My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 84, From Here To Eternity

84 – From Here To Eternity:

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Ah, war. What is good for? Well if you’re in the moviemaking business it’s actually a friggin gold mine. War movies have been around since the early days of cinema and they’re one specific genre that has always endured over the years. The first ever Best Picture Oscar in 1927 was for the WWI movie Wings. War as a genre has always been an inherently exciting story. There’s plenty of potential for some really kickass action scenes – bonus points if they actually happened that way in real life. And in the second half of the 20th century, war movies made for great character pieces showing soldiers’ reactions to the madness going on around them. Unsurprisingly some of the highest grossing movies ever made have been about wars. And how about wartime romances? The scripts practically write themselves! What better source for romantic drama than a love interest who risks being killed in battle? Given that war movies kind of need to have a lot of characters, they’re usually magnets for all-star casts. And that’s exactly the case for this famous wartime romance. This is something of a forerunner for films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now – detailing the rather unpleasant side of being in the military. Notably despite collaborating on the film, the US Army was not pleased with the final result. So shall we get on?

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I’m not going to give you a background on World War II because a) I wrote enough reports on it in high school, and b) I imagine that if you’re able to read this then you have a basic understanding of said war. I will however briefly touch on the event that this movie covers. While World War II was going on, the Americans were opting to stay out of the conflict. That is until the morning of December 7th 1941, where the Japanese army launched a sneak attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. This was supposedly a pre-emptive strike to stop the Americans from interfering in with military campaigns they had planned in Southeast Asia against European territories. Of course it had the complete opposite effect and led to the USA entering the war officially. The attack is particularly famous – to the point where ‘Pearl Harbour’ is actually a professional wrestling slang term – and has spawned countless books, plays, movies…

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The horror. The horror.

From Here To Eternity is a 1952 novel by James Jones, who had served in Company E – the unit stationed in Pearl Harbour at the time of the Japanese attacks. Although he used his real experiences for some backdrops and flavouring, the characters and the events are mostly fictional. But the book was very well received and won several awards. Within a year it was being adapted for the screen. They even got co-operation from the US Army, as long as a few controversial plot points from the book were changed – no doubt helped by the Hays Code…

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Brace yourselves…

We open at Schofield Barracks in 1941 where we meet a young Private Robert E Lee Prewitt – nicknamed ‘Prew’ – who’s played by Montgomery Clift. Mr Clift was a Broadway performer-turned-Hollywood star, who was one of the most in-demand actors in the 1950s. His popularity was second only to Marlon Brando. One thing Montgomery Clift was famous for was being very particular about the projects he chose to do – among the roles he turned down were Sunset Boulevard and East of Eden. He was also an intense method actor, to the degree of someone like Daniel Day Lewis these days. So in preparation for this role, he tried to learn how to box and play the bugle. Although he would still need doubles for those scenes, director Fred Zinnemann praised Clift for motivating the rest of the cast to step up their game.

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Prewitt has just been transferred to the barracks, where he bumps into First Sergeant Milton Warden – played by Burt Lancaster. Mr Lancaster began his career as a circus acrobat, before serving in the US Army during the war. After the war ended, he reluctantly became an actor. This role is one of his most-remembered, and it came in the midst of a phase where Lancaster was typecast as an All-American tough guy.

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You get the picture.

Lancaster was actually so nervous about starring alongside Montgomery Clift, he couldn’t stop trembling in their first scene together. But he still brings Prewitt before Captain Holmes (Philip Ober). Holmes accepted Prewitt’s transfer on the grounds that a) he’s a talented bugler and b) he’s a talented boxer. Prewitt claims he’s out of the boxing game after an accident some time ago. As such he turns down an offer to join the regimental team. Warden however insists that Prewitt join the team for the good of the unit; a good amount of boxing trophies leads to a good amount of promotions, which leads to a good amount of happy soldiers. As Warden sends Prewitt to get settled in, he’s distracted by…

