In lesser hands, this movie would have been one long soap opera, but this adaptation of James Jones’ rather bawdy novel manages to wring real human drama out of its characters instead. The real miracle is that the filmmakers managed to tame the rather explicit novel enough to appease the censors and still stay true to the spirit of the story. If all you remember or know about this movie is Burt Lancaster’s famous clinch on the beach with Deborah Kerr, then you owe yourself a viewing of this movie, which has a lot more to offer.
Set in Hawaii during the last months of 1941, the story details the interconnecting lives of several soldiers under the command of Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober). Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has recently transferred over from the bugle corps. Holmes wants him in his company because Prewitt is known as an excellent boxer and the captain sees him as his ticket to win the regimental boxing tournament. Every noncommissioned officer in his unit earned his stripes by boxing. The problem is that Prewitt quit the sport after an accident crippled his sparring partner and refuses to fight again. That doesn’t sit well with Holmes, who instructs his sergeants to inflict “the treatment” on Prewitt, meaning that he gets hit with every possible punishment and crappy assignment they can dream up until he agrees to box for Holmes.
While Holmes is chasing pugilistic glory (and every skirt in Honolulu),
his unit the company is kept running smoothly by Sergeant Warden (Lancaster), who views the captain (and all officers) with benign contempt. His knowledge of the Holmes’ habits gives him an opportunity when he spots the captain’s beautiful but neglected wife, Helen (Kerr). Against the advice of just about everyone who knows her reputation, the sergeant begins an affair with his commander’s wife.
Prewitt manages to escape the treatment with brief passes in town, where he accompanies his only real friend, Maggio (Frank Sinatra), to a “gentlemen’s club,” which in 1953 was as close as you could come to using the word “brothel.” He begins a relationship there with a girl named Lorena (Donna Reed), based largely on their common loneliness. Maggio’s pride and quick temper, however, puts him on a collision course with Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine) a sadistic, bigoted sergeant from the army stockade.
Without the sharp and insightful writing, this story could easily have played out as shallow and melodramatic, but it certainly wasn’t hurt by one of the best casts assembled during that era of the movies. When he won Best Actor for Stalag 17, William Holden said that Burt Lancaster had really deserved the award for this movie and I can’t say that I disagree with him. Lancaster is a towering presence in this move but the entire cast is solid, even down to minor parts played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins.
One of the marks of a classic film is that it never seems dated and that is certainly true of From Here to Eternity. Despite its concessions to the puritanical restricts of movie censorship in 1953, the movie feels almost contemporary in many respects. I definitely can’t think of many ways they could have improved it.