Must-See 500: From Here to Eternity

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr share one of cinema's all-time greatest lip-locks in a tale of tragic romance set against a backdrop of impending war.

Still catching up on last week’s Memorial Day marathon, today I’m looking at another classic WWII film, although From Here to Eternity is hardly an action-adventure romp like The Great Escape. No, we’re into the romance/friendship/a-soldier’s-gotta-do-what-a-soldier’s-gotta-do genre here. The 1953 film was directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) and featured a star-studded cast, including Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, and supporting turns from character actors like Jack Warden and Ernest Borgnine.

This is a fine example of Hollywood’s output under the studio system: clearly a vehicle for its star actors, filmed on a backlot, every element of production serving to smoothly advance the story. The plot revolves around an infantry base in Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift) is a tough, idealistic new transfer to the base, frustrated by an unexpected demotion in the Bugle Corps and haunted by a boxing accident where he blinded one of his best friends. Sergeant Warden (Lancaster) is nominally the camp’s second-in-command, but is really the one who gets everything done while his superior, Captain Holmes carouses with his mistresses. Holmes also wants Prewitt to join the troop’s boxing squad for an upcoming tournament, which Prewitt refuses to do (after the accident, he resolved to never fight again). Much of the story revolves around Prewitt’s humiliation as Holmes and his bunch of thug underlings try to force Prewitt to give in and box again. I have to say, it’s not the most compelling point to hinge your narrative on, but there’s more interesting fare to be found.

Meanwhile, two romantic relationships emerge: the first between Prewitt and Lorene (Reed), a local call girl (but with a heart of gold, of course). They’re young, idealistic, blah blah. Pretty dull, really. More intriguing is the affair between Warden and Captain Holmes’ wife, Karen (Kerr), and not just because it provides us with one of the most memorable kisses in film history. They both claim to love the other, but both stop short of taking the necessary steps to making their relationship legitimate: she seems wary about getting a divorce (though her husband certainly doesn’t help her on that front) and he refuses to become a commissioned officer, which would let them move to the mainland. So what’s their deal? Is this just the two most attractive people around getting together because they’re the most attractive people around? A cry for attention? But on whose part?

Probably the most touching of all, though, is the friendship that emerges between Warden and Prewitt. At first, Warden thinks Prewitt is an insubordinate hothead, but generally comes to admire the Private’s stubborn adherence to his principles. The best scene in the film has the two of them, drunk out of their minds, sitting in the middle of a road, arguing over who has the worse life (much funnier than it sounds, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Clift and Lancaster were genuinely wasted when they filmed this).

The film gets kind of preachy and betrays itself as a product of its time, as Prewitt ends up being a hero mostly because of his undying loyalty to the Army and to his country no matter how much it treats him like shit. He’s stronger than Sinatra’s character, Prewitt’s buddy Angelo, a pitiful fool who breaks under the pressure of his duties.

So, while the film’s message might be outdated, it’s worth watching for Warden and Prewitt’s drunken bromance, and to form your own take on Warden and Karen’s curious relationship. The actors are generally as good as they need to be, although Kerr and Reed both elevate with their characters despite relatively limited screen time. And, there’s always that kiss.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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