From Here to Eternity as Awesome as Awesome Gets, Period.
By Kristin Battestella
Everyone has seen that snip of the waves crashing over Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in their steamy beach bound lip lock from this 1953 Hawaiian military epic. The shot’s famous, the film’s a bonafide classic, and yet there is so much more to From Here to Eternity.
After injuring a friend in the ring, bugler Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) won’t box for his new CO, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) in the upcoming tournament. Sergeant Warden (Lancaster) tries to get the stubborn Prewitt to see reason and even puts him on extra detail rather than see Prewitt punished by Holmes. Unfortunately, Warden has his own hang ups- namely that affair with Holmes’ wife Karen (Kerr) - who pressures Warden to seek a commission. Prewitt and his friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) try to take the army life easy by visiting the New Congress Club for drinks and girls, and Prewitt makes plans with Lorene (Donna Reed). Maggio, however, runs into trouble with the stockade sergeant, Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Jealously, vengeance, pride, and romance eventually collide as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor commences.
I feel like I’m going to ramble. What can I say about From Here to Eternity that hasn’t already been said? Then again, this isn’t nearly enough analysisizing over Best Director winner Fred Zinnermann’s (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) adaptation of James Jones’ then scandalous novel and Daniel Taradash’s (Don’t Bother to Knock) Best Adapted Screenplay, either. Multiple viewings are indeed necessary to fully appreciate and properly study all the great dialogue, complex characters, Oscar winning cinematography, and star-studded performances. Maybe the melodrama will seem tame to some today, but From Here to Eternity still offers plenty of Pearl Harbor heavy. I simply love this movie and have to tune in whenever it is on television. A viewer thinks he knows it line by line and can just leave it on the tele in the background. But no, the torment, romance, toughness, and intensity call you to the screen. Is it over the top by today’s standards? Perhaps- but the fifties flair and form works for the archetype characters. For better or worse, these are these characters’ shining moments. From Here to Eternity’s journey is in seeing which player will burn out, fade away, win, or survive- and we’re not even talking about World War II yet! Strategically placed couples and intimate photography match the suggestive relationships while balancing nicely with wider shots and the foreboding historical background. The focus here is on the little people and the Oscar winning editing mirrors the personal taboos of the time perfectly. The camera sweeps down with Lancaster as he kneels to kiss Kerr and brings a long focus as Clift takes slow drags on a smoldering cigarette after going to the upstairs parlor with Lorene. Audiences know what’s happening, and I actually find it pleasing that we can take the hint. Today’s films would be dominated by the raunchy base lifestyle and TnA brothel action. There’s an element of class amid the scandal here. Life sucks, America’s not the best of the best can’t always deal- and yet From Here to Eternity shows it all in style.
If From Here to Eternity has a fault, it is that both its Best Actor nominees cancelled each other out in favor of William Holden in Stalag 17. Holden is good, very good; perhaps it is indeed his best. Sixty years later, however, our boys look decidedly robbed. Future Oscar winner Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) is just wonderful as the stiff all business sergeant who keeps the men in line while his jerky captain seeks glory. Lancaster looks good as Warden- acrobat fit, natural in uniform, and shirtless for his fans. He looks tough and cold hearted yet has a soft spot for his company- not to mention a brimming passion for his CO’s wife. Warden knows how to handle the hard, worn, and broken of the army, and we like him for it. Somehow, we like him even more when he loosens up his prison alluding name and button up attitude to go after the wrong woman. He’s the last man we’d expect to get caught up with another man’s wife- the seemingly used and denied pencil pusher who cleans up his captain’s messes because he wants the company to remain a well oiled machine. Yet Warden’s a hunk of sergeant so overdue some leeway loving and getting drunk- which Lancaster and Clift really did, by the way! What’s proper? What’s respectable? Since we know Pearl Harbor looms, these people don’t have time to worry about morality, do they? From Here to Eternity gives us wonderfully flawed and multi dimensional characters.
