Filmsite Movie Review
From Here to Eternity (1953)
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From Here to Eternity (1953) is the powerful, realistic story (and fierce indictment) of the lives of American military men (and their women) stationed in peacetime Hawaii (near Honolulu) in the summer and fall before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 and the US entrance into WW II. The successful film, both critically and financially, soon became the second biggest hit of the year, behind The Robe (1953) (the first CinemaScope film) and ahead of Shane (1953).

One of the first remakes about the same topic was the ABC-TV mini-series titled Pearl (The Mini-Series) (1978) with superstars of the day Angie Dickinson and Dennis Weaver. It was also re-made as a glossy, 2-hour TV melodrama titled From Here to Eternity (1979) starring William Devane, Natalie Wood, Steve Railsback, Joe Pantolino, Peter Boyle and Kim Basinger, and directed by Buzz Kulik. This 1979 movie was also spun off as a soapy TV mini-series in 1980. And Michael Bay's recent Pearl Harbor (2001) provided a soap-operatic, sappy, and predictable love story triangle with an authentic and convincing re-creation of the historic attack.

In gritty, documentary-style black and white, director Fred Zinnemann (who had directed the acclaimed western High Noon (1952) a year earlier) accurately captured the isolation and boredom of the military personnel in a close-knit Army barracks on the island of Oahu, combining social/military history with the drama of the personal lives of its main characters - an enlisted man and a neglected officer's wife, and a prostitute and a military outcast. The major male characters wage their own 'battle' against corruption high up in the military ranks, each in their own ways.

Three of the film's stars were cast against type and their wholesome images: Donna Reed as 'hostess' bar-girl (hooker) Lorene and dignified British actress Deborah Kerr (instead of Joan Crawford who was announced for the part, but allegedly detested the costuming) as Karen - an unfaithful and adulterous sexpot wife. Montgomery Clift was also cast as a bugler, former boxer and stubborn, insubordinate soldier named Prewitt ("Prew"), although he was inexperienced in those areas and needed coaching. Burt Lancaster fit his role perfectly as rugged sergeant Warden, and Frank Sinatra demonstrated his acting chops as beleaguered Pvt. Maggio.

Two of the film's posters described the main stars (with their cast names) by quotes:

  • BURT LANCASTER: "There was one thing he wouldn't do...even for a woman!"
    WARDEN: "...who wouldn't do it...even for her..."
  • MONTGOMERY CLIFT: "Prew was a hardhead, the tougher it got...the better he liked it!"
    PREW: "...who wanted to be left alone..."
  • DEBORAH KERR: "Looks colder'n an iceberg, but she knows the score. And I know who taught her."
    KAREN: "...who was looking for a real man..."
  • FRANK SINATRA: "He's such a comical little runt. He makes me want to cry while I'm laughin' at him."
    MAGGIO: " just have to laugh at him..."
  • DONNA REED: "Sure I'm nice to you. We're nice to all the boys."
    LORENE: " look at her you'd never guess..."

[Note: If casting decisions had gone differently, Aldo Ray, Edmond O'Brien, Joan Crawford, Julie Harris, and Eli Wallach would have played the roles given to Clift, Lancaster, Kerr, Reed, and Sinatra, respectively.]

It was based on James Jones' hefty, 859-page smoldering 1951 novel of the same name, taking its title from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gentlemen Rankers" - "damned from here to eternity." However, Jones' sprawling and complex story-line about Army life with its bold and explicit script (with strong language, violence and raw sexual content) was considered unsuitable (and unfilmable) for the screen and it was rejected. Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, whose risky film project was soon nicknamed "Cohn's Folly," finally chose a more acceptable version written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash. However, two major concessions and changes from the novel had to be made: (1) stockade Sgt. Fatso's sadistic brutality against Maggio had to be interpreted as atypical of Army behavior, and (2) the fate of Capt. Holmes - he was to be reprimanded for his mistreatment of Prewitt, rather than promoted. Nonetheless, the ground-breaking film's subjects still include prostitution, adultery, military injustice, corruption and violence, alcohol abuse, and murder.

