The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Three Came Home

With all the World War II movies I’ve seen, some of my favorites have been prisoner of war stories. My favorite all-time movie is The Great Escape, but there’s also Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, and King Rat among others. They all share a common link though beyond just P.O.W.’s, and that’s that all the prisoners are males.  Well, not all of them, like 1950’s Three Came Home.

Time to hit all you loyal readers with a history lesson. Regardless of who was your captor during World War II, the experience was no doubt a hellish one. But it was a relative hell if that makes any sense. Germany signed the Geneva Convention which listed certain requirements for the treatment of prisoners.  The United States and many other countries also signed FYI. One country that didn’t? Good old Japan, basically giving the Japanese free reign to treat prisoners however they so chose. Add in the cultural belief that to be taken prisoner was a slight on who you were as a person, and prisoners of war in Japanese POW camps were a step far below most other experiences. And if you were a woman? God help you.

It’s 1941 in Borneo and American writer Agnes Newton Keith (Claudette Colbert) lives peacefully with her husband Harry (Patric Knowles) and 4-year old son, George (Mark Keuning). The Japanese are advancing though, and Borneo is on their path to dominance. It’s not long before they arrive, throwing all British and American civilians into prison camps throughout the countryside. Agnes and George are separated from Harry and thrown into a different camp that while unpleasant is not under the worst conditions. It’s not long before all the surviving prisoners are moved to a harsher camp where survival is that much more difficult. Through it all though, Agnes wants to survive and be reunited with her family as a whole.

Just the other day I reviewed a WWII movie heavy on the propaganda in 1943’s Air Force. What can be hard to distinguish when dealing with propaganda movies is the enemy side and their portrayal.  Now by all accounts, the Japanese and their war crimes didn’t need to be exaggerated. Whether in battle or in their treatment of prisoners, the Japanese were brutal both in victory or defeat. Prisoners captured in the heat of battle were often brutally slaughtered, and those unlucky enough to survive getting to the prison camps lived in horrific conditions with little to no medical treatment and less in the way of food and clothes. That’s not to say there weren’t war crimes committed by all sides, but the Japanese were almost certainly the worst. So translate this to movies released in 1950s, the portrayals were often toned-down, not showing what the actual experience was like.

I guess that was my issue with Three Came Home, a solid movie that never rises to anything on a special level. Yes, the experiences these men and women went through were horrific, but mostly we hear how bad all these things are without actually seeing them. Besides one incident where a Japanese guard tries to rape her, Colbert’s Agnes doesn’t experience anything worse than the mystery of whether her husband has survived. Food is limited, and living conditions are obviously leave something to be desired, but as a viewer you never get a real sense of how bad life in a prison camp as a woman really was. Is that the fault of the censors, or did the screenplay just not show the P.O.W. experience and how horrific it was?

Going into this movie, my only other experience (a good one at that) with Colbert was Drums Along the Mohawk. Well, I’ve now seen two good parts for the lovely Claudette Colbert. This isn’t the portrayal of a gung-ho mother trying to take the war back at the Japanese. In fact, the actual war is an afterthought here, seeming like a long way away from the conflict at hand. This is a woman pulled away from the life she loves, now reduced to just surviving and making sure her young son has everything he needs so that can he survive and grow up to. All the while, she goes forward with the hope and not the knowledge that her husband is somehow doing the same, surviving through all the hell in front of him.

With a link to another classic POW movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, is Sessue Hayakawa as the regional commandant of all the prison camps. This is a very humane portrayal of a man that in many other movies would have been demonized.  In River Kwai, his Colonel Saito is a fair and balanced portrayal of a man under pressure. The same goes here, a commander in an uncompromising situation trying to make the best of it, and for everyone, not just him and his men. But overall – even considering the time it was released in – I would have made a harsher movie, one that dug deeper into the prisoner of war experience. Still, it's a good movie, and one you can watch at Youtube HERE.

Three Came Home <---TCM clips (1950):** 1/2 /****

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