Rather than an acting rivalry, Warden and Private Prewitt have an unusual rapport, even a friendship as far as enlisted men and NCOs can have. In this, Montgomery Clift (Red River, A Place in the Sun) is equally awesome to Lancaster and just as beautiful. Clift embodies Prewitt like no one’s business- complete with a slender uniform and a chip on his shoulder. Any man who wants to know how to act should watch Clift here. Prew is a military man through and through- he just refuses to simply do and die and not reason why. He loves his bugle but won’t to back down to pressure to join the boxing team- even if it means continued hazing and difficulty on the base. Principles onscreen and off are such a lost art! Clift exudes the straight back uniform style, the contrasting slouched and ruined hunch of an AWOL tropical shirt, and all the range of emotion and torment in between. So what if the boxing scenes are hokey. The idea of not wanting to box after blinding a friend may seem cliché to contemporary audiences, but Clift sells the pain perfectly, as if it is an integral part of who Prewitt is. The punishments he receives may just seem merely asinine, yes- today’s films would frontload this kind of plot point with unwatchable brutality before despicable character focus. Nonetheless, Clift plays the anger as fundamental, with no separation between himself and Prewitt. Sure, he had his off screen troubles, but the viewer never thinks Clift is angry or playing himself, no. Prewitt’s turmoil is simply so seamless- the music, the boxing, the love and loss. This is a completely three dimensional character thanks to Clift.
Perhaps I gloat over Clift, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t like Deborah Kerr. Fortunately, The Innocents, The King and I, and From Here to Eternity create a trio of her best. Kerr doesn’t look the expected English pretty in tight sweaters and short shorts, and all those wet dialogue references up the innuendo. Karen has been around the block- and a base or two- for all the wrong reasons, and yet we don’t blame her. She’s a fast woman carrying plenty of pent up issues, but she struts her stuff and knows how to shake those hips. We see her coming and yet the audience can sympathize with this wasted and wronged captain’s wife. This affair can’t end well- the would be scandal, Pearl Harbor is imminent, Warden doesn’t want to be an officer and Karen won’t marry an enlisted man. It isn’t good and yet these people need some happiness, dreams, and all the misery that comes along with love. Although she went home with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, I’m still not so sure Donna Reed was the right choice for the prostitute Lorene. She’s great and has the acting chops to turn our It’s a Wonderful Life and Donna Reed Show expectations, yes. However, you can’t quite forget this “It’s Donna Reed! As a prostitute!” feeling. Fortunately, Reed does match Clift’s charm, and together they develop a tender but broken kind of chemistry and bitterness. Do they love each other? Without a doubt. Will the military action behind the scenes and on the battle lines eat them alive? Definitely.
Surprising, the one who exceeds expectations in From Here to Eternity is revitalized crooner Frank Sinatra (The Manchurian Candidate and my personal favorite Robin and the 7 Hoods) as the loyal friend who cracks under the ruthlessness of the late Ernest Borgnine’s Fatso. The ill-fated best friend is the very definition of a supporting character, and Maggio is simply classic for that final scene alone. He lifts, inspires, and sets Prewitt’s actions into motion for the final third of the film. Today’s speculation about Mafia involvement in his casting and debate about his Oscar win unfortunately seem to overshadow his actual performance, but Sinatra is worth another look here. Perhaps also a stereotypically styled villain, Borgnine (Marty, McHale’s Navy) is nevertheless an imposing, multi dimensional figure both in stature and in performance. He’s gritty, wicked, and we immediately hate that people like him get ahead while honest soldiers like Maggio are chewed up and spit out. But oiy, it must have been tough for him with all that wop talk! Philip Ober (North by Northwest) is despicably love to hate worthy as Dynamite Holmes, too.
Despite winning awards for its black and white cinematography, I can’t help but wonder what From Here to Eternity would look like in full fifties color and splendor. The onscreen forties styles and accessories, those swanky parlors, lovely palm trees, and handsome starch uniforms in all their glory! Not that I condone colorization by any means, and besides, this film is not about dazzling visuals and little else like the 2001 Michael Bay stinking spectacle Pearl Harbor. The battle finale here is sweet though; and the real military locations and authentic drilling, equipment, and protocols give us the wartime vibe needed. Bittersweet bugle tributes, fun piano music, period swing and aloha sounds also do wonders- along with “Re-enlistment Blues.” Even the cigarettes in From Here to Eternity shine. The way our players hold them and their shot glasses or brush their hair- most young stars and ‘celebrities’ today simply cannot ‘act’ like this. They can’t embody the tense mood, atmosphere, pressure, and grace tying From Here to Eternity in a pretty bow.
Simply put (a thousand words too late!) this film is a must see. Maybe you don’t like Best Picture hardware laden classics or any of the cast. Perhaps you don’t like wartime films or have no interested in seeing a film of acting, direction, and cinematic perfection. Too bad. You can’t be a fan of dramatic cinema and movies themselves without having seen From Here to Eternity. So why wait?