From Here to Eternity (1953) Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Produced by Buddy Adler. Screenplay by Daniel Tardoch. Based on the novel From Here to Eternity by James Jones. Run Time: 115 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, War, Romance
Just because there was a production code in effect in the 1950’s didn’t mean that movies didn’t take on controversial topics or adapt sensational literature. Case in point: James Jones’ debut novel, From Here to Eternity was published by Scribner’s in 1951. The novel, based on Jones’ own experience in the Army on the eve of World War II, shocked readers in its day with its frank language and sexual preoccupations of the characters. It is no surprise that it has been reported that prior to publication, every major studio turned down the opportunity to buy the explicit novel. However, a week after it hit the shelves, Columbia Pictures bought the rights for $85,000. Initially, the studio intended to star Broderick Crawford, Glenn Ford and John Derek in its adaptation. While the novel had to be reduced from 800 pages to a 150 page script, and much of its explicit sex had to be toned down, the resulting film would go on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
|Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) arrives at Schofield Barracks.|
The movie starts in 1941, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Pvt. Robert E. Lee "Prew" Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) arrives at Schofield Barracks, to which he has voluntarily transferred after quitting the Bugle Corp stateside after being replaced as First Bugler. Prewitt reunites with his good friend, Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), before meeting with the by-the-books, but still fair, adjutant Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster). Warden runs G Company for commander and Regimental boxing head, Capt. Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). Holmes makes a brief appearance in the office before “heading to town”, which seems to be code word for drink and carouse. He meets with Prewitt, the same as he says he does with all his new men. Holmes is aware of Prewitt's success as an Army boxer and pressures him to join the company boxing club, but Prewitt steadfastly refuses, for reasons he doesn’t elaborate on.
|Deborah Kerr plays Holmes' wife Karen in From Here to Eternity.|
Warden cautions Prewitt against opposing Holmes, but Prewitt stubbornly declines to box. Later, Warden sees Holmes's attractive wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr), visiting the post and learns of her "reputation" from another non-commissioned officer. Upon discovering that Prewitt refuses to box, the other soldiers in the boxing club harass him relentlessly with Holmes' approval. Prewitt is made an example of by the various drill sergeants he comes into contact with during drills. Maggio protests, only to be disciplined as well, as the two of them are forced to run laps holding their weapons high.
One afternoon, while Captain Holmes is off the base again, Warden visits Holmes' cottage on a pretext of Army business. Warden finds Karen beautiful and doesn’t like to see her, as he says pointedly, go to waste. Karen claims not to be what she seems, but when Warden starts to leave, she stops him. She gives into his advances and they kiss.
Warden receives several warnings from other non-coms, such as Sgt. Maylon Stock (George Reeves), about Karen’s looseness, but he goes through and meets with her. She tries to pick a fight with Warden, but he won’t have any of it.
|At the New Congress Club, Prewitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed).|
On pay day, Maggio takes Prewitt to the New Congress Club, where Prewitt meets a club hostess, Lorene (Donna Reed), aka the Princess. Prewitt is immediately taken by her beauty. A drunken Maggio riles "Fatso" Judson (Ernest Borgnine), sergeant of the stockade, who is playing the piano when Maggio starts the jukebox. Prewitt prevents a fist fight between them, but loses Lorene’s attention to another soldier, Bill.
|Prewitt gets in between Fatso (Ernest Borgnine) and Maggio.|
Meanwhile, Warden and Karen continue their date. Both are wearing swimsuits under their clothes and they go to a secluded beach for a nighttime dip in the ocean. After their dip, we’re treated to the movie’s iconic shot of Karen and Warden making out on the beach as the waves crash over their bodies. Karen admits to Warden that there have been a lot of other men in her life.
|Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen share a kiss and one of the most iconic scenes in all of film history.|
He reminds her of her past relationships with men and with Sgt. Stock in particular. Hurt, she tells him that after two years of marriage to Holmes and pregnant with his child, she learns of his infidelity and through his drunken negligence she miscarries and can no longer have children. She’s been going out with other men looking for someone to really love her.
|Prewitt has fallen in love with Lorene and can't stay away from her.|
Back at the New Congress Club, it is obvious Prewitt has fallen for Lorene, but she is attracted to him as well. She tells him about her past and how she came to the New Congress Club. She tells him that she doesn’t really like the work and is just doing it for the money. But it’s obvious, even to a drunken Maggio, that there is something between the two of them. Prewitt confides in Lorene that he refuses to box because he once blinded a friend while sparring.
