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"From Here to Eternity" mixes military drama with sex, lies, and brutality

From Here to Eternity

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In December 1941, a young Army private named James Jones was attending a writing course on his off-duty time while stationed at Schofield Barracks near Pearl Harbor. On a typically quiet Sunday morning, Private Jones and thousands of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel based in Oahu, Hawaii had their lives torn upside down by a surprise attack by the Japanese Empire.

Ernest Borgnine (right) played a brutal stockade sergeant in the movie
Ernest Borgnine (right) played a brutal stockade sergeant in the movie
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Jones survived the events of December 7, 1941 and later participated in various campaigns in the Pacific, including the latter stages of the Battle of Guadalcanal. As a result, Jones mined his experiences in the Army to produce some of the best novels about World War II, including "The Thin Red Line" and his 1951 classic, "From Here to Eternity," an expose about the seamier side of Army life in pre-Pearl Harbor Hawaii.

Although the book's overall tone has been characterized as angry, raw, and brutal, Harry Cohn, then president of Columbia Pictures, acquired the rights to "From Here to Eternity." And because the Army was bound to protest or attempt to block any film adaptation of a novel that dealt with corruption, abusive officers and sergeants, prostitutes, and adulterous affairs, the project was dubbed "Cohn's Folly."

Nevertheless, Cohn (who had paid $87,000 for the adaptation rights) was determined to make the movie without gutting the original novel's themes and situations, although he made a few changes to obtain the Army's cooperation. He assigned Buddy Adler to produce "From Here to Eternity," Daniel Taradash to write the screenplay, and Vienna-born Fred Zinnemann to direct.

Cohn's determination and faith in "From Here to Eternity" were rewarded both at the box office (it grossed $18 million in 1953 dollars, ranking 10th overall for the entire decade) and at the Academy Awards.

Not only did the film win the Oscar for Best Picture; it also earned accolades for Best Director (Zinnemann), Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Cinematography - Black and White, Film Editing, Sound Recording, and Screenplay (Taradash).

The movie also received nominations for lead actors Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, lead actress Deborah Kerr, as well as for best costume design and original musical score.

"From Here to Eternity" is set on Oahu in the closing months of 1941. Hawaii is still a Territory of the United States, and the Army's Hawaiian Detachment is in a period of transition as the cadre of professional soldiers personified by First Sergeant Milt Warden (Lancaster) and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift) absorbs new draftees during the last months of peace in the Pacific.

Ostensibly stationed around Pearl Harbor to protect the Pacific Fleet, Oahu's large Army garrison is stuck in a mire of peacetime bad habits, which include an overemphasis on promotion through participation in sports, outdated training, and sheer incompetence.

Taradash's screenplay follows various story threads. One focuses on the efforts of Capt. Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) to "convince" Pvt. Prewitt to join the regimental boxing team. "Dynamite" Holmes, you see, is the regimental boxing coach, and he focuses more on winning the championship than on running his infantry unit. Prewitt, a soldier who wants to be a 30-year career Army guy, but his refusal to box after causing one of his friends to lose his sight in a match sets him on a collision course with Holmes and his boxing team sergeants.

And although the guy who really runs G Company - First Sergeant Warden - disapproves, Prewitt is given "The Treatment" in order to get him to cave in and fight in the ring.

The film also deals with two somewhat bittersweet love stories, the most famous being Warden's torrid affair with Capt. Holmes' wife Karen (Kerr), and Prewitt's attachment to a "hostess" at the New Congress Club named Lorene (Reed). Both Warden and Prewitt are playing with fire, of course, but Warden more so. After all, if he's caught having an affair with an officer's wife, there are heavy penalties, as this bit of dialogue reveals:

Karen Holmes: 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 heading home, isn't it? ...Well, isn't it?

Sergeant Milton Warden: What's the matter? What started all this, anyway? You think I'd be here if I thought it was a mistake? Taking a chance on 20 years in Leavenworth for making dates with the company commander's wife? And her acting like-- like Lady Astor's horse, and all because I got here on time!

Prewitt's love story is equally fraught with stumbling blocks. Lorene, also known as Alma, is a pretty "hostess" at a club frequented by off-duty soldiers, including Prew's trouble-prone best friend Angelo Maggio (Sinatra) and the brutal stockade warden, Staff Sergeant James R. 'Fatso' Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

Not only does Prewitt have to deal with the jealousy he feels when Lorene is entertaining other GIs at the club (a bit of business that was toned down for the film at the Army's request), but he's caught in the middle of a long-simmering feud between the happy-go-lucky Maggio and the dastardly "Fatso" Judson.

And, of course, the audience knows that a far worse threat looms in the horizon as the Day of Infamy draws inevitably near even though the characters don't know it. Soon, the tidy and predictable patterns of life in Oahu will be forever altered by tragedies both large and small.

