“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’” – Robert E. Lee Prewitt
Based on James Jones massive bestseller, Fred Zinnemann’s film version of “From Here to Eternity” won eight Academy Awards out of 13 nominations including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Daniel Taradash, who wrote the screenplay, and won an Oscar, does a magnificent job of reducing Jones more than 800 page novel into a two-hour film. The film had to be toned down for both sex and its anti-military sentiment. The latter, so Columbia would receive cooperation from the military and the former due to the restrictions of the then in force production code.
The story begins with the transfer of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) to a rifle company headed up by Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). When Holmes learns of Prewitt’s ability as a boxer, he wants him to join the company’s boxing team. Prewitt, who previously blinded another boxer in the ring, does not want to box. Holmes First Sergeant, Milton Walden (Burt Lancaster), he actually runs the unit for the ineffective Captain, suggest that they make “life” difficult for Prewitt forcing him into submission by getting other non-commission officers under his command to help “persuade” him to box. Prewitt is a man who goes his own way and can take whatever is dished out by the Sergeants, still refusing to box. Walden in the meantime has his eyes on the Captain’s beautiful neglected and unhappy wife, Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and they soon begin an affair. Prewitt meets an old friend, the streetwise loser Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Together they go out to the New Congress Club, a dance club where they can meet girls. It’s here Prewitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed). While at the New Congress Club, Maggio, having too much to drink, gets into his first altercation with Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine), the sadistic Sergeant in charge of the Stockade. The fight is quickly broken up by Prewitt. Walden and Karen meet at a secluded beach for a romantic interlude. Here Karen tells Walden how early in her marriage she discovered her husband’s philandering and that during one of his more violent drunken episodes she miscarried their child and now is unable to bear any more children.
At Choy’s bar, a drunken Maggio gets into another mix with Fatso, who pulls out a switchblade. Walden, who is watching, breaks a beer bottle in half and steps in between the two. He tells Fatso, if he wants a fight, fight with him. Fatso backs down, promising Maggio that someday he will get him, saying his type always end up in the stockade eventually. Prewitt and Lorene continue to see each other. She tells Prewitt her real name is Alma and gives him a key to the apartment she shares with another girl. Prewitt’s harsh “treatment” by the non-commissioned officers continues however, he continues to take it never complaining. On another night’s leave, Prewitt and Maggio get ready to go out on the town, only Maggio is slow in getting ready and is the last man in the barracks when the Officer of the Day grabs him for guard duty. Upset Maggio goes AWOL while on guard duty and is quickly arrested and court-martialed. He is sentenced to six months in the stockade where he comes face to face with Fatso and his billy club. Karen wants Walden to sign up for officer training school so he can be transferred back to the states. She will then divorce Holmes and they can marry. Walden who hates officers reluctantly agrees.
Prewitt is forced into a fight with one of the Sergeants from the boxing team. A group of soldiers gathers to watch, including Captain Holmes, who does nothing to stop the fight until the Sergeant starts losing. Senior officers have been watching from afar wondering why Holmes is not stopping the fight. A few nights later, Walden and Prewitt are sitting on the side of a road drunk when Maggio, badly beaten up, appears. He escaped from the stockade not being able to take Fatso’s brutal beatings anymore. Maggio dies in Prews arms. The following night, Prewitt looks for Fatso and finds him coming of out the New Congress Club. Switchblades are drawn and Prewitt knifes Fatso to death however, Prewitt has been stabbed badly too. Wounded he makes his way to Lorene’s apartment where he remains as he recuperates. Walden covers up for Prewitt’s AWOL for the next few days. Meanwhile, Karen asks Walden if he submitted his application for officer training and he tells her he did not. On the eve of December 7th, they split up realizing their dreams of a life together could only be a fantasy.
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor the next morning. Prewitt, still recuperating at Lorene’s, hears on the radio about the attack and realizing his duty as a solider wants to get back to Schofield Barracks. Lorene pleads with him not to go; after all, what did the Army ever do for him, other that treat him like crap. As he tries to sneak back to the base, Prewitt is shot by a nervous guard when he does not stop after several cries of halt. When Walden arrives, the guard asks why didn’t he stop? “He was just too stubborn!” Walden replies.
A few days later, Karen and Lorene are evacuated by ship. As they leave the port heading back to the states. Lorene tells Karen her fiancé was a pilot who shot down during the attack. However, Karen recognizes Prewitt’s name realizing Lorene’s fantasy ending.
For me, the key role in “From Here to Eternity” is that of Robert E. Lee Prewitt, as portrayed by Montgomery Clift. It is Prewitt who drives what I see as the major theme of the film, that of how does someone maintain his individuality in a system that demands conformity. Prewitt will not turn his back on his own moral code, not even for the Army that he loves so much. Walden knows how to play the game; in the military there is no room for individuality; you must conform for the good of the “team.” He sees Prewitt as just being stubborn. Prewitt’s rebellion is that of a person who knows who he is in life. Unlike Brando’s 50’s rebels in “A Street Name Desire” and especially in “The Wild One”, Prewitt is not rebelling just for the sake of rebelling, he is standing up for his own principles which are in conflict with the system, in this case, the Army that he loves and wants to be apart of. However, he will not succumb to their demands if it means breaking with his own moral ideas. Additionally, unlike James Dean whose rebellion in both “East of Eden” and “Rebel without a Cause” are both centered on young mixed up teens trying to find themselves by rebelling against ineffective parents. Prewitt is no kid; he knows who he is and what he wants. Prewitt is also representative of director Fred Zinnemann whose main characters often were subject to moral predicaments in films like “High Noon”, “The Nun’s Story” and “A Man for All Seasons.”
