Pearl Harbor. December 7th, 1941. "A Date which will live in Infamy," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he spoke to the U.S. Congress and the Nation after the attack. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) might be the first war movie I remember watching but Pearl Harbor is the first battle I remember wanting to learn more about. Never one to turn down an opportunity to make a film about historical events, Hollywood has tackled the attack on Pearl Harbor indirectly in Otto Preminger's IN HARM'S WAY (1965), more directly with an American/Japanese co-production directed by Richard Fleischer TORA, TORA, TORA (1970) and recently, Michael Bay's big flashy PEARL HARBOR (2002).
But after World War II ended, Hollywood took its time addressing the events of Pearl Harbor. It wasn't a golden moment for America. It was a sneak attack and we were caught napping. We did not win. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) may be the greatest film set around Pearl Harbor that really isn't about the battle. The film has a brief section near the end where the attack is shown. But ETERNITY is more soap opera than war film but with a military setting, dealing with adult situations (infidelity, miscarriage, brutality) presented in a frank, realistic manner for the 1950's. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY would resonate with audiences, earning eight Academy Awards and burning into our memory banks the celluloid image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing on a sandy beach while waves cascade over the lovers (symbolizing lovemaking).
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is based on the novel by James Jones who drew loosely from his experiences with the Hawaiian 27th Infantry in pre-WWII Hawaii. The title FROM HERE TO ETERNITY comes from a stanza in a Rudyard Kipling poem Gentlemen Rankers. Even though the film is set in Hawaii, director Fred Zinnemann and screenwriter Daniel Taradash never hint that the Japanese attack is coming, waiting until the climax of the film to reveal a wall calendar and the date December 6th (the day before). James Jones would author another great book about his experiences at Guadalcanal called The Thin Red Line which would be turned into a film twice -- in 1964 directed by Andrew Marton (co-starring ETERNITY's Jack Warden) and again in 1998 directed by Terrence Malick.
ETERNITY begins at Schofield Barracks in Oahu as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to Company G, the Rifle Company. Prewitt is a bugler but better known around the barracks as a boxer. He catches the eye of Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes (Philip Ober) who wants his Company to win the Regimental Boxing Championship and sees Prewitt as his ticket to victory and possibly promotion. But Prewitt refuses to join the team, having blinded a friend in a boxing match a few years earlier. The man who really runs Company G is Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster). Warden handles all the requisitions and paperwork. He takes Prewitt under his wing. As Capt. Holmes non-commissioned officers try to break Prewitt, Warden does his best to keep Prewitt alive and out of trouble. Company G's class clown Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) befriends the lone wolf Prewitt.
Warden and Prewitt both become involved with different women of class on the island. Warden begins a dangerous affair with Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his superior Captain Holmes. Maggio takes Prewitt out one weekend to the New Congress Club where Prewitt meets a beautiful hostess i.e. prostitute Lorene (Donna Reed) who he falls in love with. Maggio picks a fight with the sadistic James "Fatso" Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Sergeant of the Stockade.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY follows their parallel relationships. Karen wants to divorce her husband. Warden promises to sign up to take the officer training so he can transfer out and take Karen with him. But he doesn't sign the papers, realizing he's not officer material. Lorene (who reveals to Prewitt her real name is Alma) is trying to save up enough money to move back to Oregon to become a proper, high class woman. Alma and Prewitt pretend to be married. But Alma doesn't want to be an Army wife and Prewitt calls the Army his family, proclaiming he's a "thirty year man." Maggio, having his weekend pass pulled one night, leaves his guard duty post and goes AWOL, joining Prewitt and the others in town. Maggio is caught by the military police and thrown into the stockade for six months where the brutal Judson awaits him.
Beaten repeatedly by Judson, Maggio escapes the stockade and finds his friend Prewitt before dying in his arms. The next night, Prewitt stakes out the New Congress Club and fights Judson in an alley. Judson pulls out a switchblade. During the scuffle, Prewitt stabs Judson, killing him. Prewitt suffers knife wounds as well and hides out at Alma's apartment. Warden and Karen end their affair. Capt. Holmes is reprimanded by his superiors for his hazing of Prewitt. And then, on the morning of December 7th, the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor. Warden and Company G manage to set up some machine guns and shoot at a couple of Japanese Zeros. The lives of everyone will be changed forever by the attack.
The character Prewitt in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is similar to Private Witt (even in name) in author Jones's THE THIN RED LINE. Both men are loners. Both men go AWOL although at different times (Witt at the beginning of THE THIN RED LINE and Prewitt toward the end of ETERNITY). And both Prewitt and Witt will make a life or death decision to save a fellow soldier or soldiers at his own peril.