Shot on location (including a three-week shoot in Hawaii's Schofield Barracks), this film was a monumental award winner - its thirteen nominations won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), Best B/W Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), Best Sound Recording, and Best Film Editing. It won the most Academy Awards for any picture since Gone With The Wind (1939). (Its other five nominations were: Best Actor (Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster, who split the votes), Best Actress (Deborah Kerr), Best Scoring, and Best B/W Costume Design.)

At the time of its release, it was rumored that Sinatra's alleged Mafia ties (plus the help of his beautiful wife Ava Gardner) pressured tyrannical Columbia head Harry Cohn to relent and offer the part of Maggio to Sinatra instead of Eli Wallach. [Note: This mythical, conspiracy-theory scenario seemed reprised with two characters in The Godfather (1972): singer-actor character Johnny Fontane (Al Martino, similar to Sinatra) and studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley, similar to Cohn) and the infamous bloody racehorse's head-in-the-bed scene.] Nonetheless, Sinatra's 'comeback' performance helped to re-spark his film career, that had faltered after a string of appearances in mediocre 40s musicals (often with Gene Kelly), and throat problems that had curtailed his singing career.

Plot Synopsis

The film begins with the credits playing above soldiers practicing their marching at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, 1941. A lone Robert E. Lee Prewitt ("Prew") (Montgomery Clift) enters the base, passing Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) - a genial and respected friend. Prewitt has requested a transfer to the base from the Ft. Shafter bugle corps. Maggio is doubtful about the wisdom of Prew's transfer to the new Company command: "You made a very bad mistake. This outfit they can give back to General Custer." But Maggio praises Prewitt's bugling talents: "You're the best bugler they've got on this whole island."

The duty-obsessed, brutal base commander, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) speaks to Prewitt about his transfer, learning that it was because of "a personal matter." Career soldier First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) realizes that the new soldier was demoted from corporal to "buck private":

Prewitt, you was a corporal in the bugle corps. You took a bust to buck private to transfer to an infantry outfit. Why? Because you like to hike? Or was it because you couldn't stand to bugle?

Prewitt describes the circumstances for his transfer to Company "G" at Schofield - his protest over the appointment of an inferior bugler above him. His feelings and pride were hurt by favoritism:

I was first bugler for two years. The top-kick had a friend who transferred in from another outfit. The next day, he was made first bugler over me. I was a better bugler...Maybe it ain't sensible, but that's the reason.

The insecure Captain, the regimental boxing coach, 'pulled a few strings' to get Prewitt transferred to Company "G". He knew that Prewitt was a top middleweight boxer and urged Prewitt to box for the squad so that his company's boxing team could triumph in the regiment championship - his company's win would reflect upon his own superiority and bring a promotion: "I need a win this year." However, Prewitt insists that he hasn't been boxing for over a year, because of a tragic accident - he blinded an opponent while sparring in the ring. The strict Captain doesn't see hard-headed Prewitt's rationale for refusing to bolster the ranks of the team:

You might as well say 'stop war' because one man got killed. Our fighting program is the best morale builder we have.

If Prewitt will box on the regiment's boxing team, he will be rewarded with the esteemed post of bugler. But Prewitt defiantly refuses and flatly rejects the commander's offer. The Captain, a defender of team spirit, observes how Prewitt's principled stubbornness ("as a lone wolf") is disobedient and unacceptable in the Army - where individualism doesn't count:

Looks to me as if you're trying to acquire a reputation as a lone wolf, Prewitt. You should know that in the Army it's not the individual that counts. Well, you'll find that we won't put any pressure on you in my outfit. Just don't make any mistakes in it, that's all.

