From Here to Eternity [50 Films Older Than Me #37]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #37.

Spoilers ahead.  

From Here to Eternity

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Release Year:  1953 (17 years before I was born).

What it is about:  In the days before America’s entrance into World War II, “Prew” Prewitt is an army private who transfers into a unit in a base on Oahu in Hawaii. The weak-willed commanding officer Captain Holmes is concerned more than anything with his company doing well in an upcoming boxing championship, but Prew refuses to participate in spite of his skill because of a bad experiences in the past.

Meanwhile, Holmes’ senior NCO, First Sergeant Warden, is one truly responsible for keeping Holmes’ command in order. Secretly, he carries on an affair with Holmes’ wife, Karen, who is desperate for a way out of her marriage. Warden could help her with this by becoming an officer himself, but he is unable to do it, feeling that that is not being true to himself.

Prew meanwhile takes up with the hostess of a nightclub, Alma, but is hindered in seeing her by miserable treatment from his commanding officer. Prew is injured in a fight with another NCO, whom he blames for the death of his close friend Private Angelo Maggio, and lies low with Alma. Before he can be found and arrested for being AWOL, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place. On his way back to join his company, Prew is killed by an MP because of his own stubbornness.

Starring Montgomery Clift as Prewitt, Burt Lancaster as Warden, Deborah Kerr as Karen, Donna Reed as Alma, Frank Sinatra as Maggio, and Philip Ober as Holmes. Ernest Borgnine plays Maggio and Prewitt’s nemesis, Sergeant “Fatso” Judson. Jack Warden plays a corporal, and Claude Akins and George “Superman” Reeves both play other soldiers, uncredited.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve long heard of this movie, but I really didn’t know anything about except for the famous shot of two people kissing in the waves on a beach. I wasn’t even sure which actors were involved in that shot.

Reality: Well, now I know–it’s Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster who are filming and maybe the most iconic kiss in movie history (which quickly gives to one of the more brutal lover’s spats.)

One of the most interesting things for me in watching through these older movies is that they provide the opportunity to “get to know” a lot of actors who I am familiar with by name, but not by anything else. One of those people is Burt Lancaster. A quick glance through his IMDb page shows me that I’ve only seen him in The Leopard (a movie I barely remember), and his final film, Field of Dreams (a movie I remember, but don’t remember him in). Here, he is at his prime and in the lead role (or co-lead, anyway), cutting quite the imposing figure as the no nonsense Sgt. Warden.

At first I assumed Warden was going to be the movie’s adversarial figure, the foil against which the newly arrived and independent Private Prewitt was going to constantly run up against. But instead the film treated Prewitt and Warden as essentially parallel protagonists. They both have their own goals, obstacles and enemies that reveal the sort of person they are. They both have love lives that do not run smoothly, and issues with their fellow soldiers which are not easily resolved.

And where they do interact in the story, sitting drunk in the street, they end up as allies.

From Here to Eternity has got all the ingredients for a cheesy melodrama, but it avoids this through a high standard of acting, characterization, dialogue, and well, basically everything. This is a rich story full of complex people with real quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Prewitt in particular represents this mixture–he’s principled and loyal, but also stubborn to the point of self-destructiveness. And his relationship with Alma is fascinating in its flaws–they desperately need each other, but are unable to change for the sake of one another.

Actually, this is also the case with Sgt. Warden and his commanding officer’s wife, Karen–they are completely besotted with each other, but unable to alter their paths to make the relationship work. Indeed, the film is full of people like this: fully compelling characters who are stuck being the sort of people they are. This cuts short all of the romantic relationships in the movie, and ultimately costs Prewitt (as well as the unlikable Sgt. Judson) his life.

The Pearl Harbor attack scene toward the end of the movie is completely engrossing, and as the only part of the film with any military action it’s a nice change of pace for the third act.

From Here to Eternity was released only eight years after World War II ended, and therefore just over a decade after the real attack, so the events depicted in this film would have been pretty recent for the original audience. They would have surely picked up (as I did) the hints that the event was coming, with the movie quietly putting in references to the date and the locale in various scenes.

It’s great see Sgt. Warden rising up as a hero and a leader as he rallies his men in response to incoming fire from the attacking planes.

The cast of From Here to Eternity is excellent. In addition to Lancaster and Kerr, you’ve got Montgomery Clift doing great work as Private Prewitt, bringing his internal conflicts and contradictions into focus. I didn’t know anything about Montgomery Clift until I saw The Misfits a while ago (also for this series), but there he is overshadowed by his co-stars. Here, he really shines in what is potentially the movie’s meatiest role.

Frank Sinatra is lively and memorable as Private Maggio, and his work in the movie helped to revive his struggling singing career.

I was also impressed by Ernest Borgnine in the small but pivotal villainous part of Sgt. Judson. But the biggest surprise for me was Donna Reed. Before this I only knew her from What a Wonderful Life and a couple of glimpses of her own sit-com.

She’s rock-solid as Alma–a compelling screen presence. The odd scene where she meets Karen at the end of the film and lies about the details of the great loss she’s experienced make for a haunting conclusion to the movie.

Both Reed and Frank Sinatra both won supporting acting Oscars for the film, whilst Clift, Lancaster and Kerr were all nominated for the leading categories, which just goes to show in how high of a regard the film was held.

Fron Here to Eternity is based on the novel novel by James Jones, which was published just a couple of years earlier. I haven’t read the novel but apparently, a couple of things were softened in the translation of the story for the screen–originally Alma was a prostitute, not a nightclub hostess–and Karen’s difficult medical history was due to a venereal disease instead of a troubled pregnancy and her husband’s abuse.

And in the novel, Captain Holmes isn’t drummed out of the army, but is instead promoted away from the company–the change was made because the film needed the support of the army to be made and so his misconduct could not be seen to be part of a systemic problem with the entire military branch.

Apparently, the scene where Holmes is reprimanded was the director’s least favorite part of the movie, and upon reflection it is the only change that stands out even slightly as maybe a bit “too easy.” The rest of it, even with the adjustments, still comes across as hard-hitting and emotionally intense military drama, focusing not on war itself but on the trials and tragedies faced by a particular group of men and women as they contend with army life.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Given the opportunity, I might have guessed that this movie was going to be a manipulative tear-jerker…but if I had, I’d have been wrong. From Here to Eternity is solid stuff and benefits from excellent writing, directing and acting. I’m glad I finally watched it.

See here for the Master List.

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