Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From Here to Eternity: Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects

Part of the fun in writing these series of blogs is coming up with the subtitles. Originally, this piece was going to be subtitled From Here to Eternity: Blue Hawaii, for the sense that the overall mood of From Here to Eternity is rather blue—be forewarned, this is an awfully depressing picture—and I wanted to play ironically off the title of the 1961 Elvis Presley film, which is completely unlike the 1953 Best Picture winner aside from their setting in the fiftieth state. Frankly, I also didn’t know how to come up with an approach to reviewing the film aside from recapping it (which I think I have done too much in some postings).

Thankfully, I read Seattle’s finest alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger.

The movie reviews in The Stranger have a reputation for being both awfully snarky and extremely negative. In fact, outright disdain is shown toward the vast majority of mainstream films released each week. One area The Stranger does cover well is the older films being revived at Seattle’s independent movie houses. In June, Seattle’s Grand Illusion theater on University Way and 50th Ave NE—which is basically a garage with a couple dozen seats and a movie screen (and where I saw Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture winner, Unforgiven, for the first time)—screened From Here to Eternity, and this is what Stranger reviewer Charles Mudede had to say:

“In the classic From Here to Eternity, we see a contrast between the lives of little people and a major historical event. The little people are prostitutes, slutty housewives, horny soldiers, alcoholic bachelors, and psychologically needy boxers. Their lives are going nowhere. Their lives are stuck on an island. Their lives are disrupted by one of the most significant events of the 20th Century, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The most famous scene of the movie—the bodies of the kiss-locked lovers on the beach washed by the foaming (spermatic) waves of the ocean—is not only erotic but also (more importantly) Thanatonic. The wave is the force of history, and the lovers are the little lives that are washed away and forgotten.”
(And hey, for those not up on their Greek Mythology, Thanatos is the daemon personification of Death—but in Mudede’s usage he is referring to the psychological concept of people who willfully participate in thrill- or death-seeking behaviors, which absolutely applies to this film. And don’t feel stupid; I had to look it up.)

What struck me about Mudede’s capsule review was the last line—“The wave is the force of history, and the lovers are the little lives that are washed away and forgotten.” That line perfectly encapsulates the theme of From Here to Eternity, where conflicts between the characters are played for maximum dramatic irony. No matter what happens in the film, we as viewers have the foreknowledge that on the morning of December 7th, 1941, all conflicts will be rendered moot. The characters in the film become the irresistible forces that draw the audience into From Here to Eternity; history becomes the immovable object that crashes unsuspectingly down upon them, turning the picture into a tragedy.

The film is made up of a series of characters and events that collide in powerful and ultimately tragic ways. Let’s start by examining that sex on the beach (and in 1953 the scene was as explicit then as graphic sex is now) kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. First, the obvious irony. If you’ve ever seen an Oscar ceremony in the past twenty years, chances are you’ve seen this famous clip. If all you knew about From Here to Eternity was that kiss and decided, “Hey, that movie looks nice and passionate and romantic, let’s check it out,” you would be in for a surprise. For as dreamy and romantic as the scene plays out of context, the relationship between Lancaster’s Sgt. First Class Milton Warden and Kerr’s desperate military housewife Karen Holmes plays out in ways that are anything but.

Sgt. Warden is a career military man, an NCO (non-commissioned officer) that rose up through the ranks to attain his status. Warden is the “top-kick” to Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober), a career officer who cares only about the inter-regiment boxing matches and how they can raise his profile to be considered for the rank of Major (Capt. Holmes reminds me very much of Lieutenant Scheisskopf—German for “shithead”—from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, who cared only about winning parade marches and using them to rise through the ranks). Holmes is an incompetent and lazy leader (as is Scheisskopf) who heavily relies on the efficient and hard-working Holmes to run the operations of his unit. Holmes also cheats on and neglects his wife Karen (again mirroring Heller’s creation), and when Warden hears from one of Karen’s former lovers (George Reeves) stationed at Schofield Barracks, he is irresistibly drawn into an affair.

Cut to the passion contained in the famous Eternity Cove kiss, and you would think that everything works out swimmingly for Sgt. Warden and Karen. Wrong. The characters each have an immovable stubbornness that their relationship is unable to overcome. While Warden fills Karen’s emotional and sexual needs, he is unwilling to provide her stability and upward mobility. Karen will only get a divorce from her husband if Warden will enlist in an officers training program. Warden is immensely proud that he has risen through the ranks as an NCO; he despises officers, and feels that he wouldn’t be true to his soul if he became one. As an additional complication, Warden risks being sent to federal prison if the affair is discovered—an NCO sleeping with an officer’s wife is a serious offense, and if Warden becomes an officer, Karen can file for divorce without condemning him. Even after the situation becomes less complicated, and despite the fact that the pair love one another, Warden remains steadfast—he will not become an officer. Karen describes him as “being in love with the army,” and the affair ends in unhappiness and heartbreak for both of them.

