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From Here to Eternity

In honor of the new Ken Burns documentary, The War, lets go with a best picture winner straight out of World War II, 1953's From Here to Eternity. The movie itself is known for one scene, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr having sex on a beach while waves crash over them. The rest of the movie has been pretty much forgotten, to the point that not many people these days would even be able to tell you it is set in and around an Army barracks in 1941 Hawai'i.

The odd thing is that Lancaster and Kerr aren't even in the main plot line of the movie. The main plot surrounds Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift. Prewitt transfers into a regiment headed by Captain Dana Holmes, played by Philip Ober. Holmes is also a boxing coach, and pulled strings to get Prewitt into his regiment to make his unit's boxing team. The one snag in that plan is that Prewitt gave up on boxing after a friend of his fell into a coma during a fight. Holmes decides the best way to handle things is to tell the rest of the boxers to essentially torture him in order to change his mind. While not pestering Prewitt, Holmes is entirely ignoring his wife, Kerr, who hooks up with the sergeant who's actually running the regiment, Lancaster's Milton Warden. They aren't the only couple heating things up. Prewitt meets a call girl named Alma and eventually things get serious. He starts talking about trying to make sergeant before he reinlists in a year, at which time he can choose to go back to the mainland and take Alma with him, however she'd rather not be the wife of a soldier. There is a snag in the future plans for Warden and Mrs. Holmes. She wants him to take the exam to become an officer so she can divorce her husband and move stateside with him.

Meanwhile Prewitt's buddy Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, is an absolute mess. He nearly gets into bar fights twice with a much larger stockade sergeant, played by Ernest Borgnine, then walks off guard duty and ends up in the stockade. After being continually beaten in the stockade, Maggio escapes, but falls off a truck in the process resulting in fatal injuries. Looking for revenge, Prewitt waits outside the brothel for the stockade sergeant and kills him, but gets knifed in the process. He sneaks away to Alma's apartment to lay low until everything blows over. While he's waiting Capt. Holmes is busted out of the army for his treatment of him, and he is still waiting one Sunday morning when the Japanese attack. He hears of the attack on the radio and tries to make it back to base when a nervous guard shoots and kills him.

From Here to Eternity is hardly a glowing portrayal of life in the military. In fact, the movie had to tone some things down from the source material which was even more harsh. While the book has Captain Holmes getting a promotion at the end, the movie has the army do the right thing by getting rid of him on the eve of war.

Plot wise the movie has to juggle several story lines, but it does so with far more success than some other movies I could think of. It can give the Sgt. Warden/ Mrs. Holmes romance short shrift at times, but jumps back to it just when you start to wonder what happened to those crazy kids. It also has to juggle many different characters, so not all of them are entirely fleshed out, but Warden and Prewitt are much better defined than most major characters in movies. With Warden we get a very nice progression from a man who seems to do everything solely for his own advancement into a man who protects Prewitt because he knows Prewitt is a good soldier.

From top to bottom the acting is spectacular here. Sinatra and Donna Reed both won Oscars for their supporting roles. Rumor had it Sinatra got the role due to the Mafia making Columbia Pictures "an offer they couldn't refuse" when in fact Ol' Blue Eyes lobbied for the role and even agreed to a salary of just $8,000. Of course that didn't stop Mario Puzo from including that little rumor in his hit novel The Godfather. Borgnine does a lot with his limited screen time and was awarded with a staring role in another best picture winner two years later, Marty. Clift turns in the best performance of his short career. Just three years later he would nearly die in a car accident and later battled alcoholism and dysentery and died in 1966 when he was 45. When Marrilyn Monroe says you're "in worse shape than I am" you know you're pretty much screwed.

Other nominees that year included Shane, a western that has been made many, many times, and Roman Holiday staring Audry Hepburn, which is a cute movie, but nothing special. Not nominated was Stalag 17, Billy Wilder's film about World War II POW's, which had to have been extremely personal to him considering his mother died in a concentration camp. Wilder may have made the second best movie of 1953, but From Here to Eternity is certainly better. It is not shy about its unflattering portrayal of military life at a time when public perception of the military was still quite high. Using Pearl Harbor as something of a deus ex machina is also quite genius. We see at the beginning that the movie takes place in 1941, but there's no real reference to it after that. Then suddenly an hour and 45 minutes in the regiment is sitting down to breakfast, we see a clock on the wall read 7:50, and we hear planes overhead. There is in fact a lot to like about this movie, from great acting to great writing. There's a lot more to it than some sex on the beach.


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