Tuesday, July 12, 2011

#59 - From Here to Eternity

BACK-STORY: “From Here to Eternity” is a war movie that is set in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It takes place in Honolulu. It was directed by Fred Zinnemann and was based on the famous novel by James Jones. It was released in 1953 and is black and white. The movie was a huge hit and is still very popular. It won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay, Sound, Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Supporting Actress (Donah Reed). Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor but their split votes helped William Holden win for “Stalag 17”. Kerr was nominated for Best Actress. Sinatra’s win was the culmination of a campaign by him to get the role. Apparently the myth of Mafia involvement (the basis for a subplot in “The Godfather”) is not true. He got the role through persistence and help from his wife Ava Gardner who was friends with the wife of the studio head. He accepted a salary of only $8,000. The movie was filmed on location at Schofield Barracks.

OPENING: Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is transferred to Schofield Barracks in 1941. He meets Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) who is a hard-ass who runs the regiment for the incompetent Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober). Warden says “He’d strangle on his own spit if he didn’t have me around to swab out his throat for him.” Holmes wants Prewitt to join the regimental boxing team, but Prewitt has given up the sport after blinding a foe.

 SUMMARY: Prewitt is given “the treatment” by the noncoms to get him to reconsider his decision. They are constantly harassing him. Prewitt is befriended by an Italian-American named Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Maggio is like a volatile, alcoholic lapdog. While Prewitt and Maggio are bonding, so are Warden and Holmes’ wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Karen is a notorious cuckolder, but one frosty hot dish. Warden is warned about her reputation, but still pursues her. Prewitt makes his own love connection with a “hostess” at a “night club” named Lorene (Donna Reed). He is pretty pathetic (“Nobody ever lies about being lonely.”) and obviously needs a shoulder to cry on.

      Warden and Karen openly conduct their affair. Apparently he is willing to chance his career in order to bed his commander’s wife when he clearly could have any single woman he would want (did I mention he’s Burt Lancaster?). Ah, the power of lust. They famously make a trip to the beach for the iconic kissing in the surf scene. Strangely, before the kiss, he confronts her with her past which allows her to excuse her behavior with the “he started it” adultery defense. With the audience reassured, they have 1953 movie sex (which means we see something equivalent to what you see on the Disney Channel today).
hubba, hubba!

     Maggio has made an enemy of a loathsome bully named Sgt. Judson (Ernest Borgnine). They get into a fight where “Fatso” pulls a knife. Warden intervenes to break it up (he threatens Judson with a broken bottle!), but Judson warns Maggio to never find himself in the stockade. Guess who gets himself thrown into the stockade for skipping guard duty to go out drinking? It is implied that Judson brutalizes him.

     Meanwhile the torrid love affair continues. Warden: “I’ve never been so miserable in all my life since I met you and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.” Karen: “Neither would I.” She wants him to try to become an officer, but he hates officers.

      One of the sergeants picks a fight with Prewitt to bring out his inner “Hulk”. The men gather around like a playground altercation. Holmes witnesses the fight and allows it to go on until Prewitt starts kicking ass, I mean punching face. Unfortunately, the base commander witnesses the fight and after some investigating discovers the “treatment” Holmes had applied to Prewitt. Holmes is put up on charges and resigns to avoid court-martial.

     Prewitt and Warden are out on the town drunk when Maggio comes stumbling up having escaped from the stockade and showing clear signs of the abuse by Judson. He dies in Prewitt’s arms. Later, Prewitt uses his bugling skills to play a mournful “Taps” for his buddy. He then seeks out Judson in an alley and kills him in a knife fight. Being wounded, Prewitt takes refuge with Lorene. Things are getting messy. It would be nice if some big event could help resolve all this dysfunctionality. Banzai!
      Dec. 7, 1941 – a date that will live in conflict resolution. The attack is not exactly “Pearl Harbor”. There is some actual footage, but some of it is of American planes. Models of ships are blown up. Warden and others race to a roof top to shoot at the planes (real original Michael Bay!). One of them actually shakes a fist at a Japanese plane. Warden shoots down a Jap using a M-60 like Rambo.

     When Prewitt hears the attack, he must return to serve his country. “Who do they think they’re messing with? They’re taking on the best army in the world.” Unfortunately, he underestimates the jumpiness of a sentry after the most stunning attack in American History. Ironically, the boxing tournament had been cancelled.

CLOSING: It’s a small world. Karen and Lorene are on the same ship going back to the states. They strike up a conversation. It turns out Warden has decided Karen is not worth adding some stripes. It’s probably safe to say the survivors do not live happily ever after.


Action - 4

Acting – 8

Accuracy – 7

Realism – 6

Plot - 7

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely. Lancaster, Clift, and Sinatra. The torrid romance. The beach scene. Note, you don’t need to spring for the dinner if the chick is over age 60.

ACCURACY: “From Here to Eternity” is based on a novel that is set in pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii. The attack plays only a tie-loose-ends role in the story. Historical accuracy is not really a factor in analyzing the movie. As a portrayal of Army life it is a bit melodramatic, but fairly realistic. Could the personal dynamics have occurred at Schofield Barracks? Possibly. Was the Army concerned that the book was falsely tarnishing its image or was it upset that Jones was exposing some dirty little secrets?

