Thursday, December 8, 2011

From Here To Eternity (1953)

This being the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Noman enjoyed one of the great ones, "From Here To Eternity," starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Donna Reed, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine and others.

It is very much a guy's movie with lots of grunting masculinity, suppressed emotions and informal codes that rule in a very structured world of honor, courage and spirit.  The first commandment on this army base is: Thou shalt not complain of abuse, or let the abuser know that he's getting to you.  The second is the same with the two terms reversed.

This code ends up costing Sinatra's character, Pvt. Angelo Maggio, his life at the hands of the sadistic Borgnine (Sgt. 'Fatso' Judson).  It also governs the life of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift), whose endurance and grace under duress winds up winning him the respect and friendship of his rock hard Sergeant, Milton Warden (Lancaster).  Though Prew suffers silently, he gets payback on the film's tormentors on more than one occasion.  Especially satisfying are his encounters with Fatso, and Sgt. Ike Galovitch (John Dennis).

Though it's the love story between Clift and Donna Reed--who is great as the dance hall demigoddess, Alma 'Lorene' Burke--that captivates one's attention, and while it is Clift's life the viewer is most drawn into, it is Lancaster's movie.  His moral ambiguity--he's basically a fair guy who is nevertheless willing to live with others' injustice, and to bust down whoever he needs to in order to keep things running smoothly--is the axis around which the movie turns.  As he says at one point in the story, "I was born smart."  Tough, too, and he looks it.  For all his tolerance of human depravity, he knows who he is, and where he stands.

It's a simple story that lends itself to high drama.  Pruitt is a bugler, and former boxer, who refuses to box for his outfit because of a sparring accident that left a former friend blind.  His Captain, Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) won't accept Pruitt's decision as he's out to earn another stripe by winning the inter-company boxing competition.  He turns the rest of the team loose on Pruitt--a real gaggle of goons--who accepts the hazing without protest.  He is his own man, and is simply not going to bend to others' wills.

The one ray of hope in his otherwise dreary life is provided by Lorene, whose real name is Alma.  Their love is plausible; they're both hardened and wounded, yet vulnerable, especially to each other.  If you think of Reed as Mary Bailey or as Carl Betz's wife on 1960's television, you'll want to see her in this movie.

In a great scene, Reed turns down Clift's proposal, and lets us see Alma's soul (Spanish-English pun intended).  She's got a chip on her lovely shoulder from being jilted by her wealthy, long-time boyfriend.  She wants to be proper, in order to be safe, in order to be happy, which she evidently won't be on that path.  It's an existential confusion.

Alma: Prew, it's true we love each other now, we need each other, but back in the States it might be different.
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: That ain't the real reason.
Alma: You're right, it's not.
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: What is the real reason?
Alma: I - I won't marry you because I don't want to be the wife of a soldier.
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: Well, that... would be about the best I could ever do for you.
Alma: Because nobody's going to stop me from my plan. Nobody, nothing. Because I want to be proper!
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: Proper.
Alma: Yes, proper! In another year I'll have enough money saved. Then I'm going to go back to my home town in Oregon, and I'm going to build a house for my mother and myself, and join the country club and take up golf. Then I'll meet the proper man with the proper position, to make a proper wife, and can run a proper home and raise proper children. And I'll be HAPPY because when you're PROPER you're SAFE!
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: You've got guts, honey. I hope you can pull that off.
Alma: I do mean it when I say I need you. 'Cause I'm lonely. You think I'm lying, don't you?
Robert E. Lee "Prew' Prewitt: Nobody ever lies about being lonely.

The movies other love story is an adulterous affair between Lancaster (Warden) and Kerr (Karen Holmes), his company commander's embittered and lonely wife.  Their beach date is the movie's iconic moment.  It begins this way:

Karen Holmes: Don't try to be gallant, Sergeant. If you think this is a mistake, come right out and say so... Well, I guess it's about time for me to be heading home, isn't it?... Well, isn't it?
Sergeant Milton Warden: What's the matter? What started all this, anyway? You think I'd be here if I thought it was a mistake? Taking a chance on 20 years in Leavenworth for making dates with the company commander's wife? And her acting like - like Lady Astor's horse, and all because I got here on time!
Karen Holmes: Well, on the other hand, I've got a bathing suit under my dress...
Sergeant Milton Warden: Me too! 

Theirs is a sympathetic but forbidden love that torments them both while it drives them desperate with desire.  She is unfulfilled as an adulterous wife to a ne-er do well husband.  He's got nerve enough to pursue his superior's wife.  But, the pressure of carrying on the affair under the nose of a superior, a lesser man he doesn't respect, strains him.

Set in Hawaii, the attack on Pearl Harbor serves to put everyone's troubles in perspective. In fact, it puts them to rest.

The movie was highly decorated, winning eight Academy Awards including for Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed).  Lancaster and Clift were both nominated for Best Actor (won by William Holden), Kerr for Best Actress (won by Audrey Hepburn).

As Noman says, this is one of the great ones.  The men are men, for better or worse; the women are patient yet demanding, and womanly.  The romance is believable, as is the cruelty, and camaraderie.  Be warned that you'll have some explaining to do to your children, as the movie's morals were ahead of its time.  The film resolves the characters' moral failings about the way you'd expect a 1950's movie to.  That's one reason why they're so good.  But, be prepared to explain human frailty and the weakness of the flesh along the way. 

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