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  • Post last modified:January 1, 2019

From Here to Eternity: Before Armageddon

POURING OUT OF IMPASSIONED PAGES… BRAWLING THEIR WAY TO GREATNESS ON THE SCREEN!

fromheretoeternityThis is what Michael Bay was aiming for when he made Pearl Harbor (2001) ‚Äď hopefully engaging romantic antics that are suddenly interrupted in the end by an armageddon of sorts, the Japanese attack on Hawaii that brought the United States into World War II. But Fred Zinnemann already made that movie in 1953, and From Here to Eternity remains a superior classic, even though novelist James Jones reportedly thought his story had become too sanitized. The cast may look perfect, but unbelievably, Zinnemann had to fight for it.

Oahu, 1941. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to a rifle company; he is greeted by the commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), who has read about his past as an exemplary bugler and middleweight boxer, and now wants him to compete for his new company. However, Prewitt refuses; the last fight ended in his opponent’s death and he doesn’t want to experience that again. Both Holmes and the other boxers in the company try to force Prewitt into taking up the sport again, coming up with all kinds of punishing tasks for him, but he stands his ground.

In the meantime, First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) sees an opportunity to get closer to Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the Captain’s wife, whose marriage has been on the rocks for a long time‚Ķ

Superbly handled soap opera
“Impassioned pages” as the tagline puts it‚Ķ This is definitely a soap opera, regardless of how serious and ambitious the director’s intentions are. Still, it is all superbly handled as we are treated to gripping character studies that play out as Prewitt stoically resists every demeaning challenge that comes his way until a line is finally crossed; in the meantime he has also fallen in love with Lorene (Donna Reed), a woman hired to entertain men at a gentlemen’s club, who dreams of finding a “proper” man to marry and raise a “proper” family with. In Warden and Karen Holmes’s case, it’s a matter of breaking rules that could send him to prison‚Ķ but she’s had affairs before, and they both need to figure out where their romance is headed.

Another compelling supporting character is Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), Prewitt’s only real friend in the company, who can’t take orders or alcohol very well. After Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, it was rumored that one of the characters, a singer with friends in the Mafia, was based on Sinatra and how he landed this comeback role when his career was in the dumps, but it has always been disputed. Still, this was a great part for him that differed from his earlier work, much as Kerr also played against type as the wife with a checkered past. Clift deserves recognition for his work as a soldier who becomes a complicated symbol of humanism, a tortured man who used to punch others as part of a game; now he’s willing to kill, but for his country, which is a moral standpoint he can accept.¬†

It’s obvious that some of the realism that marked earlier Zinnemann efforts seeped into this soapy story. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey envelops Hawaii in a foreboding, darkly black-and-white look that culminates with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a terrifying reenactment that incorporates archive footage in an almost seamless way.

There is cynicism in the way the military is portrayed here, but it ends on a positive note. What audiences have always remembered is primarily the film’s romantic aspects, especially the scene where waves roll in over Lancaster and Kerr’s bodies, locked together on a beach. But the film’s more ambitious ingredients are well worth noticing as well.¬†

From Here to Eternity 1953-U.S. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Buddy Adler. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. W: Daniel Taradash. Novel: James Jones. Cinematography: Burnett Guffey. Editing: William A. Lyon. Cast: Burt Lancaster (Milton Warden), Montgomery Clift (Robert E. Lee Prewitt), Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes), Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober… Ernest Borgnine, Jack Warden, George Reeves.

Trivia: Eli Wallach and Joan Fontaine were allegedly considered for roles. Remade as a miniseries in 1979 (which was followed by a short-lived TV series in 1980).

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Reed), Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Director, Supporting Actor (Sinatra). 

Last word: “At the time the book was regarded as a very rebellious piece of writing. In those days, people didn’t criticize institutions like the Army too openly. The Army was still very much a sacred cow, and Joe McCarthy was at the height of his career. It was an act of courage on [studio boss Harry] Cohn’s part to have bought the book. He paid the then-unheard-of price of $80,000 for it. Various screen writers tried and failed to organize the material. It took quite a while and several scripts before a then-relatively-unknown young writer, Dan Taradash, volunteered for the job and came up with a marvelous draft, really marvelous.” (Zinnemann, “Fred Zinnemann: Interviews”)

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