Prewitt tells Maggio the military is his family, both parents having died when he was a teenager. Warden becomes a surrogate father to Prewitt, letting him make mistakes from time to time but protecting him from Capt. Holmes and his thug like non-commissioned officers who try to coerce Prewitt into boxing for the Company. Warden takes care of men like Prewitt , Maggio and the entire Company G. Warden becomes involved in Karen's life, trying to rehabilitate her reputation and fragile psyche after putting up with her husband's philandering ways for years. But Warden can't take care of himself. As organized as he is with paperwork and military formalities, he's a mess when it comes to his private life. Like Prewitt, the military is Warden's family, his girlfriend, his life.
Give credit to director Fred Zinnemann for putting together an incredible cast and taking some chances on casting. Frank Sinatra was not famous for his dramatic acting. He was a world renowned singer but had acted in some forgettable musicals. Zinnemann took a chance on Sinatra to play Maggio and was rewarded as Sinatra would win Best Supporting Actor in 1953. Similarly, Donna Reed was best known as playing sweet wholesome girls like Mary Hatch in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). But Zinnemann (and studio head Harry Cohn) cast her against type as the prostitute Lorene/Alma and Reed was also rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Award for ETERNITY. I've always had a crush on Donna Reed since IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE but as I watched her in ETERNITY, I suddenly realized she resembles my other film sweetheart Olivia de Havilland. Look for young Ernest Borgnine, Jack Warden, and Claude Akins in supporting roles as officers.
But FROM HERE TO ETERNITY's success is powered by breakout performances by its three lead actors: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Deborah Kerr. Their careers would soar after ETERNITY. Lancaster had been playing mostly swashbucklers (THE CRIMSON PIRATE) and film noir leads (CRISS CROSS) before landing the role of Sgt. Warden. Lancaster's athletic build fits perfectly with his confident personality as he embarks in an affair with his boss's wife. No actor has looked better in a swim suit than Lancaster as he frolics with Kerr on the beach. Clift would make a career playing moody, anguished characters (RED RIVER, A PLACE IN THE SUN) but Private Prewitt is the role Monty is forever remembered for. Often, I find troubled characters annoying but Prewitt is very likable. He stands by his principles for as long as he can. He lives by his own code. And he makes the ultimate sacrifice for a friend.
Before ETERNITY, Deborah Kerr had played nuns (1947's BLACK NARCISSUS) or proper English women (1952's THE PRISONER OF ZENDA). Kerr's performance as the promiscuous but troubled Karen Holmes is another against type casting that is brilliant. Kerr is striking with her blonde hair and tall stature. She's sexy without having to resort to seductive clothing. Her scenes with Lancaster smolder. As Karen, she's a damaged woman, married to a cheating husband, trying to rebound from a miscarriage. Her only way to get back at her husband is to cheat on him. She just can't find the right man, hooking up with men more attached to the Army than a relationship.
The success for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY belongs to Austrian born director Fred Zinnemann (and screenwriter Daniel Taradash). The pacing for ETERNITY is military precision perfect. Zinnemann introduces us to all the characters early, providing each one with several scenes to reveal their characters strengths and foibles. He then cross cuts back and forth between the parallel relationships building between the two couples with Maggio's subplot as filler. Zinnemann said he has always been drawn to films about outsiders, characters who didn't initially belong. Gary Cooper comes to mind in HIGH NOON (1952) but Clift's Prewitt is the ultimate outsider, a "hard head" who just can't conform. As Kipling's poem proclaims about soldiers who have lost their way, they are "damned from here to eternity."
Zinnemann had made a name for himself a year earlier with HIGH NOON (1952). FROM HERE TO ETERNITY would garner 13 Academy Award nominations. Both Zinnemann (directing) and Taradash (writing) would win Academy Awards for ETERNITY. But Zinnemann would only direct 9 films over the next 29 years including working with Kerr again in THE SUNDOWNERS (1960) and directing another Academy Award winning film THE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966). Zinnemann would direct 18 different actors in Academy Award nominated performances (source: IMDB). He was an actor's director and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY full displays that.
Usually I watch the film I review each month twice. A sign of a good movie for me is I couldn't wait to watch FROM HERE TO ETERNITY again. The characters and story lines are so compelling. Every role is perfectly cast from lead down to the smallest bit character. The film was shot on location on Oahu, bringing realism to the film. Yes, the James Jones novel was toned down for the cinema but Zinnemann and Taradash still convey or imply much of the adult situations that take place. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY would be remade as a TV Mini-Series in 1979 with William Devane and Natalie Wood reprising the Warden and Karen roles but it holds no candle to the 1953 version. Zinnemann's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is a timeless classic and definitely deserving of all its Awards and acclaim.