Normally I open these up with a personal anecdote for the films I’ve seen before, and this one would have been no different but my DVD copy wasn’t working right and I had to do a quick rental from Amazon. Why mention that? Amazon lists From Here to Eternity as a “war” film as well as a drama.
If From Here to Eternity is a war film, it’s one with almost no actual fighting, or even a war, until the last twenty minutes or so.
Yes, at the end of the film, we see the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Up to that point, it’s a drama about life for a pair of soldiers, namely First Sergeant Milton Warden (square-jawed Burt Lancaster) and Private Robert E. Lee Prewiit (Montgomery Clift…more on him below). Both men find love, and both men find tragedy, and that’s before the Japanese attack.
For Warden, the problem is who he falls for: Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the unhappy wife of his commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes. When they aren’t sharing what might arguably be one of the most iconic kisses in film history (and one that in reality may not be that sexy…just sayin’), we see that Captain Holmes is a fairly terrible commanding officer and an even worse husband. As far as his being a husband is concerned, he’s a womanizing drunk who couldn’t call a doctor when his wife was miscarrying what would be their only child. The cost of saving Karen’s life was rending her unable to ever bear a child. In steps Warden, the next in a long line of lovers the woman has taken,, and Warden’s falling for Karen is about the only flaw the man has. He’s the perfect soldier, the one who always knows what to do in any given situation. Though he starts the movie very by-the-book when he meets incoming soldier Prewitt, he later softens and stands up for his own men as much as he can. He’ll even stare down Ernest Bourgnine’s Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in a knife fight to defend Prewitt’s oldest friend in the Army, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra).
Warden’s overall physical and moral authority is so great, the bullying Judson will back down without even trying to muss Warden’s hair.
As for Prewitt, he may get more screentime since his problems are greater. He’s a fantastic bugler who transferred after, among other problems, he accidentally blinded a friend during a sparring match. Prewitt is a boxer who won’t box. Holmes, showing more signs that he shouldn’t be commanding a troop of boy scouts, brought Prewitt over explicitly for that reason. Holmes often promotes his boxers for simply being good boxers. The boxing team is all he cares about. When Prewitt won’t join the team or even enter the ring, Holmes takes it upon himself, with the help of the rest of the boxing team, to punish Prewitt until he changes his mind. Over time, Prewitt’s unwavering attitude and refusal to box seems to earn him more respect from his peers, and eventually this all leads to Holmes’ downfall. As someone who works with young potential officers, this looks to me like it would be a good story to share, but it doesn’t end well for Prewitt or Maggio. Warden survives the film, but he has other horrors ahead of him, and he’s not in a much better place either.
The only real solace Prewitt gets from life on the base is from a local entertainer, a woman he first knows as Lorene and later learns is actually named Alma (Donna Reed). Sure, he’s twitchy and jealous, but Lorene loves him anyway.
And therein is where I want to say something about Montgomery Clift: I don’t get this guy’s appeal. Is he handsome? Well, in a skinny way I suppose. Is he a good actor? Not for the films I’ve seen him in. Clift was a member of the Acting Studio with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and like Dean, Clift would die relatively young in an auto accident. He mumbles, he looks nervous, and comes across to me less as a leading man and more like a stalker. I’m sure this sort of thing comes across as fine for more traditional film actors like Lancaster, but here and in A Place in the Sun, it just makes Clift seem more like a potential serial killer than a romantic heartthrob. Again, this is just me, and besides, someone arguably steals the film from Clift and Lancaster when all is said and done.
That would be Sinatra. As the freewheeling Maggio, always out for a good time so long as you don’t insult his Italian heritage or the female members of his large family, he brings an energy to the film that seems much more like modern film acting than anything either Lancaster or Clift bring to the film. Sinatra won an Oscar for this one, as did Reed, and considering for the longest time I knew him best as a singer and her as the star of an eponymous 1960s sitcom, that actually impresses me a bit more.
There’s also a number of recognizable character actors running around in this film, but maybe Bourgnine, playing the nastiest character in a film full of corrupt soldiers, does the best as the very memorable Sgt. Fatso Judson, the man who runs the stockade, the one who ends up killing Maggio and getting away with it only to be stabbed to death in an alley fight with Prewitt. Besides, it gave him one of the best guest star entrances The Simpsons has ever done.
It ends poorly. Captain Holmes is punished, but Warden won’t go to officer school to keep Karen. He can’t see himself as an officer. After hiding out for a few days at Lorene’s following Judson’s murder, Prewitt is killed by American soldiers, edgy after the Pearl Harbor attack, while Prewitt tries to sneak back onto the base. Sure, Warden thinks the whole thing could have been avoided if Prewitt had just boxed like Holmes wanted him to, but I think Warden might have missed the point there in a way. Holmes was punished for the favoritism he gave to the boxing team. He should have been. He was. Prewitt may have died, but he also exposed corruption in the Army, and Prewitt’s joining the team wouldn’t have changed Maggio’s fate one iota.
Ultimately, From Here to Eternity is about Army life. Both Prewitt and Warden describe themselves as career Army men. These are guys who see soldiering as a profession they eventually want to retire from, but it costs them. Warden may have a place, and he doesn’t wilt under pressure when actual combat starts in the closing Pearl Harbor scenes, but he can’t find love. Prewitt bore everything he could until he couldn’t and died trying to get back to the one thing he wanted to do. These men were professional soldiers, and it was men like Captain Holmes and Sgt. Judson who were in the Army for other, less noble reasons. Warden is almost certainly off for a combat zone as Karen and Lorene, both knowing they won’t see the loves of their lives again, sail for the mainland. Hawaii was the most beautiful place any of them had ever seen, but after what they all experienced, that beauty would never be truly and fully appreciated again.
NEXT UP: Well, that was depressing. Let’s try something a little lighter next with 1940’s fast-talking romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story.