"From Here to Eternity" is, of course, best-remembered for the famous kiss-on-the-surf between Burt Lancaster and a cast-against-type Deborah Kerr, which is not only iconic (it's the scene depicted on the Blu-ray cover) but also imitated and even parodied (see "Airplane!").

It's also, even though it was toned down for various reasons, a very adult film in the best sense of the word. Instead of getting the usual "rah-rah" Hollywood war movie treatment of virtuous yet quirky soldiers and the women who love them, audiences saw a frank and bitter portrayal of Army life in late 1941 as Jones saw it.

Within the limits of the day's standards, Taradash was able to keep Jones' frank account of Capt. Holmes' incompetence and callousness to everyone, the brutality of the regiment's NCOs toward both Prewitt and Maggio, the reputation of Karen Holmes as a woman who'll sleep with any guy she wants, the social-climbing ambitions of Lorene/Alma, and the murderous anger of "Fatso" Judson. Finally, to its credit, it avoids time-worn cliches and a happy all's-well-that-ends-well conclusion.

The acting in this character-driven movie is superb. Clift, Sinatra, Lancaster, Kerr, and Reed perform magnificently and create memorable, believable human beings with both virtues and vices. Clift plays the tortured yet stubborn “Prew” with a naturalism born, perhaps, from his own status as a gay man in 1950s America. Lancaster endows First Sergeant Warden with a mix of military professionalism as the guy who really runs G Company and raw masculinity that shines through in his scenes with the cast-against-type Deborah Kerr; the latter’s performance, by the way, is also sheer brilliance. Where one would normally see Karen Holmes as a wanton “desperate housewife,” Kerr’s why I sleep around scene with Lancaster inspires the audience’s sympathy:

Karen Holmes: Come back here, Sergeant. I'll tell you the story; you can take it back to the barracks with you. I'd only been married to Dana two years when I found out he was cheating. And by that time I was pregnant. I thought I had something to hope for. I was almost happy the night the pains began. I remember Dana was going to an officers' conference. I told him to get home early, to bring the doctor with him. And maybe he would have... if his "conference" hadn't been with a hat-check girl! He was drunk when he came in at 5 AM. I was lying on the floor. I begged him to go for the doctor, but he fell on the couch and passed out. The baby was born about an hour later. Of course it was dead. It was a boy. But they worked over me at the hospital, they fixed me up fine, they even took my appendix out -- they threw that in free.

Sergeant Milton Warden: Karen...

Karen Holmes: And one more thing: no more children. Sure I went out with men after that. And if I'd ever found one that...

Sergeant Milton Warden: Karen, listen to me, listen.

Karen Holmes: I know. Until I met you I didn't think it was possible either.

"From Here to Eternity" also features a sterling performance by Frank Sinatra as Angelo Maggio, happy-go-lucky Jersey kid and Prewitt’s best friend in the Army. This role, which didn’t involve any singing by “the Voice,” earned Sinatra a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and, more important, revived his then-flagging acting career.

Pearl Harbor Notes: The film’s climax, naturally, features the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but the lead-up to the Day of Infamy is so subtle that one forgets about the oncoming disaster until the film’s last half hour.

For instance, never in the film does any character remotely mention the Army’s main mission on Oahu – to protect the Pacific Fleet when it’s anchored in Pearl Harbor. Instead the emphasis is on endless drilling and marching, with boxing (and adultery) as Capt. Holmes’ true priorities. There are no establishing shots of Pearl Harbor until very late in the third act, and we only become aware of what’s coming our way when, unexpectedly, Zinnemann focuses our attention on a calendar page indicating it’s Saturday, December 6. In the next scene, we have our eyes drawn to a clock on the mess hall wall: it’s 7:45 AM on the Day of Infamy itself.

Another bit of Pearl Harbor-related business involves the attack itself. It does not take up much screen time – the sequences depicting the raid perhaps take up 15 minutes, maybe less.

In "From Here to Eternity," producer Buddy Adler saved Columbia Pictures quite a chunk of money by using footage from John Ford’s 1942 documentary December 7th cleverly (and sparingly) spliced and enhanced with a short scene of two “Japanese Zeroes” (probably T-28 Texans painted to resemble the enemy fighters) strafing the Quad at Schofield Barracks. Most viewers won’t notice, but because Ford’s footage has been used in almost every documentary about Pearl Harbor, frequent History Channel watchers will get a feeling of déjà vu.

Whether one views it as a melodrama or a war movie, "From Here to Eternity" is one of those rare movies that deserves its “classic” label, and it is, in my opinion, one of the best adaptations of an American novel ever made by Hollywood.

Blu-ray Specs:

Format: AC-3, Blu-ray, Black & White, Dolby, Dubbed, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled

Language: English
Subtitles: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish
Dubbed: German
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Release Date: October 1, 2013

Run Time: 118 minutes