Three Came Home (1950)



Director:  Jean Negulesco.

Starring:   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).

true account of American woman's experience in a Japanese prison camp


Good movie.  It is 1941 in Sandakan, the capital of British North Borneo, at the northeast tip of Borneo.  Agnes Newton Keith is an American woman married to Harry Keith, a British colonial official working in British North Borneo.  She was born in Oak Park, Illinois and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.  She has a small boy and is pregnant again.  Earlier she published a book entitled Land Below the Wind.

Her family hears on the radio that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The Japanese soon land at Kuching in Borneo.  The British officials are told that the government is sorry but they cannot help them against the Japanese. 

As the Japanese are set to arrive, all the women gather in the large administration building.  The Japanese tell them all to go home, except for Mrs. Keith.  It seems that Colonel Suga has read Mrs. Keith's book and especially liked its very generous attitude toward Asian peoples.  He actually asks her to autograph a copy of the book to him personally.  The Colonel had visited the USA for four years and  had attended the University of Washington.  (She has a miscarriage, partly due to the stress of the situation.)

May 12, 1942.  All Europeans are sent to prison camps.  They are taken to an island.  The men's compound was located a few hundred yards from the women's compound.  It was the beginning of a terrible period of filth, hunger and degradation.  They will not be liberated until September 11, 1945. 

The film deals with the abuses the women face and their efforts to keep up their spirits while being held in a virtual concentration camp. 

I found the movie very moving.  As Mrs. Keith says it was about "survival";  surviving those more than three years of prison camp.  I liked that they did not paint all the Japanese as terrible monsters, although many certainly were.  Colonel Suga was a decent man who did extend some protection to Mrs. Keith. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


1932 -- Agnes Newton was a young reporter for the San Francisco Examiner.  Outside the offices of the newspaper, she was beaten by a mugger so badly that she had severe memory loss for several years.

She recovered in Los Angeles.  There she again met Harry G. Keith, a friend of her brother.  He was a British foreign officer stationed in North Borneo as Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture. (North Borneo is now Sabah, Malaysia.)

1934  --  one day before Harry had to return to North Borneo, Agnes married him.  

Agnes loved the tranquility of Sandakan, the capital of North Borneo. 

1939  --  Agnes wrote a book entitled Land Below the Wind about her life in Sandakan..  She entered it in the Atlantic Monthly Non-Fiction Prize Contest. She won.  The book became a bestseller.  The title of the book became the unofficial motto for the state of Sabah.

1942  --  Japanese invasion of North Borneo.  The Keith family were sent to prison camps for over three years.  Their first camp was on Pulau Berhala near Sandakan and the second was the notorious Batu Lintang camp at Kuching.

An inmate could be executed for keeping notes, but Agnes kept a diary, using the backs of labels and the margins of newspapers.  She would bury her diary entries in tins or would sew them inside her sonís home-made toys.

1945  -- when the war was over and the Keith family freed, they returned to find their Sandakan home destroyed. 

1946-47  --  the Keith house was rebuilt to near the original design.  The Keiths lived in it until they left Sabah in 1952.

1950  --  Agnes wrote another book, Three Came Home.  It was another bestseller.

2004  --  the Keith house, "Newlands," in Sandakan was opened as a museum and is one of the leading attractions in Sabah, Malaysia.  One of the ways to reach the house is via the Stairs of a Hundred Steps, the rugged path that goes from the town and up the ridge to the house. 



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