Thursday, August 22, 2013

From Here to Eternity (1953): A Review


When Wars Collide...

It was only twelve years since the events From Here to Eternity chronicled.  In the midst of the epic event at the climax of From Here to Eternity you have parallel stories of thwarted romance and dashed ambitions, a mixture of epic and intimate that, while having lost some of its original impact, still holds the audience's attention.

Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) arrives in Hawaii, having asked to be transferred there.  Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) is delighted because Prewitt is a brilliant boxer and bugler, and the Captain, a boxing aficionado, wants to collect more trophies and honor for his company.  Only problem is Prewitt will neither box or play.  Neither the Captain nor his capable aide, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) can convince him to change his mind, so with a wink and a nod from the Captain (but without the participation of Warden), Prewitt is given The Treatment.  The rest of the company will make his life unbearable until he breaks.

This doesn't sit well with Prewitt's friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), who cannot do anything for him except be there for him and introduce him to the girls of The New Congress Club, a place where 'good girls' can 'entertain' lonely servicemen with some dancing and soft drinks.  Among the girls is Lorene (Donna Reed), a 'dance hall girl' or 'club hostess' who has taken a shine to Prewitt and vice-versa.

Side note: I imagine that even in 1953 (especially for the readers of the James Jones original novel) the actual nature of The New Congress Club and the girls there was pretty obvious.  Yet I digress.

Prewitt starts to fall for Lorene, but he has troubles of his own: The Treatment gets tougher, but he will not yield.  We learn why: he once left a man blinded after a practice match and fearful of doing more damage, has sworn never to box again.  Warden, meanwhile, finds himself irritated by Holmes' disinterest in running his company and attracted to Holmes' wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr).  Soon, they begin a passionate affair, which according to rumor is something Karen has done at other bases.

Prewitt and Angelo soon run afoul of Sergeant Judson, better known as Fatso (Ernest Borgnine), the warden at the stockade.  Fatso and Maggio (or the WOP) immediately have an adversarial relationship.  Prewitt and Lorene's relationship grows, as does Warden and Karen's.  Now both of them come face to face with the truth about the women they love.  For Warden, that is becoming a commissioned officer, which will allow Karen to divorce Holmes and put them on the same plane.  For Prewitt, it is actually contemplating taking up boxing again, if it means allowing him to marry Lorene at the end of his latest tour and take her away from her 'dance hall hostess' job.

These two turn to that typical male response to problems: they turn to drink.  Particularly hard-hit is Maggio, who goes AWOL to take his weekend pass that was revoked in the last minute.  Maggio is captured, court-martialed, and sent to the stockade, where Fatso is eagerly waiting for him to give him his own version of The Treatment.  Eventually Maggio does escape, but Fatso did him over once too often, costing him his life.

Prewitt holds firm on his Treatment until they go once too far.  Despite Warden protecting him Prewitt finally fights, and then takes the law into his own hands in regards to Fatso.  Both Warden and Prewitt come to conclusions about their women:  the former knows he is not officer material, even if it means ending his affair with Karen, and Prewitt is committed to the Army, which means he won't go with Lorene.  All this culminates on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor.

From Here to Eternity on the whole does hold up remarkably well despite the passage of time.  A great of credit belongs to George Zimmerman, who films the movie in a sparse, almost documentary-like style, with very few flashes of drama and a limited film score.

Of course, when From Here to Eternity needs lush romanticism, Zimmerman is able to deliver, particularly in the iconic love scene between Lancaster and Kerr on the beach.  Much parodied (Airplane!, The Nutty Professor), never equaled, in the few moments of their seaside romp the scene has become part of American culture (George Duning's score adding to the mood). 

Zimmerman even has great counterpoint, such as when the villainous Fatso is murdered to Hawaiian music playing in the background.  This lends From Here to Eternity its realism, where minus overtly cinematic moments (such as the love scenes) the film has the look and feel of real-life and not a slick Hollywood production. 

One thing that I appreciated in From Here to Eternity is that the film basically has parallel stories: Prewitt/Lorene and Warden/Karen.  Both hit pretty much the same crosspoints at the same time: to do what is against their nature for the women they love, the women revealing intimate secrets about themselves at around the same time, and the lovers eventually torn apart by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (the film closes with both Karen and Lorene sailing towards The Mainland, meeting as they observe Hawaii...and their lost loves...disappear forever).  You have two romance stories, similar but not alike, and we keep our interest in both of them.

We get information about the story and characters not just from Daniel Taradash's adaption of the Jones novel, but also from how the characters dress and little hints of what is to come. Near the end, as Warden leans to the wall we observe a calendar that reads, "Saturday, 6 December."  Shortly afterwards, when Warden bids Karen farewell, we see her walking past a sign pointing to "Pearl Harbor".  The lives of these people are about to receive a bigger blow than they could imagine.   Lorene, for example, first appears to us dressed in alluring black, primping herself to meet the other fellows.  Once we see her deep into her romance, she now wears all white, as if Prewitt's love has 'purified' her from her wicked, wicked ways.  However, this is all subtext, and it lends Reed's performance a greater depth.   

Speaking of, in From Here to Eternity Donna Reed comes into her own as a legitimate actress.  She may be 'the hooker with the heart of gold', but we see in Lorene the hurt and steely determination to be a lady (though she doesn't know when or how, to quote Reba's iconic song Fancy).  Reed, best known as the perpetual good girl, never amped up the tawdry business Lorene is in, but her final moment with Prewitt is a mixture of pain and fury and fear as she sees what he doesn't: that the Army he genuinely loves will ultimately destroy him.

Kerr is also remarkable as the adulteress Karen.  Kerr, similarly best known, even now, as the epitome of a classy, sophisticated British woman, but here she is all simmering passion as the wanton but heartbroken woman.  Both Reed and Kerr excelled in playing against type, and it's unfortunate that they didn't get many chances to show their range.

The men are all excellent.  Lancaster was brilliant as the by-the-book Warden, who in his own way would not break from his principles but who also chafed at Holmes' ineptness and disinterest in all things.  I don't know if Montgomery Clift gave a better performance as the stubborn, principled, almost unbreakable Prewitt (and given it was Clift, that is saying a great deal).  Clift's Prewitt is a man of his own, who goes his own way, but has the fatal flaw of not willing to play the system and being in Warden's words, "hard-headed".  Sinatra revived his career as the scrappy might even say he was playing himself, but in his almost fatalistic view of how he'd always roll 'snake-eyes' in life, we see something sad in Maggio.  Borgnine elicits hatred as the bully, bigoted Fatso. 

As I said, From Here to Eternity holds up pretty well (the actual attack on Pearl Harbor is quite good, even with the mixing of archival footage into the film).  I wasn't too crazy about Reenlistment Blues playing every so often and it might be a bit slow in the beginning, but on the whole the film is still solid, well-crafted, well-acted, and works. 

From Here to Eternity in short has no bombs attached to it.

To the Rebels...


Please visit the Best Picture Retrospective for reviews of all Best Picture Academy Award winners.

1954 Best Picture: On the Waterfront

1 comment:

  1. Since I typically enjoy classic war films, I will probably give From Here to Eternity a watch.



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