Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the film adaptation of James Jones’ From Here To Eternity
From Here To Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and Donna Reed, from the war novel of James Jones, Columbia Pictures, 1953
It is easy, easy as hell, to produce, and have commercial success, at a war epic based on shoot ‘em up, kill every enemy of the moment in sight, level every possible standing target, human or man-made, and still have time for lunch, romance and a couple of hands of gin rummy. The Hollywood box office has thrived on such epic since from about day one. The hard part, the very hard part, is to show soldiers at peace, or at least the old-fashion peace before the world, and the American imperium above all, put us all on edge with the permanent war-footing. But that is what we get here just soldiers being dog soldiers in the barracks, and barrooms in the rightly-deserved classic film of the genre, From Here To Eternity.
Oh sure, like any Hollywood picture (or now from other milieus) this one is filled with plenty of romance to keep up the romantic interests of the viewers (and that famous steamy “sex” scene before they had steamy sex scenes in Hollywood film, as least that I knew about, with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr going through their paces on the foam-flecked Hawaiian beach above all. Some women of my mother’s generation, the ones who mainly stayed at home and hoped their Johnnies and Jimmies would come can back in one piece during World War II, were, secretly, blushing at the thoughts evoked on that one.).
But at its heart this film is really about the mundane, fearful, fearsome sometimes brutal, sometimes screwy life in the barracks. For guys, not me, but like my old time best friend, Peter Paul Markin, who I watched this one with, and who went into the “service” some of the scenes rang very true about the everyday side of Army life before the shooting starts.
And, in the end, this is the beauty of the film adaptation of Jones’ war saga, the vast bulk of the film is caught up with the savage rivalries, the petty routines, and the madnesses of the dog soldier, a man (mainly then) whose who life was set up in stone to be a soldier, a soldier waiting to fight. That is where the setting in idyllic Hawaii just before December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor, for the forgetful later generations) is pure inspiration. Hell, before that date this was gravy duty, as long as you kept your nose clean. There is the rub though. One Private Robert E. Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift), a lifer-in-the making by choice, just doesn’t know how to roll with the punches (no pun intended) when he refuses (with cause) not to be a part of the good old boy network of boxers who have life easy in the company he is newly assigned to. His struggles, including his romantic struggles (naturally) with one very fetching club “hostess”, Lorene (played by Academy Award winner Donna Reed), his sense of honor, his sense of duty, his sense of taking care of his buddy (especially one Maggio, played by Academy Award winnerFrank Sinatra), and his sense of revenge for an injustice are what drive the film. And all to the tune of the bluesy “Reenlistment Blues” as background music.
Of course an army is not made up of a single soldier, or his righteous struggles, so when we are not riveted to Clift and Reed our eyes are fixed on old dog soldier “Top,” Sergeant Waldron (played by rugged Burt Lancaster) and his very efficient operation keeping his unit in good running order despite his commanding officer (a common plight of senior NCOs, according to old time stories that I have heard). Oh yes, just as a refresher, and trying keep his hands off (or is it on) that same commanding officer’s wife (Ms. Kerr). So if you want blood and guts war go see a film like D-Day, Platoon, or Private Ryan. If you want to see every day dog soldiers at work and play circa 1940 this is your cinematic stop.