     Speaking of the book, the Army did insist on some changes to the plot in order to extend its cooperation (e.g. use of Schofield Barracks). First, the movie could not actually show the abuse of Maggio in the stockade and Judson had to be clearly portrayed as an anomaly. Second, Holmes had to resign, instead of be promoted. The Army did not seem to have a problem with the fact that the movie shows there was an incredible amount of drinking in the pre-war army.

     Other differences from the book were done for Hollywood reasons. Maggio is a male hustler in the book. The night club is a brothel and Karen is not simply a “hostess”. And Maggio does not die in the book. Oh, and by the way, Warden and Karen don’t just kiss on the beach in the surf.

CRITIQUE: “From Here to Eternity” is a classic example of how changes in social mores can antiquate a movie. Although I referred to the fact that the technology available in “Pearl Harbor” makes the attack here look quaint, that is not the reason why FHTE does not hold up well. The problem is what was shocking behavior in 1941 is tame by today’s standards. When the movie came out in 1953, audiences were titillated by the depiction of adultery and sex on a beach. If you are shocked by Rhett Butler saying “damn”, then you probably will find FHTE to be naughty. However, if you are younger than age 60, there are a lot of ho-hum moments. Here’s what I mean. Over age 60: “Oh my God, he is kissing a married woman in the surf and she is on top!” Under age 60: “OMG, they are keeping their swimsuits on and is that all?” It’s not just the outdatedly tame situations. The dialogue now seems cheesy. The movie is overly melodramatic.

     The strength of the movie is in the acting. It is uniformly good, although the critics have gone a little overboard on this. Clift is excellent and supposedly intimidated Lancaster with his acting ability. He also mentored Sinatra and helped him create the role of his life. Kerr acted against type effectively although I did not find her steaming hot like some did. Reed also is good, but certainly both women were not Oscar nomination worthy. Speaking of which, it is hard to imagine what was going through the Academy’s mind in doling out eight Oscars and thirteen nominations to this movie.

     The basic themes of the movie are effectively explored. Real men have responsibilities and duties that they are bound to carry out. This explains Prewitt accepting the “treatment” and in fact it looks like he is prepared to box in the tournament after all. He also returns from being AWOL in order to rejoin his unit for the war. Another theme is that military men will choose their unit over their women. Warden lets Karen go not just because there’s a war to be won, but he refuses to win it as an officer.

CONCLUSION: First, “From Here to Eternity” is not really a war movie so it does not belong on the list, in my opinion. The ten minutes of the Pearl Harbor attack do not qualify it. Second, the movie is overrated. I can understand why it created a stir in 1953, but that was more than fifty years ago. They had no rating system back then, but no doubt it would have been rated R. Today it would be PG-13 at the most. Torrid back then is tepid today. As I watched the surf scene I wondered what the big deal was. I am not in favor of remakes usually, but this movie begs for a modern reinterpretation.

ALTERNATE: “In Harm’s Way”

     Watching “From Here to Eternity” reminded me of a similar movie set around Pearl Harbor entitled “In Harm’s Way”. It was directed by Otto Preminger and stars John Wayne. It supposedly was the last WWII epic filmed in black and white and Wayne’s last black and white movie. In some ways it feels like a sequel to FHTE and as with most sequels, it sucks. It begins with the attack which is poorly reenacted. Pearl Harbor and the subsequent counteroffensive is an excuse to stage a melodrama about relationships in the Navy. Unlike FHTE, these relationships seem phony and designed to hit various situations. A. A career sailor (Wayne) is divorced and estranged from his son. He meets an old maid nurse (Patricia Neal) and has a chaste romance. B. A cuckolded friend (Kirk Douglas) becomes an alcoholic because his wife is a slut, but she gets killed in the attack.. C. A faithful sailor husband (Tom Tryon) is wedded to a typical Navy wife (Paula Prentiss). D. The son (Brandon De Wilde of “Shane” fame showing the same acting ability he had in that film) is engaged to a pretty young nurse named AnnaLee.

     Surprisingly, although it was made twelve years later, IHW is more repressed than FHTE. You get double the beach scenes, but quicker fade-outs. One is a rape of AnnaLee which gives Eddington (Douglas) the opportunity to redeem himself on a suicide mission. By the way, guess who gets unestranged from his son?

      The movie is based on a novel in which the author makes up some ridiculous names for fictitious islands that Torrey (Wayne) is in charge of capturing. This leads to a naval battle with a Japanese fleet led by the battleship Yamato. There is finally some action at the end with models and lots of geysers and explosions. The ships are all ghost ships because we never see a single sailor on deck. Son Jere is on a PT boat that charges in and gets rammed. Torrey has to abandon ship, but three weeks later wakes up on a hospital ship where quess who is his nurse? Also, surprise, the battle was won and he is a hero.

     The acting is fair. Wayne is restrained. The score is terrible. It is ridiculously inaccurate historically.
Rating – 4/10

Don't let the kids watch this!