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Meet the missus. That is Mrs Karen Holmes, the captain’s wife. She’s played by Deborah Kerr, quite possibly one of the finest actresses ever to work in Hollywood. You could call Ms Kerr the female Laurence Olivier (and she was a great deal nicer off-camera too). You may notice that her most famous roles – The King & I, An Affair To Remember, Heaven Knows Mr Allison, The Innocents – are all from after this film was made. The reason? Ms Kerr had a rather proper way of speaking, leading to Hollywood typecasting her in a series of lavish costume dramas. In Kerr’s own words, she was only expected to be “high-minded, long-suffering, white-gloved and decorative” – or what her friend and frequent co-star Jean Simmons referred to as “poke her up the ass parts”. This was only in Hollywood, and British audiences knew she had more range (her first major role being a rough-speaking cockney in Love On The Dole). So Kerr was determined to break out of Hollywood’s image of her as a delicate English Rose. And a vampy wife who we’re told really gets around within her first scene was a good way to do so.

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“I’m also not wearing gloves at the table. The scandal!”

We’re shown that Karen’s home life isn’t a happy one when she doesn’t answer her husband – as he’s arrived home quite late. She also accuses him of spending all the time he isn’t buttering up his superiors with other women. It’s also quite clear that the good captain will be sleeping on the couch tonight. Back at the barracks, the company boxers crowd around Prewitt and try to convince him of the perks. One of those perks being that among their number is Private Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra.

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Frank Sinatra had at the time mostly done musicals, and had yet to be established as a serious actor. As such, there’s a rather long-standing rumour that he got the part by pulling some strings with his mafia connections. The legend inspired that famous horse’s head scene in The Godfather, even though numerous cast and crew members have denied it ever happened. The more likely explanation is Sinatra’s wife Ava Gardener recommending him for the part (as she was good friends with the wife of the studio head). Anyway, Prewitt reaffirms that he’s not boxing anymore. Later on, topic of conversation turns to Warden. Another man refers to him as “the best soldier I ever saw.”

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“Really, Lancaster. That’s how you want to play it?”

The next day, Prewitt gets a hard time during drills – being disciplined for not marching in proper formation and not assembling his rifle correctly. Maggio however notices him getting tripped by the drill sergeant, guessing that the captain is encouraging some particularly harsh treatment. Meanwhile Sgt Warden takes a trip over to the Holmes residence. The captain isn’t there, but the missus is. But that’s worked out quite well, since the captain is off drinking at the Gentleman’s Club – and not likely to be home for a while. Needless to say the scene ends with a big damn kiss.

We’re next shown payday at the barracks, and Maggio offers to take Prewitt into town. Prewitt is unreceptive until Maggio mentions females. As an aside, the men wear those famous Aloha shirts as their civvies. This film was what made them popular. Warden gets a chance to talk to someone called Sgt Stark, whose played by George Reeves – aka the original Superman. Another urban legend about the film is that Reeves’s scenes ended up cut after audiences kept going “hey, there’s Superman” during them. The director has said that’s bogus and his part appears as it was always intended. Of course this didn’t stop the movie Hollywoodland from using it as a plot point. Anyway, Stark guesses that Warden is going to meet Karen – and implies he’s very familiar with her too.

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“I do have x-ray vision, you know.”

The boys head over to the ‘New Congress Club’ – a Gentlemen’s Club downtown. Once Prewitt joins, there seems to be an available bevvy of beauties to choose from. I bet I know what you’re thinking of and you’re exactly right. This is a brothel. Or it was in the book. It wasn’t the Hays Code who protested against this and requested the change; it was the US Army. One of the conditions for the army’s co-operation was to not imply that their soldiers had been…ahem…paying for illicit services. So the various girls in the club are referred to as ‘hostesses’. The movie clearly isn’t trying to hide that they’re really whores, which makes one giggle at the amount of times the word ‘hostess’ is used. Anyway, Prewitt catches sight of a cute brunette in a vampy black dress. Director Frank Zinnemann has said that he intended to cast the two female leads in this against their usual type. So for Karen, he got English Rose Deborah Kerr. Who does he get for the whore-in-all-but-name Lorene?