The other male lead, Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, is as immovably stubborn as Sgt. Warden when it comes to being “married to the Army” and upholding a deep sense of personal honor. Prew is renowned for two unique skills—his bugling and his boxing—and they both get him into trouble. His transfer to Schofield comes about via a dispute with his previous top-kick, who passed Prew over as top bugler for a friend who was inferior. He is also regarded as a sensational middleweight, and Capt. Holmes irresistibly covets his skills to capture the regimental boxing championship. Yet Prew inadvertently blinded a man in his last boxing match, and he vows to never again set foot into a boxing ring. Both episodes prove that Prew is completely willing to buck authority when his personal honor is challenged, a decision carries unfavorable consequences. Capt. Holmes warns him: “You should know that in the Army it's not the individual that counts.” Warden encourages Prew—“You gotta play ball”, but Prew tells him, “A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'.” Prew’s principle causes him to become alienated from his company, and he is assigned “The Treatment” from Holmes, where Prew receives all of the KP duties, extra laps during exercises, longer marching practice, and peer pressure and harassment from the boxers on Holmes’ team who try and manipulate Prew into joining. Again, the irresistible forces between two immovable objects—in this case Prew’s obstinate individuality and Holmes’ abuse of authority—lead to disastrous consequences for the protagonist.

Prew also engages in a doomed relationship, which plays out just as predictably as Sgt. Warden and Karen’s. Prew’s lone friend—Maggio (Frank Sinatra, in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role, which he purportedly used his mafia connections to secure), takes him out for a night of revelry in Honolulu. They make their way to the New Congress Club, a whorehouse (called, of course, a gentleman’s club where the girls are called hostesses) popular with the soldiers on Oahu. There, Prew catches the eye of Lorene (Donna Reed), dubbed “the Princess” because of her aloof manner with the soldiers. Perhaps because of their status as outsiders within their professions, Prew and Lorene begin a relationship and open up to one another, with Prew revealing his tragic past and Lorene revealing her real name as Alma.
The deeper Prew and Alma fall in love, the more complicated things become. For starters, both of their jobs are in jeopardy if their relationship is discovered, though Alma is at greater risk. Their off-island plans are discussed, and Prew says he’s “a 30-year man” with the Army, though Alma cannot fathom why Prew would love an institution which is causing him so much angst. Prew tells her that after his parents died, the Army was his only refuge and that “A man loves a thing. That don’t mean it’s gotta love him back. You love a thing, you gotta be grateful.” He later proposes marriage to Alma, but she declines, knowing full well that Prew, like Warden, loves an institution first. Yet like Karen, she also craves stability, and she tells Prew:

“I won't marry you because I don't want to be the wife of a soldier...Because nobody's gonna stop me from my plan. Nobody, nothing. Because I want to be proper...Yes, proper. In another year, I'll have enough money saved. Then, I'm gonna go back to my hometown in Oregon and I'm gonna build a house for my mother and myself, and join the country club and take up golf. And I'll meet the proper man with the proper position to make a proper wife who can run a proper home and raise proper children. And I'll be happy because when you're proper, you're safe.”

Again, an irresistible love cannot overcome immovable stubbornness in both principals.

The final—and most traditional—irresistible force/immovable object relationship in From Here to Eternity is between Maggio and his nemesis, Sgt. James R. “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Maggio is a traditional foil to Prew. While Prew is a stubborn individualist, he is also a model soldier. No matter how much punishment is dished his way, Prew doesn’t complain or bitch. He complies, no matter how unfair the punishments may be. Maggio is the opposite of Prew—undisciplined and without principle. Where Prew rebels as an act of individuality, Maggio rebels for kicks (though to be fair, Maggio is the only soldier who sticks up for Prew, and his loyalty sometimes earns him punishments alongside his friend).

Maggio is also prone to instigation. When in the New Congress Club, Fatso is loudly and poorly playing the piano. Maggio would do well to ignore Fatso—especially given the brutal reputation he has earned as sergeant of the stockade, not to mention Fatso outranks Maggio—but like moth to flame, he cannot help but tell him to pipe down. Fatso responds by calling Maggio “wop”, and the racial slur only incenses the situation. Maggio is bailed out by Prew, and on another occasion, Sgt. Warden, but ultimately, Fatso tells him “Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Someday you'll walk in. I'll be waitin'. I'll show you a couple of things.” Maggio, unable to resist his passions for disobedience, walks off of guard duty, gets drunk, and ends up under Fatso’s tyranny in the stockade. Maggio’s actions have fatal consequences—Maggio escapes but not before suffering a beating that eventually kills him. Prew avenges his friend, and mortally wounds Fatso in a knife fight, and he is forced to also go AWOL to avoid murder charges.

