March 14, 2014

From Here to Eternity

If you've never seen From Here to Eternity (1953), you've probably at least seen that image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr pawing at each other on the beach (either the real thing or a parody of it). Their torrid love affair isn't really the most interesting thing about the film, however, and at times the movie seems to forget about that romance altogether. From Here to Eternity is essentially an army soap opera, set in Hawaii in 1941. I'm sure you can guess what major historical event the movie is leading up to. Until the big showdown at Pearl Harbor, Eternity--which was adapted from the James Jones novel by Daniel Taradash and directed by Fred Zinneman--is about two soldiers and their struggle against the machinery of the army and civilization: Lancaster plays a sergeant who's trying to move up in the military world by doing what's expected of him (and pulling the strings by proxy when he can). The trouble for him begins when he starts sleeping with the corruptible captain's wife. She's played with pouty sumptuousness by Deborah Kerr. Montgomery Clift is the other soldier, the loner-cum-rebel Robert E. Lee Prewitt, whose claims to fame in the army are his top notch bugle and boxing skills. (He shows off his bugle talents in an amusing scene in a night club, and then later when he plays "Taps" to try and tug at our patriotic heart-strings.)

Fortunately, there's no actual boxing in this movie, or I might have turned it off. But there are a few fight scenes, all of them involving Montgomery Clift, who seems too small to actually defeat any of the gorillas he's up against. Despite all the scuffles, Prewitt refuses to participate in any organized fighting, much to the chagrin of his superior, who proceeds to make his life a living hell. Prewitt befriends an amiable private played by Frank Sinatra and falls in love with a girl (Donna Reed) he meets at a gentleman's club. Even though Montgomery Clift's performance is striking, it's never completely clear why someone so fiercely independent as his character would want to join the army in the first place. One can accept Lancaster's rule-following sergeant much more easily.

Eternity juggles more stories than it seems able to, but the finale is exciting and the film still holds up: the actors are all generally interesting, and the presumably steamy aspects of the Jones novel seem to at least have gotten through here via dialogue (and that famous beach make-out scene), even if it's pretty tame by today's standards. The supporting cast includes Philip Ober (as the disreputable captain), Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Warden.

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