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There we have Donna Reed. Probably best remembered these days as George Bailey’s saintly wife Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life, Ms Reed was known as a wholesome girl next door type – thus fitting the bill for Mr Zinnemann’s against type vision. Prewitt’s courtship of her is interrupted when Maggio gets into a fight with a Sgt Judson (Ernest Borgine) – during which Lorene finds another guy to chat up. When she’s done, she and Prewitt can resume their conversation. Warden meanwhile meets up with Karen at the beach. And thus we get the most famous scene in this film. Is it a blazing-yet-quotable row? A witty one-liner? An epic battle scene?

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Remember how Basic Instinct was known as the movie that ruined a thousand VCRs for just one shot where Sharon Stone’s leg moves? Or how many video stores reported tracking issues during Fast Times At Ridgemount High’s Phoebe Cates topless scene? Or Erin Brockovich getting press mostly for Julia Roberts wearing a Wonderbra? Lest you think that modern movies have turned us all into perverts, that kind of attitude has been around since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Of course part of the infamy comes from the fact that it’s Deborah Kerr showing us that there was quite a sexy body underneath all the corsets, crinolines and petticoats. She had this to say while posing for publicity photos in her swimsuit:

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Warden has to go and kill the mood by challenging Karen about the amount of men she’s been with. This prompts her to tell a story about how Captain Holmes started cheating on her after they’d only been married two years. Despite this, she got pregnant. But she suffered a miscarriage one night due to her husband being too drunk to call for a doctor. She’s now unable to have any more children. This is yet another change from the book, where her infertility was caused by Holmes giving her gonorrhoea. This is a change you can thank the Hays Code for – as they were a bit squeamish on the subject of STDs. Karen’s trauma is enough to make Warden feel slightly better about romancing his superior’s wife – and they resume their raunchy beach antics.

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Things at the brothel Gentleman’s Club are going well, as Prewitt and Lorene are now connecting emotionally. She doesn’t see herself doing this forever; she’s just out to make enough money to live comfortably. A drunk Maggio joins them with some whiskey and some encouragement for their budding courtship. Once he leaves however, Prewitt shares a personal detail. Remember how something happened to make him quit boxing? Well he ended up putting his sparring partner in a coma – and the man was left blind as a result.

The next day, Prewitt endures more hazing. The last straw comes when a Sgt Galovitch spits on him after also spilling dirty water on him – and Prewitt rather awesomely tells the dude to eff off. But since he’s a Private who just mouthed off to a Non-Commissioned Officer, he’s punished. After said punishment, he still refuses to apologise to the sergeant and Holmes nearly gives him a court martial. Warden convinces him to instead just punish Prewitt even further. This might not seem like much, but it’s preferable to being locked in the stockade for months. After a week’s worth of punishments, he still refuses to box.

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Warden likewise isn’t happy about having to carry out these punishments – and laments that he’d transfer out if he could. He drowns his sorrows at the bar, as do the rest of the men. After a rather nice clip of Prewitt showing off his bugle skills, Maggio ends up in a bar fight with Judson. Warden luckily breaks it up. He also takes pity on Prewitt and says he’ll sneak a weekend pass under Captain Holmes’s nose. Thus Prewitt gets to meet up with Lorene again. Unfortunately, she’s rushed off her feet and is a little annoyed that he expects her to drop everything for him. She does drop one thing though; her real name. She’s really called Alma. Lorene is just a name she uses at work. She’s likewise able to meet Prewitt up for drinks later. During this intimate conversation, we learn why Prewitt doesn’t just up and leave over his treatment. He was one of those ‘going nowhere’ types until he joined. He credits the army with straightening him out. He even got to play the bugle in front of the president.