  1. From Here to Eternity is one of those movies I really love. I liked everything about it. The acting, the story. I
    I did review In Harm's Way... Yeah well... I have seen worse but there are some horrible macho moments in it.

  2. the war movie buffJuly 13, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    That surprises me a bit. I did not know you were over 60. I was definitely underwhelmed by both.

  3. Good movie, but definitely of its time. This was an actors showcase type movie. all the main parts are fleshed out so im sure the actors really liked being a part of this one. one of the ultimate Borgnine bad guy roles. He essentially played this same role in Bad Day and Emperor of the North. Far more a melodrama then a war movie you are right. but in comparison to the action heavy Pearl Harbor you can see why its a classic. Hollywood did melodrama much much better in those days. This is a good bookend movie to Best years of our Lives i think.
    The beach scene: still very daring for its time. this was when some couples were still sleeping in separate beds afterall. they are not just sitting on the beach smooching but lying in the surf. made a big difference in those times. plus these were two of the sexiest actors in hollywood at the time. just think of if that had been Marilyn Monroe on top!
    On Sinatra: overrated performance. but i just never saw him as a serious actor i guess. Clift is the one to watch in this one. he was an enigma that guy. James Dean, but a better actor.
    They did remake this one for tv once i recall. As a miniseries maybe? Cant remember the actors tho.
    I love how you mentioned hollywood cleaned up the brothel and turned it into a dance club. didnt know that.
    I liked the ending of the movie where Prew gets shot by the jumpy sentry on the golf course. Once again showing the craziness of war. How even incidentals can get you killed.

  4. the war movie buffJuly 17, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    I agree with everything you say except I still don't see what the fuss was about the surf scene. People must have been incredibly uptight back then. Also, I did not find Kerr to be sexy. She was no Monroe. I think Shirley Jones (Elmer Gantry) would have been better.

  5. too true about shirley jones. she was a definite hottie in her day. plus goin from Marian Librarian to rollin in the surf would have been quite a sexy jump. it was really the combo of adultry (not mentioned much at that time) and the swimsuit combo that made that particular scene scandalous. Lancaster was such a manly man. i can see couples leavin the theatre: "Honey, we havent been to the beach in a while..." Bit like the nudge-nudge fun in Seven Year Itch where the poor guy is tempted to adultry with Marilyn.With just the heat, no beach.

  6. This is one of my all time favourite movies, i'm 26 by the way............the imagery of the beach scene makes it rauchier than you are crediting it. In these old movies you have to read/look past the obvious sometimes. I mean I doubt you or anyone else wondered why the last scene of North by Northwest had a train going through a tunnel.

  7. As I work my way to my 100 Best War Movies of all time, I am looking at them from how they stand up today, not when they came out. I do not disagree that the beach scene was raunchy for its time and pushed the boundaries of good taste, but it seems positively quaint today. People can have fond memories of this movie and still enjoy it, but it is hardly one of the best war movies ever made.

  8. Does a scene have to be graphic in order for it to stand up today? I'm not sure if i'd consider this movie a war movie. My definition for what its worth would be that the film would have to be about a war, about the war directly or about the stories of people in a war. I wonder how many of the films that you have currently reviewed that you yourself consider war movies? The Military History Magazine really does have a number of very odd choices.

  9. No, a scene does not have to be graphic, but I do think it needs to be realistic.

    I think your definition of a war movie is a good one.

    Of the +50 100 Greatest War Movies I have reviewed, here are the ones I do not consider to be war movies: Ben Hur, Foreign Correspondent, The Third Man, Hail the Conquering Hero, Notorious, Ministry of Fear, The Informer, Colonel Redl.

  10. From Here to Eternity is not a war movie. It is about the peacetime Army. Guard duty, CQ, KP, policing the area, the company commander sucking up to the regiment commander, and so on. The movie ends shortly after the attack on Hawaii, because all of that is about to be swept away. BTW, the made-for-TV remake was sometime around 1980. William Devane played First Sergeant Warden, Natalie Wood was Karen, and Roy Thinnes was Captain Holmes.

  11. IIRC, George Reeves had a small part as an NCO who warns Warden about Karen's man eater reputation. Reportedly, his part was originally bigger, but was cut because the audience laughed every time he appeared on screen. He had become so typecast as Superman that people couldn't accept him in any other role.

    1. I read that, too. I guess Adam West can relate to that.

    2. IIUC, Reeves' part in FHTE was not cut; it was never intended to be more than a bit part. Although it may be true that audiences had trouble accepting "Superman" in an adult movie.

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  13. I ended up here because when I just saw IHW for the first time, it naturally reminded me of FHTE. I agree with the poor historicity in IHW, but I thought the relationships were not really so bad. I thought Douglas' suicide mission was realistic, given the results of his awful deed.

  14. Excellent! I agree with everything in your review except that I would also add that I found Clift's acting distracting and mannered. I didn't believe his character and found him strange and unrealistic. He apparently was this great soldier who loved his company but I just saw him as a tortured, aimless soul who found no pleasure in anything. What a miserable sod.


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