It is perhaps the most famous love scene in movie history.
As waves cascade onto a moonlit beach, two lovers lie on the wet sand in a passionate embrace. The waves roll in and soak the pair; the woman gets up and runs away. She is pursued by the man. A short distance away, they lie down on a blanket…
The movie, of course, is From Here to Eternity, that 1953 masterpiece of filmmaking starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, and Donna Reed. Directed by Fred Zinneman and adapted for the screen from James Jones’ magnificent novel of the same name by Daniel Taradash and James Jones, From Here to Eternity stands as one of the great classic movies of all time. It won 8 Academy Awards in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Actress (Reed).
Over the years, From Here to Eternity has gained a well-deserved reputation as a great love story, a reputation gained, perhaps, due to that famous beach scene. Indeed, affairs of the heart do play a significant role in the film; but From Here to Eternity is much more than a simple “love story.” It is, in fact, a searching look at what happens when a young man with deeply held principles is rigorously put to the test by a rigid and corrupt system in which he lives and works.
From Here to Eternity is the tale of a U.S. Army private named Robert E. Lee Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift). In the days immediately before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he’s just arrived at his new assignment at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu. He’s been in the Army for over five years; yet he’s still only a private. It seems he was a corporal in the post’s bugle corps at one time, and he was also the best bugler in the unit. But now he’s transferring back to a regular infantry company as a private… why?
It’s a question his new commanding officer, Captain Dale Holmes (Philip Ober), wants answered. During his initial interview with Prewitt, he hears Prewitt tell the story of how he was replaced as the first bugler by someone else that wasn’t as talented as he was. But the story doesn’t “wash” with the company’s first sergeant, Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who knows better. So, it turns out, does Captain Holmes…
It also seems that Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a very good amateur boxer, a fact already known to Holmes and Warden. And Holmes, who is the regimental boxing coach, has hand-picked Prewitt for assignment to his company so that he can join the boxing team. There’s only one problem: Prewitt refuses to fight. And he also refuses to say why.
Captain Holmes isn’t a man who easily takes “no” for an answer, especially when it comes to his boxing team. He’s longed for a boxer who’s good enough to raise his team from mediocrity, and Prewitt is definitely that boxer. He’s already won a unit middleweight title for another team, and Holmes wants him to win another for his. Holmes tries flattery, persuasion, and bribery to get Prewitt to agree to fight. When those tactics fail, he resorts to threats.
Holmes orders Warden and the company non-coms to give Prewitt “the treatment…” extra fatigue details, punishments for the smallest infractions of the rules, deprivation of passes and liberties, physical intimidation. The non-coms, who are all members of the boxing team, take a sadistic delight in tormenting Prewitt. But he is absolutely unshaken by the “treatment” being dished out by nearly everyone in his unit…
Only two men Company G seem willing to give Prewitt any kind of break at all. One of them is a fellow private named Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra), a loudmouthed , impulsive troublemaker who soon runs afoul of the law; and the other, surprisingly, is Sergeant Warden, the first sergeant, a man who does anything he’s told by Captain Holmes… but also a man who has problems of his own. He’s just begun an adulterous affair with Holmes’ promiscuous wife Karen (Deborah Kerr).
Warden recognizes that Prewitt is an excellent soldier and he sympathizes with his plight… up to a point. He gets Prewitt a pass to go off-post. Prewitt meets a beautiful club “hostess” named Lorene (Donna Reed) and starts an affair with her. This sets the stage for a final showdown between Captain Holmes and Prewitt…
Can Holmes use Lorene as the leverage he needs to force Prewitt to change his mind and join the boxing team? Or will Prewitt be able to withstand the continuing threats, intimidation, and punishments being meted out by Holmes and the non-coms? What role does Prewitt’s friend Maggio play in resolving or exacerbating Prewitt’s dilemma? Watch From Here to Eternity to find out!
From Here to Eternity has long been one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve watched it dozens of times – most recently this week. Despite that, it remains difficult for me to find superlatives strong enough to fully explain why I think this is such a great film.
The acting, writing, and direction are rank among the very best of its time… or any other time as well. Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, and Philip Ober all form a powerful ensemble that turns Daniel Taradash and James Jones’ screenplay into a timeless cinematic masterpiece. The script is intelligent and literate; the actors do a masterful job of acting naturally and avoiding the overwrought, melodramatic style that was popular at that time.
What elevates From Here to Eternity to a classic film for the ages is the theme so carefully articulated by James Jones in his novel and faithfully adapted by Taradash and Jones in their screenplay. When faced with unrelenting pressure from peers, coworkers, or bosses, is it possible to avoid compromising our most deeply held principles… or is compromise inevitable? From Here to Eternity examines this theme by comparing and contrasting the words and actions of three of the film’s main characters: Robert E. Lee Prewitt, Sergeant Milton Warden, and Captain Dale Holmes.
Captain Holmes is a man who has absolutely no principles. Outwardly he makes a show of always following the rules established by the Army and society; but at every turn, he says and does what’s solely in his own interests. Sergeant Warden is a more complex man. He’s conditioned by thirty years of living by the Army’s rules to do things “by the book.” But, as he has risen in rank and been given more authority, he’s found it increasingly easy to “get along by going along.” And Robert E. Lee Prewitt is outwardly the most principled of these three men. From the beginning, he states his convictions strongly and unambiguously: he will not compromise his position… ever. Despite weeks of abuse at the hands of his CO and the unit non-coms, he remains steadfast in to his vow not to fight. Each of these three men is forced by circumstances to examine his principles and to decide to either stand by them or compromise them…
MY VERDICT: From Here to Eternity eloquently reminds us that it’s essential to look within and examine if we’re really living, without compromise, according to our most deeply held guiding principles. It’s especially important nowadays, when our values and principles seem to be continually under assault by society’s demands that we “get along,” “go along,” and do the “politically correct” thing. From Here to Eternity doesn’t preach and it doesn’t provide any quick, formulaic, or completely satisfying answers. It guides us to think and act for ourselves. And that’s what sets it apart as a great film.