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Thus giving Marilyn here a tough act to follow.

Unfortunately, a drunken Maggio has deserted his guard post and gets into a fight with two other men. Cut to the others waiting outside for his court martial to finish. The news is that he gets six months in the stockade. The even worse news is that the sergeant guard is Judson – the same guy he got into a bar fight with. And said guy produces a truncheon to let him know how the next six months will go.

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More positively, Lorene/Alma takes Prewitt back to her place and even gives him a key so he can use it whenever he wants. Things are also going well between Warden and Karen – at least until some of his men arrive at the spot where they’re having their date. Neither of them can take much more of the sneaking around. Although Karen could get a divorce, Captain Holmes would never let Warden transfer away. Karen suggests he become an officer and then he’d be transferred back to the States. At first he’s unreceptive to the idea since “I always hated officers”, but he comes around quick enough. Back at Lorene’s place, Prewitt suggests that they get married. She turns him down, saying she doesn’t want to be the wife of a soldier. She has a plan, you see. She’s going to save money and then build a house in Oregon – and join a country club, where she’ll meet a nice proper man and have a proper life. But she’s happy with him for now.

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We next see Karen at the end of her request for a divorce. Holmes for some reason is annoyed at her cheating – which she rightfully calls him out on. Elsewhere, Prewitt speaks to another man who just got out of the stockade. Maggio is having exactly the sort of time you’re imagining. He just keeps taking it however, though there are rumours that he’s planning to escape. Prewitt has another run-in with Sgt Galovitch – and some fisticuffs ensue. And since these are two trained boxers, Captain Holmes just looks on for a few minutes. Once the fight is over, Galovitch tries to blame it on Prewitt – but the other men vouch for Prewitt and he gets away from that one. That night, he and Warden drown their sorrows (they do a lot of that in this movie) where Warden confesses that he doesn’t want to be an officer – and he appears to be afraid of turning out like Holmes. On the contrary, Prewitt thinks he’d be a good officer. This gets interrupted by…

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Maggio managed to break out of the stockade. But he’s in a bad way from all the abuse he suffered at Judson’s hands. Here is another change that was influenced by the army. In the book, the abuse Maggio suffers is recounted in great detail. The army wished for it not to be shown, and to stress that it was just the illegal behaviour of a sadistic guard (rather than implying it was standard policy). Maggio also survives in the book but he dies in the film, being combined with another prisoner who was abused. These changes help the overall narrative in my opinion – with Maggio’s abuse paralleling Prewitt’s and the death having more impact. The fact that it was done by Judson bending the rules and going behind his superior’s back serves to make it all the more tragic. And good God, there’s one small shot showing Maggio’s empty bunk and it’s heart-breaking. This is accompanied by an equally heart-breaking sequence of Prewitt playing a lament for his friend on the bugle.

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Dammit, I just have sand in my eyes!

It’s probably this particular moment that earned Montgomery Clift his (well-deserved) Oscar nomination. Later on, Prewitt takes a trip downtown where he sees Sgt Judson leaving a bar. And since we already got a boxing scene in this movie, we now get a knife fight instead. It’s either lucky or unlucky that Judson ends up dead. Prewitt then stumbles into Lorene’s house half-conscious. Three days pass and his absence is noted. But more importantly, Captain Holmes is reprimanded for his abuse. He’s given the choice of either having a court martial or resigning immediately. His replacement Captain Ross wastes no time in chewing out the NCOs who took part in the bullying – and Sgt Galovitch is immediately demoted to Private. This is a huge change from the book – where Holmes ends up getting promoted to Major, and never gets his comeuppance.

