FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Did you ever watch a movie and think to yourself “I wonder if severed horseheads played any role in casting decisions?” Probably not, unless the movie in question is 1953’s From Here to Eternity.
From Here to Eternity is the story of several career soldiers in an infantry company stationed in Hawaii during the last days before American involvement in World War II. There is tough First Sergeant Warren (Lancaster), Private Prewitt (Clift), a bugler and former boxer, and his friend Private Maggio (Sinatra). As the company’s commanding officer Captain Holmes has little interest in the company other than as his personal boxing stable for inter-regimental matches; Warren is the person actually running the unit. Noticing that Holmes likewise neglects his wife Karen (Kerr), the first sergeant takes over in that department, too. Meanwhile, Prewitt – a middleweight boxer of some renown – has transferred into the company. Holmes is disappointed when Prewitt states his refusal to box – having blinded a friend in a sparring accident – leading the captain to push the company NCOs to harass him into boxing again. Between punishments, he falls for Lorene (Reed), whom the movie doesn’t specifically identify as a prostitute, but let’s not be stupid.
Perhaps I was stupid – I honestly didn’t assume she was a prostitute. I thought Lorene just kept the company of men, got paid to do so, and gave them the illusion of a relationship without much effort on their parts. Reflecting now, though, I imagine Mouse is right here. I had the criticism of this film that I do of most, especially from this era – the two main women characters were not fully realized or well developed. Karen seemed to have quite a backstory – the loss of a baby, ostensibly coinciding with a neglectful husband, a sexless marriage, and a prior extramartial lover. She seems to hold a sadness that is deep, but we don’t hear enough about what she thinks and feels for my liking.
We learn next to nothing about Lorene except that she is in Hawaii to make money and set up a life for herself. Both women are prone to hysteria and panic. The way they are presented throughout the movie seems to position them as weaker, and as merely distractions or obstacles to their brave male counterparts. I know this film was made in a different time, and I think both women playing these roles did a good job – they are engaging to watch. It’s just hard for me to sit down and see a film like this and not make these kinds of observations. They are too glaring to me as flaws in the piece. Too predictable, too, sadly.
There is nothing in the film that specifically portrays Lorene as a prostitute, but remember this is a film made during enforcement of the Production Code, so that would have been an onscreen no-no. From what I understand, this was one of the alterations made from the source novel. Another is that Karen’s infertility is a result of an STD passed to her from Holmes; again, not a kosher topic for the time. I agree that the women are a bit underdeveloped compared to their male counterparts. Would that have been the case had the film not had to dance around so many things and leave them omitted or merely hinted at? Or is this just yet another movie giving the boys center stage and cutting to the gals for reaction shots? I can’t be sure.
I was struck by how unsentimental a picture From Here to Eternity paints of military life. The military is – and I say this will all respect due to those who’ve served – an institution predicated on hierarchy, domination and violence. There is inevitably going to be a dark side, and that dark side is explored rather plainly in this film. Which I found a bit surprising. It was released in 1953, near the height of the second red scare, a time when just a whiff of the unpatriotic could be a career killer. It’s a film willing to say that in the Army, that most American of institutions, your superior officer may be a selfish adulterer, willing to use you as a pawn to advance his own career, or a brutal man who delights in revenge. And the thing it, this movie was a big hit with audiences in its day, and a good portion of that audience would have been familiar with military life. Something like sixteen million Americans served in uniform during WWII, less than a decade before the film’s release, to say nothing of the Korean War in the years immediately before. Obviously not every veteran’s experience would have been as unpleasant as Prewitt’s, but for this movie to have been so successful, I suspect something in the story must have resonated with those who had served.
From Here to Eternity took home a basket of Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actor for Sinatra. I know we joked about bashing him in our Godfather entry, but I won’t argue against his win here (although Jack Palance was kinda awesome). Scrappy Private Maggio is worlds away from the Chairman persona he would come to be identified with. Donna Reed is certainly not playing Mary Bailey in this movie, also a winner on Oscar night. Then there is Montgomery Clift. I’m pretty sure this was my first Clift movie, but I’d heard his story, how several unfortunate circumstances conspired to bring about his sad, slow decline; namely alcoholism, living at a time when his sexuality was neither understood nor accepted, and a car crash that literally destroyed his face. Watching this movie, I have to wonder if, had a few things been different, he would be mentioned alongside James Dean and Brando in popular culture.
This is also my first time experiencing Clift, and I echo the sentiment. He was a handsome, brooding force in the film. Definitely deserves to be named up there with the greats more than he is. His character was interesting to me, too – so constantly in search of self expression and actualization in an institution which as Mouse has said was so antithetical to that. Strangely, though, his love for the Army is palpable. It has his heart, even more so than his romantic interest. This is the case for all the men in the film, truly. Part of me wonders if that is some of the underlying goal of the film – to paint a romantic picture of military life even as the underbelly is exposed. Maybe that’s a long shot.
I wonder what it would have been like to see this film in a theater. I always appreciate the context Mouse gives me about things like the Production Code. I also did not know the written story describes Karen’s infertility as the result of an STD. That does seem a key detail to omit. I really wanted to know more about Lorene’s life before she came to Hawaii, and how she experienced her day to day work. I wonder if the book went into greater detail about that.
The Private Maggio character is nothing short of heartbreaking. In many ways he was probably also a very realistic character. I did appreciate the way the film depicted abuse and corruption within the ranks. I wonder if that was criticized by any military entities or leaders at the time. Having worked around issues of military injustice like military sexual assault in my own life, I know there is a very strong culture of clamping down on those kinds of portrayals or discrediting them. I wonder what it looked like back that.
No, I don’t think the military cared for this movie. Author J.E. Smyth says that the Navy actually went so far as to ban it.
Another thing I liked is that, taking place on a military base in 1941, it plays like Dramatic Irony The Motion Picture. In a later scene, Sgt. Warren steps toward a wall next to a tear away calendar and the date reads December 6. A less on-the-nose bit of foreshadowing occurs when Warren and Karen are sneaking around, and realize they can’t keep their affair secret for long. They’re startled by a plane overhead. It’s just a passing plane, and their alarm passes but it casts an ominous shadow.
Even if you’ve never seen From Here to Eternity, there is one iconic scene you’re probably familiar with: Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr sharing a passionate kiss on the Hawaiian beach as the waves wash over them. Now, I don’t know about you, but when this blogger wades in the surf up to his ankles, there is an immediate physiological recoil from the cold. Any amorous mood would quickly be extinguished. And then there is the sand. Just sitting down at the beach is a mess. Can people really roll around and make out like that? There must be so much sand in their bathing suits. Won’t they have abrasions?
Sinatra doesn’t sing in this movie, but you know who does? Country legend Merle Travis, playing another private in the company who gets to play a couple songs when not on duty. That was a pleasant surprise.
I chuckled at the beach romance comments here. Some beaches do have warmer water, Mouse! I also think depending on how swept up in the moment they were, the sand may not have mattered much. But I am chuckling reading your comments.
The music of Travis was a nice touch. This film remained engaging throughout, even though I probably would never have sought it out on my own if not for this project. But hey, that is part of why I like this project!
Also nominated in 1953:
Next film: MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)