The tough but fair and by-the-book First Sergeant Warden has little respect for the arrogant commander who leaves the running of the company to him: "He'd strangle in his own spit if he didn't have me around here to swab his throat out for him." He also advises Prewitt, the 'hardhead,' about how he should go along with the system and not champion the principle of individualism ("A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'"):

Warden: You know what you did just now when you turned down dynamite Holmes? You put your head in a noose. Things are soft for a boxer in this outfit. Otherwise, you'd better know how to soldier.
Prewitt: I can soldier with any man.
Warden: ...You'll fight, Prewitt. You'll fight because Captain Holmes wants to be Major Holmes. He's got an idea he'll make it if he gets a winning team. And if you don't do it for him, you'll do it for me, 'cause my job is to keep him happy, see? The more he's happy, the less he bothers me and the better I run his company. So we know where we stand, don't we, kid?
Prewitt: I know where I stand. A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'.
Warden: Maybe back in the days of the pioneers, a man could go his own way. But today, you gotta play ball.

The rough-hewn Warden understands how to play the system to his advantage and keep everything under control, but is unwilling to manipulate the system to gain a promotion, like his manipulative commander.

The sergeant begins to eye the base captain's wife, Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), an unhappy, lonely, and frustrated wife who has gathered a reputation as being a loose and trampish woman. She has been told about Warden's qualities by her husband: "He says you're very efficient." Captain Holmes is often away from the post, "buttering generals" and drinking at the officers' club, and is acknowledged by his wife to be an unfaithful philanderer.

The entire boxing team attempts to pressure the obstinate Prewitt, reminding the ex-boxer: "Division champs get ten day furloughs." Maggio defends his friend's position and respects his steadfast decision and personal integrity: "Listen, the guy don't have to fight if he don't want to without gettin' kicked around." Prewitt courageously remains a highly principled individualist and soldier:

Look. I told Holmes and I'm tellin' you. I ain't fightin'. I quit fightin'. You guys want to put the screws on, go right ahead. I can take anything you can dish out.

Career soldier Sgt. Warden, who doesn't reject Prewitt outright, is seen as a smart, honorable and fair soldier by Corporal Buckley (Jack Warden):

He ain't like the others. He'll make it tough on you, but he'll draw himself a line he thinks fair and he won't come over it. You don't see many top kicks like him no more...All I know is, he's the best soldier I ever saw.

The whole outfit at the base accepts Prewitt's dare and makes life difficult for the hard-headed, introspective soldier. They begin to find fault with everything he does and they harrass him endlessly. He receives "the Treatment" in order to break his spirit - undesirable tasks, emotional harrassment, physical abuse, extra marching duty from Sergeant Baldy Dhom (Claude Akins), and double-time laps around the track for having a poorly-assembled rifle during gun inspection. In bayonet drill, one of the sergeants deliberately trips Prewitt. When Maggio rebelliously defends his friend, they both are sent to do laps.

Knowing that the captain will be gone, Warden calls on the restless, frustrated and testy Mrs. Holmes one rainy day for a drink and to initiate a relationship. She reveals how as an army commander's wife, she has wasted herself by being caught and trapped in a loveless, childless relationship - her unhappiness, sex starvation and longing for motherhood have driven her toward amoral behavior and promiscuity. They set the rules for the beginning of their secretive liaison:

Mrs. Holmes: Perhaps he's in town on business...You're taking an awful chance, you know...That's what I like about you, Sergeant, you have confidence. It's also what I dislike about you.
Sergeant: It's not confidence, Ma'am. It's honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin' all to waste.
Mrs. Holmes: Waste did you say? There's a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You're probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance, what about the house without a child. There's one sort for you. Then there's another. (She takes a drink) You're doing fine, Sergeant. My husband's off somewhere and it's raining outside and we're both drinking now. You probably only got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady's not what she seems. She's a wash-out, if you know what I mean. And I'm sure you know what I mean. (She turns away after expressing self-pity.)
Sergeant: Are you gonna cry?
Mrs. Holmes: Not if I can help it. (He turns to leave.) What are you doing?
Sergeant: I'm leaving. Isn't that what you want?
Mrs. Holmes: I don't know, Sergeant. I don't know. (He turns and approaches, and they kiss and embrace passionately.)

