The attack on Pearl Harbor happened eighty years ago today. Eighty years ago, America discarded its temporary neutrality and entered the war in a dramatic fashion, although we weren’t exactly prepared.
And yet few movies have been made about the actual event, beyond Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Michael Bay’s awkwardly inaccurate 2001 boom-fest. Most of the time Pearl Harbor is a triggering subject (more on that later) or window dressing, and probably the most infamous of the latter is 1953’s From Here To Eternity.
However, the movie isn’t infamous for its attack scenes, which are so brief they’re almost a footnote, but for that mondo seawater-infused makeout sesh between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. It’s so heady one can almost smell the salty ocean air.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, it opens sometime in 1941, and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has just transferred to the rifle company at Schofield Barracks from Fort Schafter. He was a bugler who got pushed out because of politics, and he was also a boxer, but he quit after he inadvertantly blinded a friend.
Prewitt makes it clear that he does not want to box under any circumstances. He doesn’t care if it hurts his chances for promotion or even a relatively comfortable experience at camp, and no, blackmail won’t work, either. His commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) is a bit ticked off at this, because he wanted Prewitt in his company for his boxing abilities.
Holmes allows the other men to nitpick and harass Prewitt, waiting to see if he’ll crack. It’s all the idea of Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who has his own fish to fry: He’s seeing Holmes’s wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr) on the side. They have to keep their passion on the down-low for the time being, but Karen wants Warden to become an officer so she can divorce Holmes and marry him. Holmes has never been faithful to her, so she doesn’t care about cheating on him, as if that’s any excuse.
Prewitt does find friends, particularly Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), who gives Prewitt his extra Hawaiian shirt and introduces him to the New Congress Club, where he meets Lorene (Donna Reed), whose real name is Alma. Unfortunately, the social club is also where Maggio gets on the bad side of Fatso (Ernest Borgnine), who’s in charge of the stockade. Some of it’s provoked, but Fatso’s a mean fellow. When Maggio gets put in the stockade for walking off his post and getting drunk, Fatso declares open season.
All of these happenings are from a world on borrowed time, because destiny isn’t going to wait for these characters to get their acts together.
From Here To Eternity is based on a novel by James Jones, the sole Pearl Harbor veteran to become an acclaimed novelist. Eternity was his only real hit, although he continued to write after its publication.
The novel was too sexually explicit for the Army and Hayes Office’s taste, so major changes were made, such as the character of Alma, who worked at a brothel, not a social club. Some of the men had homosexual liasons, which also got the axe. I can’t say too much without giving spoilers, but it took quite a few nips and tucks before everyone felt comfortable.
Where the film lacked in sexual explicitness, it brought the intensity. A lot of it was due to Montgomery Clift, who practiced his bugle so much for the role that legend has it his ghost can still be heard playing next to Room 928 at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Other than that, the cast enjoyed acting against type, such as Donna Reed and Deborah Kerr, who were both used to playing morally upright women. The latter’s role almost went to Joan Crawford, who backed out for various reasons. The only actor who was a shoo-in was Burt Lancaster, who, according to TCM, fit Warden’s rugged charm.
Eternity’s biggest beneficiary was probably Frank Sinatra, whose career had stalled due to other, younger singers distracting the public and a lack of film roles offered, not to mention his failed relationship with Ava Gardner. Playing Angelo Maggio netted him an Oscar and a new lease on celeb life.
Beyond the great casting, the film flies in the face of stereotypical bright and cheery nineteen-fifties optimism. Its soldiers weren’t the fresh-faced kids seen in wartime films, most of whom wise-cracked their way through basic training before stoically sweating it out overseas. Not that films made during the war were dishonest, but America had morale to maintain, and anyway, the Production Code prohibited graphic depictions of war or excessive torture.
Afterwards, the illusion was harder to sustain. The American public of 1953 knew the full horrors of war and seen their loved ones come home changed forever, whether physically, mentally, or both. The world was painfully aware of the concentration camps in Europe and Asia, as well as the atomic bomb. They helped rebuild occupied countries. They were in the thick of the Cold War and on the tail end of the Korean War.
Ergo, this likely played into why Eternity‘s characters have their warts on full display. They’re not in the least bit sentimental about Army life, the rigors aren’t glossed over, and mistakes are made, though the right thing is done in the end. This is not the kind of film that’s meant to drive up recruitment numbers.
On the other hand, the characters bring it when it counts, and they’re not just following their training but they’re eager to return fire. Even characters who have been treated the worst of all know their place and risk everything to do their duty, though they may not live to tell the tale. Even though no one really wins in this film, they at least get back on the right track, and that’s what saves it from being a total downer.
I almost didn’t review From Here To Eternity because I wanted to focus more on the attack itself, but it goes without saying that Pearl Harbor is a human story. Eighty years later it still resonates. And almost sixty years after From Here To Eternity came out, it still packs a punch.
The Classic Movie Muse’s It’s A Wonderful Life Blogathon is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…
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