The screen adaptation of James Jones’s raunchy, best-selling, prize-winning From Here to Eternity swept the Academy Awards for 1953 (receiving 8 despite competition from “Shane”), is on the AFI list of hundred best American movies (#52; below “Jaws”?!), and contains a scene (Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing on a beach as a wave washes over them) that is one of the most famous of screen images. Also, the casting of Frank Sinatra in the film provided another very famous image: the racehorse head in the bed from “The Godfather.”
Watching the film again did not lead me to suggest that it does not deserve its canonical status. To be made in the early 1950s required making the stories Jones told more conventional. Although multiple viewings has almost completely supplanted any memory of reading the book, it’s easy to see through the social club at which Lorene (Donna Reed) works as a bordello. It’s also fairly easy to remember that Karen Holmes cannot have a child because her husband, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober), infected her with syphilis (rather than failing to get medical assistance for her when she gave birth). The most serious betrayal of Jones’s novel is Captain Holmes’s mistreatment of the recalcitrant Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift at his most stubborn—or is it masochistic?) being observed by his commander and resulting in instigation of court-martial proceedings rather than getting the promotion he has been so eager to obtain.
At the start of the movie, Pvt. Prewitt arrives at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and chats with Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who is raking in front of the commander’s office. Captain Holmes is rarely there. He’s either coaching the boxing team or off with women in Honolulu. The de facto commander, Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) gets Prew set up. Then the captain welcomes the soldier who he sees as being the middleweight boxer his team lacks to his company. Pvt. Prewitt blinded a sparring partner and no longer boxes, a decision that the captain (to put it mildly) does not accept. The captain and the boxers whom he has made noncommissioned officers persecute Prew, but Prew takes everything dished out in the way of extra duty, laps for imaginary lapses, etc.
He gets a weekend pass and Maggio introduces him to the club at which Lorene is one of the hostesses. At the same club, Maggio tangles with “Fatso” (Ernest Borgnine), a sergeant who runs the stockade, but is pulled away by Prew. Meanwhile, Sgt. Warden has begun a very clandestine affair with his commanding officer’s wife. (The rolling around in the surf scene is earlier than I remembered and precedes rather than follows her telling him the story of her marriage.)
The conflicts set up early on come to climaxes and then are overshadowed by the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Although the captain is brought down, other tragedies unfold. The movie ends with an eerie coda that, among other things, dispels any doubts that Donna Reed deserved the Oscar she received for playing Lorene. In that Frank Sinatra played to the hilt a part differing considerably from the hipster that became his screen image (after he added some pounds), not too many doubts could arise about his performance. As his nemesis, Ernest Borgnine is chillingly convincing. (I grew up watching the benign trickster Borgnine in “McHale’s Navy,” and he won an Oscar as the shy suitor “Marty,” but he could play viscous bullies, prototypically in “Emperor of the North Pole” for Robert Aldrich).
I think Deborah Kerr is insufficiently passionate as Karen Holmes, though she certainly manages the disappointment and bitterness in the role. Burt Lancaster is sufficiently passionate, though, for Lancaster, relatively restrained. He remains true to himself and his values by refusing to sign the papers applying to become an officer. Prewitt also remains true to himself and his values at a more visibly higher cost than that borne by Sgt. Warden (who affords Prewitt some measure of protection). As in “Red River” Clift wins a fistfight with a markedly bigger man, and also wins a knife-fight with a bigger and more experienced knife-fighter. The stubborn characters he played recurrently drew attention from sadists (Robert Ryan in “Lonelyhearts,” anti-Semite American soldiers in “The Young Lions,” John Wayne in “Red River,” Nazis in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” director John Huston in “Freud,” etc.). Both Maggio and Prewitt invite punishment, but I guess are not masochists. Similarly, Thomas More in Zinnemann’s later “Man for All Seasons” knows how to get along but refuses to go along with the arbitrary authority of the king in whose service he has been.
Incidentally, Clift and Lancaster both received Oscar nominations, though William Holden’s cynical POW operator in Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” won the award. Lancaster won the New York Film Critic’s best actor award, though if I were in charge, Clift would have received the various crowns.
Daniel Taradash managed to retain some of the rage of James Jones’s novel (though the best adapted screenplay of 1953 Hollywood in my view is A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s for “Shane”). Disciplining the captain makes the audience feel better but betrays Jones’s vision. It seems to me that the scene of drunken soldiers singing “Re-enlistment Blues” (a song co-written by Jones) goes on too long and that the question Sgt. Warden would be asked would have been “Is this one of your men?” rather than “Was he a friend of yours?” but all in all, the movie is a tightly constructed soap opera on and around a 1941 military base with superb ensemble acting and crisp images (credited to Burnett Guffey, who picked up another Oscar for “Bonnie and Clyde”; IMDB also lists cinematography by Floyd Crosby, father of David, cinematographer of “High Noon” and Oscar-winner for Murnau’s “Tabu”) , and judicious editing (with many long takes not cut) by William Lyon.
“From Here to Eternity” is less sentimental than the first Zinnemann/Clift as a soldier movie, “The Search” and more re-creation than documentary, but was filmed on location (the price for which, I imagine, was the fate of Capt. Holmes in a more benevolent chain of command).
©2018, Stephen O. Murray