Saturday, February 7, 2009


America in the 1950s developed into a land where conformity ruled. Suburbs with look-alike housing proliferated in the form of Levitttowns. People grew fearful of anybody who criticized the American way of life. These critics became easy targets for anti-Communist crusaders, like The House Committee on Un-American Activities, whose mandate it was to investigate anybody with suspicious activities that might threaten America. Meanwhile, the affluence and domesticity that swept America were reflected in lowered rates of divorce and homicide. Nevertheless, some Americans feared that people had sunk into a morass of complacency and conformity that came with the impetus of a consumer-oriented, materialistic culture. Novelists in the early 1950s challenged this ideology and dealt with individuals trying to maintain
their personality in the midst of mass culture that oppressed them. These problems had lain dominant since before World War II. Former soldier turned novelist James Jones unleashed them in his scandalous bestseller "From Here to Eternity" (1951) about the dehumanizing environment of peacetime military life at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, Hawaii on the eve of the infamous Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The novel explored many themes including adultery, promiscuity, sadism, and racism. The climate of the 1950s virtually guaranteed that Jones' novel, which was very critical of the U.S. military, would never illuminate the silver screen. Nothing, however, could dissuade Columbia Pictures studio boss Harry Cohn would producing the novel. Cohn called on MGM contract director Fred Zinnemann to helm the project. They agreed that filming "From Here to Eternity" without the cooperation of the U.S. military would make such a production impossible.

Producer Buddy Adler, a former Army officer himself, helped resolve the conflicts between the military and the filmmakers so that a palatable version of "From Here to Eternity" could be produced. Columbia Pictures not only had to placate the military but they also had to contend with the repressive Production Code Administration, the industry's internal censors who objected to anything that did not portray American and its institutions in an idealized manner. Meanwhile, Cohn and Zinnemann argued about the casting, especially of Montgomery Cliff, who eventually won the role over studio contract player Aldo Ray, the man that Cohn originally favored for the role. Cohn and Zinnemann cast Deborah Kerr, whose reputation for playing prim women, went against the grain of the role she would have. The most notorious bit of casting involved the hiring of Frank Sinatra, whose career was tanking horribly, instead of Broadway performer Eli Wallach. "From Here to Eternity" (**** out of ****) is best remembered for the torrid kissing on the beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr that was later parodied in "Airplane!"

The first time that we see Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Cliff of "Red River") he is marching across the parade ground in the opposite directions of the soldiers drilling. Zinnemann deliberating staged the opening scene so that it would be clear that Prewitt differed from the rest of the men. Prewitt meets never-do-well Private Angelo Maggio(scrappy Frank Sinatra) and says that he has transferred out of the bugle corp. Maggio advises Prewitt that he has made a terrible mistake. Maggio states: "This outfit they can give back to General Custer." First Sergeant Milton
Warden (Burt Lancaster of "Criss Cross") lays down the law during their first encounter. "This here is a rifle company. You ain't supposed to enjoy yourself until sundown." Prewitt meets Captain Dana Holmes and explains that he accepted a demotion from corporal to private to transfer out of the bugle corps because his first sergeant transferred in a friend replaced him with the friend. Prewitt was the best bugler, but friendship counted more to the sergeant than quality. Holmes has pulled strings to get Prewitt into his outfit so that they can win the regimental boxing finals. Prewitt refuses to fight for Holmes. It seems that Prewitt blinded his friend Dixie Wells boxing and has since refused to don the gloves and enter the ring. "Looks to me like you're trying to acquire a reputation as a lone wolf," Holmes observes, and adds, "In the Army, it's the individual that counts." All of Holmes' sergeants, who do box, except for Warden, give Prewitt 'the treatment' to make him change his mind. Prewitt, however, doesn't capitulate. Meanwhile, Warden takes up with Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), and they secretly date behind her jealous husband's back. We learn that Karen lost a baby because her worthless, philandering husband was too drunk to take her to the hospital. They have an agreement not to inquire into each other's lives despite sharing the same house. Karen refuses to let Dana sleep in the same room with her. Warden is playing with fire because if he were caught, he could land in Leavenworth for twenty years.

Maggio introduces Prewitt to society in town at a place called 'the New Congress Club.' In Jones' book, establishments like these were really whorehouses, but the Production Code required that Columbia sanitize these settings into harmless social clubs on the level of USO Clubs. Prewitt meets a strikingly beautiful lady, Lorene (Donna Reed of "It's A Wonderful Life") and they fall in love. Meanwhile, Maggio clashes with a brute of a first sergeant, Sergeant Fatso Judson (Ernst Borgnine of "Marty"), who prefers to plink away on the piano with all the dexterity of a monkey. Judson's bad piano music interferes with Maggio's dancing with a girl and they confront each other. Prewitt pulls him off before Judson and he can fight. Holmes' sergeants redouble the hazing, but Prewitt holds his own against them, until the irritable captain wants to draw up court marshal papers. Warden intervenes and suggests that Holmes put Prewitt on double punishment duty. Eventually, Maggio goes
AWOL when he is supposed to be on guard duty, and he winds up in the stockade where Judson beats him mercilessly until Maggio escapes. Maggio dies in Prewitt's arms and Prewitt tangles with Judson in a back alley and they fight until Prewitt stabs Judson to death. Unfortunately, Judson stabs Prewitt who flees to the safety
of Lorene's house. Lorene came to Hawaii so that she could earn "a stocking full of money" and return to her small home town in Oregon to live out her life in style and respect. At the same time, Warden and Karen date and have to hide out from all military officers.

"From Here to Eternity" won Zinnemann the Oscar for Best Director. The film claimed eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Photography, and Sinatra, in his career reviving role, won a Best Supporting Oscar. The title of Jones' novel was derived by a Rudyard Kipling poem and the verb before it was deleted for obvious reasons, the complete line reads "Damned From Here to Eternity."
Although television made two remakes of this steamy soaper when censorship standards had relaxed considerly, neither of those remarks matches this sterling original.