|Prewitt gets punished for his refusal to box.|
Prewitt steadfastly refuses to box, even though the sergeants of the company ratchet up the harassment. His refusal to fight infuriates Holmes, who views having a winning boxing team as important to his advancement in the Army. He punishes Prewitt with an extra long march in full pack thinking it will make him capitulate. But it doesn’t work, so Prewitt is sent again. Holmes tells Warden to go so far as to prepare orders to have Prewitt court-martialed. Instead, Warden convinces Holmes to apply "the treatment," using grueling physical punishment and extra duty to break him.
|Prewitt shows off his skills with a bugle for Maggio (Frank Sinatra).|
Warden tries to convince Prewitt and the two develop a certain respect for one another when even after a month Prewitt doesn’t break. One evening at Choy's bar, other soldiers try to convince Prewitt to complain, but he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction. Prewitt surprises the men by demonstrating his skill with the bugle, which he makes sound like a trumpet.
|Warden breaks up a fight between Fatso and Maggio.|
Fatso arrives and makes a point of taunting Maggio, who is too stupid not to take the bait. Warden breaks up the fight before it gets going. When Fatso is slow to comply, Warden offers to take him on. Fatso backs down. But Fatso can’t resist threatening Maggio should he ever end up in the stockade.
Warden knows Prewitt has gone “dippy” for Lorene and arranges for a weekend pass so he can go visit her. But before Maggio can join him on the bus, he gets dragged into guard duty, despite the fact he has a pass.
Prewitt wants to see Lorene, but she has her job to do and can’t get away. Mrs. Kipfer (Barbara Morrison) makes a point that Lorene, who’s real name is Alma, is needed inside. Still, Lorene leaves work to meet Prewitt at another bar. She can’t understand Prewitt's putting up with the treatment.
While they’re talking, Maggio shows up at the bar. He has gone AWOL from guard duty. Prewitt tries to get Maggio to go back to base, but Maggio gets arrested by MPs. Maggio gets court-martialed and sentenced to the stockade for six months. Fatso is only too happy to see Maggio walk through the door.
Prewitt and Lorene continue to see each other. She gives him the key to the cottage she’s rented with a roommate, Georgette (Kristine Miller), and tells him he can use it even if she’s not there.
Meanwhile, Karen continues to see Warden. They are obviously now very much in love, but when other men from the camp show up, Warden ushers her out of the bar. Karen tells Warden that they can’t go on much longer. They try to figure out what they can do. She encourages Warden to apply for promotion, explaining that as an officer, he can be shipped stateside where they could marry after she divorces Holmes. Warden, who hates officers, still tentatively agrees to her plan.
Prewitt proposes to Lorene, but she scoffs at his idea. She thinks marrying him will ruin things. He wants to be a sergeant and the only way is to fight. Still Lorene is not convinced. She tells them that they love each other now but may not back in the states. She tells him honestly that she can’t marry him because she doesn’t want to be the wife of a soldier. She has other goals in life and wants to meet and marry a proper man and raise a proper family. But Lorene still needs Prewitt, because she’s lonely.
Meanwhile, Holmes has discovered that Karen is having an affair, but doesn’t know who and she won’t say. He’s still convinced that it’s a civilian.
A soldier who had been in the stockade with Maggio tells Prewitt about his treatment at the hands of Fatso. While they’re still talking, Sgt. Ike Galovitch (John Dennis), head of the boxing team, forces Prewitt into fighting one afternoon, quickly drawing a crowd who cheer Prewitt on. Prewitt does fight back, but refuses to hit him in the face. Holmes watches the fight, but doesn’t break it up until Prewitt starts to hit Galovitch in the face and win. Holmes’s inaction is noticed by his superiors on the base.
Holmes tries to punish Prewitt until the other sergeants put the blame squarely on Galovitch. In that case, Holmes wants to just forget about the incident. Prewitt still refuses to join the boxing team.
That night, both Prewitt and Warden get drunk and end up sitting together on a camp road sharing a bottle. Warden admires Prewitt, but warns him they’re going to get him sooner or later. It is obvious by now they’ve developed respect for one another. They confess their problems with women to each other.
A severely beaten Maggio stumbles out of the woods and collapses into Prewitt's arms. He tells Prewitt about Fatso's brutal abuse and that he had to get out, he had to escape. He warns Prewitt to be aware of Fatso and then he dies from his injuries.
While Prewitt plays taps for his fallen friend, it seems the rest of the company reflects about themselves.
On his next free day, Prewitt waits for Fatso outside the New Congress Club. Fatso doesn’t know what Prewitt wants to talk to him about, but he’s unremorseful about having contributed to Maggio’s death. They each have knives and even though Fatso is bigger, Prewitt is a more skilled fighter. Using his boxing skills, Prewitt knocks Fatso down and knifes him to death in an alley behind the club.