Sergeant Maylon Stark (George Reeves, better known as TV's first Superman) has heard that Warden is "eyein' the Captain's wife like a hound dog at hunting time...She took up with a lot of men back there at Ft. Bliss...This ain't no story...Sure is somethin' strange about that woman."

Two inter-related, parallel love stories that are both emotionally-dangerous, forbidden and career-threatening are inter-cut together during the film's continuing sequences - the relationships are between:

  • Karen Holmes and the Sergeant Warden
  • Private Prewitt and a hostess named Alma at the New Congress Club

The virile Sergeant Warden and bored housewife Karen meet at a park bench at Kuhio Beach Park in a clandestine meeting away from the base. As a "non-com," Warden risks twenty years in Leavenworth prison for sleeping with a commissioned officer's wife:

Karen: I didn't think you were coming.
Warden: Why not? I ain't late.
Karen: No, I guess you're not. Then, I got here a little early. I must have been over-anxious. You weren't though, were you?
Warden: I stopped along the way for a couple of drinks.
Karen: You certainly chose a lovely spot for our meeting. I've had three chances to be picked up in the last five minutes.
Warden: Well, that's par for the course around here.
Karen: Well I don't care for it. I never went in much for back-alley loving.
Warden: Take it easy.
Karen: You probably think I'm a tramp.
Warden: Now what makes you think I'd think a thing like that?
Karen: Don't try to be gallant, Sergeant. If you think this is a mistake, come right out and say so. Well, I guess it's about time for me to be getting home, isn't it? Well, isn't it?
Warden: What's the matter? What started all this anyway? Do you think I'd be here if I thought it was a mistake? Takin' a chance on twenty years in Leavenworth for makin' dates with the company commander's wife? And her actin' like, like Lady Esther's horse? And all because I got here on time.
Karen: (encouraging) Well, on the other hand, I've got a bathing suit under my dress.
Warden: (with a broad grin) Me too.

The other soldiers spend the night out, in their off-base hours, at the "New Congress Club" on River Street in Honolulu, run by a pretentious woman named Mrs. Kipfer (Barbara Morrison). [In the novel, the New Congress Club was the New Congress Hotel, a house of prostitution, where enlisted men hang out.] The members-only private club, a USO-type social establishment advertises: "Soft Drinks, Dancing, Recreation." A slightly-drunk Prewitt is taken there by Maggio and the 'baby-face' quickly learns the rules of the 'respectable place' from Annette (Jean Willes):

Members are entitled to all privileges of the club, which includes dancing, snack bar, soft drink bar, and gentlemanly relaxation with the opposite gender - so long as they are gentlemen - and no liquor is permitted. Got it?

Considered 'new poison' in the club, Prewitt spots "the Princess" across the room - the aloof, but warm-hearted, dark-haired "hostess" who is known as Alma (Lorene) (Donna Reed). He proudly introduces himself to the innocent-looking B-girl as a career soldier:

Prewitt: I'm a 30-year man. I'm in for the whole ride.
Alma: Well, I suppose it's different when a fellow's gonna make a career of it.
Prewitt: Ain't nothin' the matter with a soldier that ain't the matter with everyone else.
Alma: I like you just the same. I liked you the minute I saw Annette bringing you in.
Prewitt: You did? That's funny. I-I-I came in and I stood there and saw you sittin' over here.

Prewitt is called away when an angry confrontation erupts between Maggio and the bullying, cruel Sergeant "Fatso" Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Sergeant of the Guard at the stockade - it arises over the volume of Judson's piano-playing. The unpleasant name-calling quickly degenerates:

Judson: I'll play loud as I want, you little wop.
Maggio: Little wop!? Mess with me, fat stuff, and I'll bust ya up.
Judson: You must be in a hurry for trouble, wop?...Mussolini here is tryin' to tell me how to play.
Maggio: He'd like to bust my eardrums with the stinkin' noise...
Mrs. Kipfer: You will just have to go if you can't behave yourself.
Maggio: Only my friends call me wop.

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