Three Came Home (1950): Negulesco’s Women’s Prison Melodrama, Starring Claudette Colbert

Based on the WWII memoirs of the writer Agnes Newton Keith, Three Came Home was a prestige Fox picture, produced by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Jean Negulesco in a powerful yet restrained style.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Three Came Home

In the lead role of the American born prisoner of war Agnes Keith, Claudette Colbert gives an extremely powerful and commanding performance, showing a range of dramatic skills seldom used before.

American-born Agnes Keith (Colbert) and her British husband (Patric Knowles) live a cushioned colonial life in North Borneo with their young son. After the Japanese invasion, in 1942, they are interned and then taken to separate prison camps, one for men, the other for women and children.

Keith was initially interned at Berhala Island near Sandakan, but she spent most of her captivity at Batu Lintang Camp at Kuching, Sarawak. The story depicts Keith’s internment and suffering, while separated from her hubby and taking care of their son.

At the concentration camp, the women are given meager food rations and take beating for the minor violation. But Agnes never loses her spirit and her belief that she would be released and reunited with her husband. Throughout, the women suffer physical abuse as well as mental brutality.

However amid the ruthless treatment, one man, the camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Suga (Sessue Hayakawa) shows respect for Keith because he is familiar with her work. Moreover, he proves to be kind to the children, despite the fact that his own family had died in Hiroshima.

The scenes between Agnes and Col. Suga are particularly well acted. A former silent star, Japanese actor Hayakawa renders an intense, even dignified performance. (You may recognize him from his appearance in David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for which he received a supporting actor nomination).

The film narrated by Claudette Colbert.  Representing a peak in Colbert’s long and distinguished career, the movie offered the actress a strong, finely modulated role, which she embodies with fervor and compassion, seldom succumbing to the material’s tear-jerking  potential. Three Came Home may be a propaganda piece, but it does convey vividly the daily horror and bleak futility of prison life, in which a group of ordinary  women meet the challenges with admirable tenacity and fortitude.

The black-and-white film is well shot and edited by Milton Krasner and Dorothy Spencer, respectively.


Agnes Keith (Claudette Colbert)

Harry Keith (Patric Knowles)

Betty Sommers (Florence Desmond)

Colonel Suga (Sessue Hayakawa)

Henrietta (Sylvia Andrew)

George Keith (Mark Keuning)

Sister Rose (Phyllis Morris)

Lt. Nekata (Howard Chuman)

Lieutenant Nekata (Howard Chuman)


Directed by Jean Negulesco
Produced by Nunnally Johnson
Written by Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson , based on Three Came Home the 1947 memoir by Agnes Newton Keith
Music by Hugo Friedhofer
Cinematography (b/w): William H. Daniels, Milton R. Krasner
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century-Fox

Release date: February 20, 1950
Running time: 106 minutes