TCM Presents: From Here To Eternity (1953)

The TCM Big Screen Classics for 2016 closed out with this film which, not only had I never seen, I’d never had any interest in seeing. I mean, what does it even mean, From Here To Eternity? I guess it could be said for any point in present time (the time remaining stretches from here to eternity, right?) but as a movie title, wotsit? Actually, having seen the film, I still don’t know.

Nonetheless, as almost all the classics have been, this is a great film. It’s an unromantic, but not unkind, look at US military service around the time of the second world war, and it is, in a very real sense, soap opera and melodrama. Monty Clift arrives on a military base in Hawaii after transferring out of another base that had an inferior bugler promoted ahead of him, only to find that his new commander has selected him because of his boxing prowess. But Prewitt (Clift) doesn’t box any more on account of he blinded this guy in a match once. The pig-headed Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) figures he can coerce Prewitt into boxing, and begins a campaign of terror against him.

Menawhile, Holmes’ wife Karen (Deborah Kerr, whom we just saw in The King and I) is a sad woman with a bad reputation, none of which puts off Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who is the guy actually running the base as Captain Holmes run around seeing women in town. The affair between Karen and Milton leads to a famous scene, one that I’ve seen parodied so much that I assured The Flower the film was in color. It’s not, but every time it’s parodied, it’s in a color show, so…

Soggy smooching.
It’s in Black & White!

When Prewitt’s not getting the tar beaten out of him by his fellow enlistees and instructors, he’s falling in love with hostess Lorene (Donna Reed) whose cynical outlook on life doesn’t prohibit fooling around with a soldier, but whose life view is all geared toward being “the right sort”. And that takes money.

George would have a fit.
Oh, Mary! What’s become of you!

Rounding out our doomed cast is the “little spic” Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who’s a faithful friend, a terrible drunk, and prone to picking fights with the larger, meaner Sgt. Fatso (Ernest Borgnine, looking less avuncular than usual).

The beauty of this film is how the little threads get all wound up in a typical dramatic way, and then as Warden is lecturing on some big plot point right around the bend, a calendar in the background reads “December 6th”.

Well, hell. You thought you had problems. Your problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, to quote another famous war time flick.

I never liked the nickname "Fatso".
Oh, McHale! What’s become of you!

The movie works well the whole way through: The characters are flawed, to be sure, but they’re likable. (Except Fatso. He’s just psychotic.) The events that unfold are interesting, funny, revealing of character. The focal point is Prewitt’s refusal to box, to the point of having to beat the crap out of someone to prove his point. There’s also the lesser focal point of Warden and his affair with his boss’ wife, which is both romantic and dangerous—although not, to my modern, and perhaps jaded eyes, particularly erotic. (The kissing on the beach scene would barely have even registered with me if I hadn’t seen it referenced so often.)

The army itself is not romanticized either but—and this is the key point—it’s not really demonized either. The women aren’t crazy about it, but Warden and Prewitt, in particular, feel something for it. Prewitt seems to feel like he owes it, and there’s a sense of similar responsibility in Warden, though very much more clearly devoted to the men who serve in his battalion. And this feeling they have will trump even the feelings of the women they love.

So, we could certainly see why it was edgy for the time. According to Ben Mankiewicz, the other studios thought Columbia threw it’s money away when they purchased the rights to this film, since this wasn’t the sort of war film anyone in Hollywood was making. This is true, at least in the sense that the Army didn’t like it. But it was a film audiences wanted to see, ending up as one of the top grossing films of the ’50s. It’s edgy today because the service and its members are treated pretty decently.

I’ve heard that in Japan, schoolchildren aren’t taught that Japan was the aggressor in World War II. This’d be a good movie to show them.

We all liked it. As the Flower says when a movie gets her hyped up: “So good!”

But not in Japan. There they think we just dropped A-bombs on 'em 'cause we're jerks.
A day before a day which will live in infamy.

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