Seriously wounded himself, Prewitt staggers to Lorene's for help and remains there for several days.
Warden carries Prewitt on the active list for as long as possible, even when asked about it by Prewitt’s Sgt., Baldy Dohm (Claude Akins). The camp commander, Gen. Slater (Fay Roope), who has investigated the fight between Prewitt and Galovitch, accuses Holmes of applying illegal measures against Prewitt and informs him he must either resign from the Army or be court-martialed. The new commander, Capt. Ross (John Bryant), stops the boxing and busts Galovitch to private.
Karen tells Warden that Holmes has asked her to return stateside with him and inquires about Warden's commission. He admits he has not submitted the request because he doesn’t want to and can’t be an officer. He tells Karen that he loves her, but she breaks off their relationship and returns to her husband.
Meanwhile, Prewitt remains AWOL at Lorene’s.
But the next morning, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Schofield base doesn’t escape bombardment. Warden organizes his company, fearing the Japanese will invade by land, too. He and the other sergeants go up on the roof and fire at the Japanese planes as they go fly by, downing one of the swarm.
|On the rooftop, Warden and company fire at the Japanese airplanes.|
Prewitt, still weak, hears of the attack over the radio and the possibility of an invasion. He is determined to rejoin the army despite Lorene's hysterical protests. She even offers to marry him if that’ll keep him from going back. But he feels a duty as a soldier to fight. Moving under the cover of night, he tries to slip back into camp, but is shot by a guard on patrol.
|Karen and Lorene meet onboard a ship heading back to the states.|
A few days later, sailing on one of the first evacuation ships, Karen meets Lorene on deck as they watch Hawaii disappear in the distance. Lorene tells Karen her fiancé was a bomber pilot, who died bravely during the attack. But Karen recognizes the name Robert E. Lee Prewitt, from Warden having spoken about him.
|The acting by the entire cast is good in From Here to Eternity, starting with Burt Lancaster.|
Do you know who is good in this movie? Everyone. You can start with Burt Lancaster and work your way down the credits. All the actors, even the former singer, put in really good performances and create unforgettable characters. All of the leads, Lancaster, Kerr and Clift, received Academy nominations and the two main supporting actors, Reed and Sinatra, won in their categories. But a case can be made for Ernest Borgnine, who we all remember as either the jolly fat man from McHale’s Navy or the moody Marty. Here he plays the short-tempered bigoted Sgt. “Fatso” Judson and is very convincing in the part.
|Ernest Borgnine plays Fatso the opposite of the jolly fat man he played on McHale's Navy.|
This is one of those Hollywood films that we studied at USC in Cinema Studies, not for the aesthetics, but to read it from the confines of the New Discourse. It’s about as much fun as it sounds. I remember a lot being made about the fact Deborah Kerr is on top of Burt Lancaster during part of that iconic kiss. Something like the dominant male role being subverted or some other nonsense that gets in the way of enjoying the film. But I do remember volunteering to look into the career of Fred Zinnemann, the director And this was before such useful internet tools like IMDb or Wikipedia or the entire internet for that matter.
Thankfully, those days are over and information is readily available. Zinnemann was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. While studying to be a lawyer, Zinnemann was drawn to films, eventually becoming a cameraman and working with the likes of Billy Wilder and Richard Siodmak on People on Sunday (1929). Soon afterwards, he came to America to study film. He worked with documentarian Robert Flaherty and was drawn to realism and authenticity as a filmmaker, traits Flaherty didn’t always show in his documentaries.
Zinnemann settled into making short films at MGM from 1937 until 1942. Several of his shorts, including Mothers Might Live (1938) and Forbidden Passage (1941), would receive nominations and win Academy Awards for short subjects. In 1942, he graduated, so to speak, to B-Movies with Kid Glove Killer starring Van Heflin and Eyes In the Night, starring Edward Arnold, Ann Harding and Donna Reed. In 1944, he made The Seventh Cross, for which supporting actor Hume Cronyn would be nominated for his performance, the first of some 65 Academy nominations Zinnemann films would receive, 19 for acting. Other big films Zinnemann would helm in his career included The Search (1948), High Noon (1952), Oklahoma! (1955), The Nun’s Story (1959), The Sundowners (1960), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Julia (1977). His last film would be Five Days One Summer (1982).
I’m a little surprised at just how much I love From Here to Eternity. All the characters seem to be well rounded, but they’re all broken people looking for someone else to fill the void in their lives. There is a real sense that war is coming and everything we know will be forever changed. It’s almost as if the characters in the film are trying to get in as much living as they can before the whole world changes on them.
I would definitely recommend From Here to Eternity to anyone that likes a good movie. This is definitely one of the best to come out of Hollywood in the early 1950’s.