Week 12 — Hawaii
From Here to Eternity (1953), directed by Fred Zinnemann, written by James Jones (novel) and Daniel Taradash, with Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine and Philip Ober
“But I / I never felt so much life / Than tonight / Huddled in the trenches”
– The Decemberists, The Soldiering Life
I’ve never been a soldier, nor have I ever wanted to be, however I do pity respect the men (and women) of the armed forces. With that as a preface, I admit I have a hard time getting excited about anything having to do with the military. It’s a boys club that I’ve never been a part of, nor have any close members of my family. It’s for this same reason I’ve never had much interest in organized sports, although at least with sports fandom I can understand the appeal, having been a fan of professional wrestling for many years — so I get it already … the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the alcohol, the kinship between the fans. Meanwhile — going on what I know, which is very little given my lack of true experience with the subject — in the Army or whatever branch of the military you prefer, you have kinship, but it’s more like the solidarity felt between inmates in a state penitentiary. In short, it’s a bad trip. There’s crappy food, constant fatigue, heat — because for some reason no one ever thinks to station a military base anywhere cold, lack of female companionship, boredom, boredom, boredom. Sometimes you get to fight in a war or skirmish or brouhaha and sometimes it’s for a just cause, but — come on — how often does that happen?
Given my ambivalence to all things military, I was pleased to find out that From Here to Eternity was not your typical slice of 1950s-era pro-USA propaganda.
To gain a real appreciation for the movie, consider that it was made less than a decade after the end of World War II and that its prevalent theme is how shitty it is to be a soldier — and when I talk about “how shitty it is to be a soldier”, I’m not referring to the possibility of being killed in combat. I’m talking about being screwed by the military version of upper management in ways that, in a regular workplace environment, would never fly with the ladies and gentlemen in HR. On top of all of this, the film uses real war footage in order to drive its point home. Forget one moment about the “scandalous” kiss on the beach between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster. This movie has balls and not just for pushing the Hayes Code in terms of sexual content. That, my friends, is only half the story.
From Here to Eternity is based on a book by James Jones, an author whose military-based novels also include The Thin Red Line, which was also made into a movie. The novel was published in 1952 and was a best-seller. Not a surprise, Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn snatched up the film rights immediately and, again not a surprise, due to the novel’s prevalent violent and sexual content, it was deemed unfilmable. Some wiseguys called the project “Cohn’s Folly” — the 1950s through 1980s were a low-point for creativity in insults.
Cohn, known for being a bit of a hard-ass, would have the last laugh. He would have his movie. By hook or crook.
Several drafts of a screenplay were written before Cohn settled on one that would appease both the censors as well as the military, from which the studio needed approval in order to use their equipment for filming. Compromises were made. This included changing one of the characters from a “hooker” into a “hostess” and toning down the brutality in one scene where a character is sent to the brig and beaten to death. The screenplay dropped the novel’s references to male prostitution, which in 2009 the author’s daughter revealed were more than just “references” but outright scenes of gay sex. We’ll get into that later. Jones was reportedly unhappy with the changes, especially one modification in particular toward the end of the novel in which a corrupt character is demoted rather than promoted.
Director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) was attached to the film and actors and actresses were hired. Zinnemann insisted on brooding young actor Montgomery Clift for the part of main protagonist Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, much to Cohn’s dismay. Cohn stated that Clift was “no soldier, no boxer and probably a homosexual.” He was right about at least one of those three accusations. In real life, Clift was gay. In the end, in spite of Cohn’s protests, Zinnemann got his way.
Burt Lancaster was cast as First Sergeant Milton Warden while Deborah Kerr was cast as Warden’s love interest, Karen Holmes, the neglected wife of Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober).
Kerr, an English actress known for playing buttoned-up proper British types, was an unusual choice for the role of the sensual, sultry and smoking Karen Holmes. Just as odd was the casting of Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra. To my generation, Donna Reed is the queen of housewives and star of The Donna Reed Show whose reruns much of us grew up with on Nick at Nite. Sinatra is … well … Sinatra — Mr. “Luck Be a Lady”. Turns out that my perception of the two actors isn’t too far off from what audiences in 1953 thought, as prior to her role in From Here to Eternity, Reed was being typecast as a good girl while Sinatra was a song-and-dance man whose career was going downhill. In From Here to Eternity, Reed plays a hooker — whoops — hostess named Lorene. She’s the love interest of Prewitt. Sinatra plays Private Angelo Maggio, a wild and crazy Italian with a short man’s complex. Maggio was a dramatic role with no chances for Sinatra to break out into song. That rumor that the Mafia helped Sinatra land the role of Maggio? Some people still swear by it.
Whether Sinatra’s connections helped him land the part or not, the casting worked. Everyone was nominated for an Oscar, with Reed and Sinatra going home with statues or statuettes — whatever the proper term is for those little gold bald dudes.
Let’s talk plot. From Here to Eternity is two stories for the price of one. The first is that of Prewitt. At the start of the film we learn that Prewitt has transferred to Oahu from an Army outfit in Virginia after being passed on for the position of head bugler — the guy who plays the bugle in the morning and when somebody dies. We then learn that Captain Dana Holmes personally requested Prewitt be transferred to his platoon in order to have Prewitt box for his inter-military boxing team. This leads me to the question of what is manlier: boxing in the Army or boxing in prison, a la Runaway Train? Prewitt refuses to box for Holmes. He says he’s given up on that part of his life. “It’s personal,” Prewitt tells Holmes, although he finally admits that he quit boxing after causing permanent injury to another man during a bout. Holmes insists he will change Prewitt’s mind.