Censorship restrictions at the time forced many changes and toning down, from novel to screen. The New Congress Club where Prew meets Lorene, a whorehouse in the book, became a “Gentlemen’s Club” and the girls went from whores to “hostesses.” The affair between Walden and Kerr was a lot more explicit in the novel than it is in the film. Despite the toning down, the movie still steams sex. Deborah Kerr never looked sexier than she does in this movie. We first see her in a tight fitting sweater as she walks around the base looking for her philandering husband and later on in shorts when Walden make an unexpected visit to her house. There is also the iconic beach scene with the ocean’s waves washing over Lancaster and Kerr bodies that steamed up the screen and still does. It is still surprising how much did get passed the censors. This may have been to some extent due to the casting of Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in the female leading roles. Both women had “pure” screen reputations, so maybe the censors were more lenient or not paying as much attention. After not seeing this film for a longtime, I was surprised by how short the beach scene is, yet it has resonated strongly in our cinematic erogenous zones.
Performances are all around excellent and this is confirmed by the acting awards and nominations the film received. Both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift received Best Actor nominations, Deborah Kerr, Best Actress and Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed both received Academy Awards in their respective Best Supporting categories. Ernest Borgnine deserves much credit for his role as Fatso Judson the sadist stockade Sergeant.
“From Here to Eternity” is overflowing with actors in small roles who would become better known later on, Jack Warden, Mickey Shaunessey, Bruce Cabot, Claude Akins, Joan Shawlee and George Reeves who was already portraying Superman on TV. The novel (1951) was James Jones first, followed by “Some Came Running”, “The Pistol” and “The Thin Red Line.” In all, Jones published 10 books; his last novel was released posthumously after being completed by Willie Morris. In 1951, the book was the winner of National Book Award for fiction. Jones based “From Here to Eternity” on his own experiences while stationed in Hawaii though most of the story is said to be fiction. It is ranked 62nd in the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 novels. The book is considered, along with Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” among the best novels depicting the American soldier in the South Pacific during the World War II era.
Whenever I see this movie, I latch onto the Lancaster character. I read somewhere that his performance was such that he was considered the ideal American male based on that performance, circa 1953. History would seem to forget his great contribution and the likes of Clift’s young rebel would become the “ideal”, so to speak, with the arrival of Brando, Dean, McQueen, Newman et al. Out with the tough guy, in with the sensitive anti-hero.
There’s a lot of Lancaster in the air lately. I’m enjoying his work all over again after some years away. Gary Fishgall’s Lancaster bio, “Against Type” is a good read, though OOP.
Good stuff, John.
Thanks for your comments C.K.
Lancaster is always enjoyable to watch, he is bigger than life on the screen, like in “Elmer Gantry”, though he can surprisingly subdued when the role requires it like in “Sweet Smell of Success.”
In “From Here to Eternity”, I think Clift’s character is more complex than Lancaster’s. Both are career soldiers however, Walden knows how the game is played and accepts and uses it to his benefit. Still, he dislikes officers, many who do not work their way up the ranks, instead come out of officer’s candidate school. Don’t know about now but back in the Vietnam era they were called “shake and bakes.” Prewitt, on the other hand, loves the Army too but will not give up his principles for it. Prewitt’s ideology is in conflict with the basic philosophy of the military and that is the need for conformity. The question that is not answered, unless I missed it, is why does Prewitt love the Army so much. He and the Army do not seem like a good fit. It’s a great film and both actors are treasures to watch. Actually, the entire cast is wonderful.
I think this is a fine film but my memories of it have faded a bit – reading your great review makes me want to see it again soon. Funnily enough, Frank Sinatra’s character is probably the one who has stuck in my mind the most from this movie – I vividly remember his death scene and also a moment where he sings in the shower!
I’m very interested to hear about the changes made by the censors – as you say, the movie is still full of sexual charge despite all this, though.
I’ve read that the line on the famous beach scene when Kerr says to Lancaster, (I’m paraphrasing) “No one ever kissed me like you” was supposed to be “No one ever *loved* me like you.” Tame by today’s standards but oh-so hot back then!
I’m sure the book is infinitely more risque than that…;)
I read the book a long time ago back in High School. I know the affair between Walden (Lancaster) and Karen (Kerr) was certainly more explicite. In the film you know they are having an affair but you can never tell if they actually went to bed together. Of course, the New Congress Club where Prewitt meets Lorene is really a whorehouse in the book and the resident ladies are more than just “hostesses.”
The other thing that changed was the anti-Army sentiment, which had to be toned down so the studio would get the cooperation from the Army to use Schofield Barracks.