Each of the subplots reaches a point where male protagonists become free to make changes. Prewitt eventually earns the unconditional respect of Sgt. Warden, who calls Prew “the best stinkin’ soldier in the whole Army.” After Fatso is killed, Warden knows that Prew took revenge, and covers up for his friend by keeping him on the rolls while he is AWOL at Alma’s cottage. At the same time, Warden leaks the abuses of power Capt. Holmes has shown towards Prew, and the Captain is forced to resign his position rather than face court-martial. This leaves Warden as a natural successor to Holmes, and with his loyalty to Prew, Prew could rejoin the ranks or abscond stateside with Alma. Of course, neither man does the sensible thing in regard to their romances, and on the day Warden and Karen break up, Director Fred Zinnemann gives the audience an establishing shot of a calendar, the date reading December 6th, 1941. Even if Warden opted to become an officer and Prew realized he could find as much comfort in Alma as he does in the Army—or conversely, if the women could learn to live with men who are mere soldiers—history awaits them all the next day, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and an entire nation—not just simply the fates of four lovers—is irrevocably changed.

Zinnemann directed a film that wisely plays off the audience’s anticipation of the inevitable. This isn’t a flashy picture. Zinnemann directs From Here to Eternity with a steadfast and even hand, allowing the audience to become enraptured by the melodrama. The actors give considerable aid to the director in creating characters so alive, so palpable that you give yourself wholly to Zinnemann’s adaptation of James Jones’ praised 1951 novel of the same name. The men each play up to type—Frank Sinatra is perfect as a carefree soldier, Ernest Borgnine looks exactly like a bullying heavy, Burt Lancaster is the chameleon—at ease being a leading man but with enough of an edge to keep him interesting, and nobody in Hollywood ever played sensitive men of smoldering, aching tragedy better than Montgomery Clift. The women are cast against type. Deborah Kerr was a British actress best known for playing prim characters in musicals (her Anna in The King and I, made three years after From Here to Eternity, is a typical Kerr role), but here she is an unhappy adulteress. Donna Reed is best known as James Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life, but she is a hooker with a heart of gold in From Here to Eternity. Of the sextet, all but Borgnine were rewarded with Oscar nominations (making From Here to Eternity one of the rare films containing a nominated performance in each of the four acting categories). The entire cast grounds their characters in reality, giving humanistic and emotional performances blending perfectly with the tone Zinnemann establishes for the picture.

By the time the Japanese planes roll in, I became so spellbound that I forgot, momentarily, that the shadow of Pearl Harbor loomed over the whole picture. Like the wave crashing down on Karen and Sgt. Warden, I was shocked to my system. History came crashing down upon me as I was watching this superb melodrama, and delivered the cruelest of ironies. No matter how at odds we may each be with our own personal conflicts, no matter how unconquerable our differences may be, history is the great leveler—an irresistible force and an immovable object rolled into one.


From Here to Eternity (1953)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, Philip Ober, George Reeves*

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture, Best Director—Fred Zinnemann, Best Supporting Actor—Frank Sinatra**, Best Supporting Actress—Donna Reed, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing, Best Sound Recording) out of 13 total nominations (Best Actor—Montgomery Clift, Best Actor—Burt Lancaster, Best Actress—Deborah Kerr, Best Costume Design (B&W), Best Score)

*According to a legendary Hollywood rumor, George Reeves, best known for playing Superman in the 1950’s, had his scenes as Sgt. Maylon Stark cut because audiences at a preview screening—too familiar with his exponentially more famous role as the Man of Steel—couldn’t buy Reeves in the part. Director Zinnemann maintained that the role of Stark remained the same throughout all drafts of the screenplay, and there was no preview screening. This controversy is depicted as truth in the 2006 film Hollywoodland, about Reeves’ life and suspicious death.
**Another famous Hollywood urban legend involves Sinatra securing the role of Maggio. By the early 1950’s Sinatra’s career had stalled to the point of isolation, and Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn favored Eli Wallach in the role. The very famous scene in The Godfather with the severed horse’s head as an “offer he can’t refuse” was based on this urban legend, with the characters of Johnny Fontaine and Jack Woltz as Sinatra and Cohn, respectively. The story has no basis in fact. More likely is that actress Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s wife at the time used her influence with Cohn to gain influence for her husband.

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