During the conversation between Holmes and Prewitt, a framed picture of a woman is prominently displayed on Holmes’ desk facing the camera. The placement of the portrait in the scene is no accident. Audiences who watched the film when it was released immediately recognized the woman in the picture as Kerr. It’s also likely that, because of the popularity of the novel, audiences were aware that Kerr’s role was that of Karen Holmes, Dana Holmes’ wife. Also, they were most likely aware of Karen Holmes’ importance to the story — namely, her affair with Warden. Remember? They kiss on the beach. Even after Karen Holmes is formally introduced in the film, the portrait appears again during a scene transition when a shot of Warden dissolves into the portrait, establishing a link between the two characters.
While Prewitt is being subjected to all types of degrading and humiliating treatment for refusing to strap on a pair of boxing gloves, Warden is trying to keep his relationship with Karen Holmes on the down-low. At the same time, Warden is wrestling with the decision of whether to take a promotion which would put him on the same level as the “upper management” types, a class of people for which he has nothing but contempt. The upside to Warden moving up from Sergeant is that Karen Holmes would be able to divorce her philandering husband and take her relationship with Warden public, without Warden facing potential discipline.
Moving the plot along is a feud between Maggio and bully Sergeant James “Fatso” Judson (Borgnine), a piano-playing racist who has a nasty habit of referring to Maggio as a “wop” whenever he sees him. When Judson makes derogatory comments about Maggio’s sister, Maggio snaps and attacks him with a bar stool. The fight is broken up, but the war between the two men continues. After Maggio walks out on sentry duty one evening, he’s thrown into the military jail, of which Judson is in charge. Maggio is killed, presumably by Judson.
Judson is then attacked by Prewitt, seeking revenge for the death of his friend. In the fight between the two men, “Fatso” is stabbed to death. Prewitt, who is injured in the fight, hides out at Lorene’s home. While a search is on for Prewitt and while Warden and Karen Holmes attempt to sort out their relationship, the camera pans in on a calender which displays the date of December 6, 1941 — one day before Japanese aircraft descended on Pearl Harbor.
With less than 15 minutes to go in the film, Pearl Harbor is attacked. There’s a magnificent shot where a solider goes running toward the camera yelling something about an approaching plane, only to be gunned down in a hail of machine gun fire. Aside from this, most of what you see of the actual attack is newsreel footage. There’s no real attempt to recreate the event and, if that’s what you’re looking for, you should have known better. From Here to Eternity isn’t a historical film. If you want an accurate portrayal of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, there are other films that do a fine job — and I’m not talking about the 2001 Michael Bay film. Seriously. Don’t even go near that one. Try Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) for starters.
No, Much like Titanic (1997), From Here to Eternity takes a real life event and uses it as a framing device for a cavalcade of human drama. Unlike Titanic, however, where the sinking of the boat is the focal point on which the entire film revolves, the bombing of Pearl Harbor has almost nothing to do with the plot of From Here to Eternity. The majority of the film — the first hour and 50 minutes or so — revolve around the dog days prior to the United States involvement in World War II, a time when our soldiers had little to do but get drunk, hang out with prostitutes, and worry about how they were going to win a silly boxing tournament. All the while, Hitler was plotting to take over the world. Perhaps the inclusion of the Pearl Harbor bombing at the end of the film — which was still fresh in the mind of audiences in 1953 — was a way of showing the triviality of the various squabbles that movie-goers watched unfold for the last two hours.
From Here to Eternity was a ballsy movie for its time. It certainly makes no attempt to bolster the military’s prestige. Not all, but many of the rank and file soldiers portrayed in the movie, are testosterone-driven thugs. The commanding officers, particularly the character of Dana Holmes, are slimy and corrupt. Prewitt is literally dragged through the mud for refusing to box for the company team. His ultimate fate winds up being decided at the hands of his own country. There’s also this prevailing undercurrent of homo-eroticism that you can’t help but pick up on. I’d go as far as to say that Maggio was gay, based on the way he follows Prewitt around like a puppy dog. It didn’t surprise me to learn later that, in the book, Maggio is portrayed as a gay hustler.
In spite of the accolades heaped on it, this isn’t a perfect film. It’s melodramatic and has that 1950s Hayes Code feel where you can just tell the filmmakers are holding back. It is, however, an important film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also quite enjoyable. There’s plenty of great acting from all of the leads. I was especially impressed with Sinatra and am more than a little interested in checking out his turn as a heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). From Here to Eternity is currently available to watch instantly on Netflix. If you’re logged in to Netflix, click here to add it to your instant queue.
What Variety had to say about From Here to Eternity: “The James Jones bestseller, “From Here to Eternity,” has become an outstanding motion picture in this smash screen adaptation. It is an important film from any angle, presenting socko entertainment for big business. The cast names are exceptionally good, the exploitation and word-of-mouth values are topnotch, and the prospects in all playdates are very bright whether special key bookings or general run.” – William Brogdon, July 28, 1953
From Here to Eternity on YouTube