Warden gets a call from Karen. Her husband is being sent back to the States next week and he wants her to go with him. But Warden hasn’t filled out the paperwork to become an officer. Karen understandably breaks it off with him, realising he just doesn’t want to marry her. It’s left open whether this is the case, but Karen certainly believes so. The thing you should remember is the date in the paper and on the calendar in Captain Ross’s office – December 6th. Which means that the next morning…

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The movie uses actual Pearl Harbour footage, which blends in very well with the original stuff. Warden rallies the rest of the men at the barracks to shoot the Japanese planes down. Prewitt meanwhile hears the report on the radio and prepares to leave to help everyone. Lorene understandably doesn’t want him to go since he’s still injured from the knife fight. She even tries to bribe him with marriage. But remember Prewitt’s devotion to the army? Well needless to say Lorene is left crying after he’s gone. Even the journey over to the barracks irritates his injuries. But several other soldiers mistake him for a Japanese man and shoot him. Although medics arrive, there’s nothing that can be done. Warden identifies the body, saying:

“He was always a hot head, but he was a good soldier. He loved the army more than any soldier I ever knew.”

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Warden says his goodbye to Prewitt before ordering the rest of the men to get back to work. We’re then shown a boat leaving the island. Karen and Lorene are both on it and they have their first conversation – throwing the flower leis onto the ocean. According to legend, if they float to shore then you’ll return to the island someday. If they go out to sea, it means you won’t. Lorene says she won’t be coming back – because the man she loved died in the attacks. He was apparently awarded a Silver Star, which was sent to his mother. She wrote to Lorene and said she should have it. It’s commonly accepted that this is a lie she made up (as Prewitt mentions in a throwaway line that both his parents died). The implication is that this is the story she’ll tell when she returns home and hopes to become ‘proper’. But it’s unknown if this is something she made up or a story that Warden told her. Meanwhile it’s left completely open as to whether Karen will stay with her husband or not. The movie ends there, with Lorene describing Prewitt as her fiancée.

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From Here To Eternity was an immediate smash hit – getting thirteen Oscar nominations and winning seven of them (including the Best Picture prize). Adjusting the Box Office gross for inflation, it made the equivalent of $240 million altogether. Despite the success, both the army and the navy weren’t happy with the film. Even with all the script changes they insisted on, the army refused to let their name be shown in the opening credits. They also banned the film from being shown to their servicemen. Frank Sinatra claimed a Best Supporting Actor win and enjoyed great press for his performance – showing that he could do more than sing. Donna Reed likewise took home the Best Supporting Actress award. Although Deborah Kerr did not win hers, the role had exactly the effect she wanted. She would still go on to play many more nuns, governesses and high-minded ladies – but she credits the film with helping her nab more varied roles. It’s very telling that she’s remembered both for being Mrs Anna as well as the steamy beach scene. Overall I feel as if this was the type of film Pearl Harbour was kind of going for – romance and drama framed by a real life disaster. But with characters you actually care about and romances with actual high stakes, it makes all the difference in the world.

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Alright movie, I’m sure nobody has ever graded you the way I have.

*Story? You know the movie’s doing it right when you get mad at Pearl Harbour for interrupting the escalating drama. A

*Characters? The movie juggles two romances as well as two other significant supporting characters in a good way. They’re all fighting for screen time and you wish they could have had even more. You actually care about these people and despise the ones you’re meant to in the right way. Overall it’s a great demonstration of how to write flawed protagonists. A

*Performances? This is one movie where each scene seems to have gotten a memo that they have to top the one that came before it. Montgomery Clift could easily have made Prewitt an annoying rebel type, but he turns in the most iconic role of his career. Deborah Kerr likewise finally got to show Hollywood her range. Frank Sinatra was the real surprise though – in the best possible way. Who knew he had it like that? Burt Lancaster and Donna Reed were fine too. A+

*Visuals? I can’t tell if the movie was shot in Hawaii but it sure is pleasant to look at nonetheless. Some good use of lighting in many of Prewitt and Lorene’s scenes. B-

*Special Effects? The movie blends genuine Pearl Harbour footage in with its own material. It’s noticeable a couple of times but it works nonetheless. B

*Anything Else? N/A

Lock the doors and windows because my next film is Halloween.

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