost weep for the sight of him.

TISSUE #2: The women are told they are being transferred to another camp, and they are allowed a few minutes to say goodbye to their husbands. Everyone is marched to a water-filled trench; men on one side, women on the other. It is an awkward farewell scene; characters have so little time to say so much – and they also have to watch they don’t fall into the trench. The tissue moment in this scene? One of the women discovers her husband was transferred to another camp the week before; no one knows where. The camera singles out and isolates this woman, who is alone in her confusion and hurt, while we listen to the other women and their tearful goodbyes.

TISSUE #3 (and possibly #4): Hayakawa visits Colbert’s camp and, during their conversation, he tells her about losing his wife and his three children in the explosion at Hiroshima. Hayakawa is mesmerizing in this scene as man suffering overwhelming loss. As he prepares to leave the camp, he impulsively invites three of the POW children to come to his house for a little party. (Gentle Reader, if you have not used your tissue up until this point, you’ll be using it now.) The children are served a tray of fresh fruit and they marvel at what they’re tasting. But the camera follows Hayakawa as he shuffles to a corner and slumps down heavily into a chair. The children babble about the food but he sees and hears nothing; grief has rolled over his life as though it were smothering a fire.

FINAL TISSUE SCENE: The last tissue is for the final scene of the movie which we’re not going to divulge. There’s no point in telling you the entire movie, is there?

Three Came Home is a thought-provoking film with a sobering message. You have to be in the mood for it, but it is well worth the price of a box of tissues.

Three Came Home: starring Claudette Colbert, Patric Knowles, Florence Desmond. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1950, B&W, 105 mins.

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20 thoughts on “The Joys of a P.O.W.

  1. Claudette Colbert took audiences through all the different aspects of the war years – the homefront in “Since You Went Away”, the Service in “So Proudly We Hail” and a POW camp in “Three Came Home”. Now, that would be an emotionally draining day of movie watching.

    It has been many years since I saw this film based on Agnes Keith’s book and I greatly enjoyed your look at a memorable movie.

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  2. I have seen this movie but don’t remember it all that well. It is definitely worth seeing again, not just because it is a good movie but to pay tribute to those who experienced that hell. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through that experience. There is a memorable line in the movie (paraphrased): “Our single, sole purpose became to stay alive.” Movies like this remind me that there are a lot of brave & strong people that you never hear about.

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  3. Great film but Colbert’s best film to me will Always Be Tomorrow Is Forever.

    You can’t get better heart to heart dialogue by two people/characters in a movie that you get out of Welles and Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever.

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      1. Yes Colbert could do it all. The best thing she did when she acted was that she never overacted. Spencer Tracy said it best once, “less is more.”

        Colbert and Greer Garson are at the very the top of my personal favorite actress-list.

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  4. It goes without saying how much I love Claudette, but I will say it here, anyway. I love Claudette. As for Sessue Hayakawa: for my money, he is one of the most magnetic performers in film history. He has a totally unique place in the annals of Hollywood.

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      1. Absolutely true! Your eyes follow him, regardless of who else is in the scene. It’s not scene-stealing, just red-hot charisma that cannot be helped or faked.

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  5. This is a wonderful/powerful film if you can look past Claudette Colbert’s perfect hairdo while living in a prison camp. Other films may look more realistic, but… the ending is one of the most moving you will ever see.

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  6. I usually don’t like this kind of film, but this one really got to be. I agree that this is one of Colbert’s finest performances and Hayakawa is wonderful in a great showcase for him. Thanks for spotlighting a film that deserves to be seen.

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  7. I love Three Came Home. It’s my 3rd favorite Claudette film (Imitation of Life and It Happened One Night rate higher). You’re right about it being a tissue box kind of movie, especially that ending. What makes it even more powerful is knowing that it is based on actual events. It’s an inspiring story, which clearly shows the fortitude of the human spirit.

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  8. This film sounds fascinating, Ruth! Though I’m not usually a fan of sad movies in general, I do find most P.O.W. films compelling, and you’ve warned me sufficiently with your “Tissue Alerts” to allow me to properly prepare in advance. Glad to hear there’s a bit of balance shown in the depiction of the Japanese military here, as well. Great post!

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    1. Hey Jeff, I found this film to be more reasonable than most when depicting the Japanese. Of course, there was animosity between the prisoners and the guards, but the film made it clear that it was the situation, not race.

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