I agree with everyone who has commented what a great movie “From Here to Eternity” is. Fred Zinneman was such a complete professional. His direction was always outstanding. I’ve liked every movie of his I’ve seen, but this is my favorite of all his movies and, I think, his best. He also got such great work from his actors, both male and female. One thing that amazes me is how the movie is structured. It’s really two parallel stories (with equal emphasis–no main plot/subplot) that hardly ever intersect except that some of the characters are in both stories. This must have seemed a risky approach for its day, when audiences were more accustomed to a straight, linear story line.
I also agree that this is a truly great performance by Clift and that even though Lancaster is excellent, Clift’s is really the character who grounds the movie. Maybe it’s because his character is more active than Lancaster’s–he makes things happen, while Lancaster is more reactive. Clift also gave a wonderful performance in Zinneman’s “The Search,” which I saw not too long ago. It’s his most relaxed and ingratiating performance and shows a very different side of him than the intense, tormented characters he played in “Eternity” and “A Place in the Sun.”
Casting notes: The movie was originally conceived as a vehicle for Robert Mitchum and Joan Crawford. Don’t know why Mitchum didn’t make the movie, but Crawford backed out. In her autobiography, Joan Fontaine says she was hired to replace Crawford but had to drop out when she got pregnant. The great Kerr was obviously younger than either of them (well, a few years younger than Fontaine), but for me that just helps explain her attraction to Lancaster. In that last scene when she and Donna Reed are standing at the railing of the ship as they return to the mainland, I could hear Crawford delivering those world-weary lines, and I could picture Fontaine in her chic mode. But Kerr was a better actress, so I think they were lucky to get her.
I’ve also heard that Zinneman had reservations about casting Sinatra as Maggio. When he interviewed Sinatra, Zinneman asked him to take off his shirt. “He looked like a skinned weasel,” Zinneman remarked. That was just what he was looking for, and Sinatra got the part.
Has anybody seen the spoof of this movie that Sid Caesar did on “Your Show of Shows”? It’s very funny, even–maybe especially–for those who love the movie.
R.D. – “The Search” is one of three or four Clift films I have not seen. It has been on my long “want to see” list for quite a while. A Clift rarity that I have been looking for is his final work the 1966 film “The Defector.”
Zinnemann has done a lot of excellent work Along with “Eternity” I’m a big fan of “The Men”, “A Hatful of Rain”, “Julia” and the less well known “Act of Violence” which I saw for the first time last year. I do think credit should be given to screenwriter Daniel Taradash who took this long, long novel and turned it into a cohesive screenplay.
Interesting about Joan Crawford. I had not heard that before, though I have to agree Kerr was definitely more attractive at that time than Crawford making Lancaster’s attraction and willingness to risk 30 years in the brig more believable. I do remember reading that Eli Wallach was the original choice by Columbia for the role of Maggio and it was only after Sinatra went all out to get the role that Zinnemann and Harry Cohn switched. That and the fact that Ava Gardner who was married to Sinatra at the time and had more clout that he did at the time used her influence to help get him the part.
I did see the Sid Caesar spoof from “Your Show of Shows” long ago on video. Hilarious stuff!
Don’t know how many out there caught Ernest Borgnine on TCM with Robert Osborne recently. Borgnine’s amazing, over 90 years old and still laughing, his spirit and energy are intact, must be in the genes. He told an anecdote of how he was once approached by some Italian-American street hoods back in the Fifties who wanted to rough him up for killing Sinatra’s Maggio in the film. Well, since Borgnine speaks Italian, he told them in Italian that if they hurt him they’d have to answer to Sinatra too, since the two were pretty good friends at that point. They were so impressed with his statement and the fact that it was made in the native tongue that they immediately got all friendly with “Fatso”. I recommend to anyone who gets the chance to watch his sit-down with Osborne, it really enhanced my appreciation of the actor and his body of work.
Guy – I meant to record it when it was on recently and fogot all about it. He was excellent in “Marty” and I always loved his role in “The Wild Bunch.” There is a good low budget film made in the early 60’s called “Pay or Die” where Borgnine played the real life Italian-American Police Dectective Joe Petrosino who fought and went after the Black Hand in New York’s Little Italy.
Re. Marty and The Wild Bunch, he was truly great on both counts. I saw Marty for the first time that night, right after the interview with Osborne, I had no idea I’d enjoy it as much as I did. I’ve read a lot on Pay Or Die, I very much look forward to catching up with it at some point. Always got a kick out of him in Bad Day At Black Rock, watching him get clobbered by a one-armed man, an aging Spencer Tracy no less. Have you ever seen the film The Black Hand, with Gene Kelly and a truly menacing Marc Lawrence? Kelly does no singing, no dancing, but is really quite good in the lead role. J. Carroll Naish plays a part much like Borgnine’s in Pay Or Die, if I’m not mistaken.
Guy – “Bad Day at Black Rock” is a terrifc film. I have seen “The Black Hand” and you are correct Nash’s role is based on Petrosino, the part Borgnine played in “Pay or Die.”
Deborah Kerr in that movie ! This is my personal “Night and you
And blue Hawaii” feeling !
It’s a great scene, indeed!