Page to Screen: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity
based on the novel by James Jones

I was hellbent on watching From Here to Eternity. Having a rotating schedule at work means that I have to be incredibly deliberate about making time to watch movies. (To be fair, I’ve always been this way: as a kid, I once begged off a family movie night because my parents started a two hour film at 9:15 PM. I have always been a little old lady.) And even as I made time to watch other things, I still came home with the library’s copy of From Here to Eternity. Twice.

My only association for From Here to Eternity is a false one with Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” which I assume is the fault of a karaoke backing video somewhere along the line. But my quest for classic cinema continues unabated. I simply need more time with them, since I’m a Millennial with a shot attention span who likes her films scored.

From Here to Eternity follows the personal struggles of soldiers stationed at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks right before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Private Prewitt, a new transfer, refuses to sign up for the boxing team, due to his dark past, which turns the captain and the boxing team against him. First Sargeant Warden embarks on an affair with the captain’s wife, Karen, who is tired of being cheated on by her husband.

In my extremely scant film training, I read an article that stated that powerful films can sometimes get away with telling instead of showing. When you rewatch a film and realize that they didn’t show something that has been burned into your brain—well, mission accomplished. From Here to Eternity has three such moments. There’s Prewitt explaining how he blinded his friend while boxing to Lorene, his escort/girlfriend, Karen going into the details of the miscarriage that might have been prevented had her husband not been drunkenly carousing with a hat-check girl, and Lorene lying to Karen at the end of the film about who Prewitt was. The bulk of the praise should go to the actors—Montgomery Clift, apparently, intimidated the rest of the cast into doing better—but this is also because all of these moments not only explain, but expand the film’s core message.

From Here to Eternity was heavily sanitized for film adaptation. Lorene is a vague escort instead of a prostitute; Warden and Karen only kiss in that famous scene on the beach; the downer ending is mitigated by Captain Holmes getting his just deserts instead of a promotion. The US Army wouldn’t sign off on permission to film at Schofield until certain things were changed. And despite all that, the film is ultimately about how loving an institution doesn’t mean it loves you back—or even that it’s capable of loving you back.

Prewitt is a career soldier, but his commanding officers and fellow soldiers abuse him into the ground for not wanting to box for very valid reasons. Lorene—real name Alma—understands this perfectly; she doesn’t want to be loved by respectable society, just safe. She and Prewitt even have a conversation about how the Army doesn’t love him. Prewitt insists that he should be grateful that he loves something that much; Alma can’t understand why he would take that much abuse from something, even the thing that shapes his entire identity. Karen and Warden are willfully transgressing, but the film excuses her behavior by the context—that she can’t participate in traditional marriage because her husband, who nonetheless upholds the system, refuses to be an active participant in it. And Maggio, Prewitt’s buddy, ends up killed by the institution that was supposed to look after him.

Which is why, even though the film ends with the “villain” getting his comeuppance, the ending just reinforces that tragedy of looking for emotional succor in an institution. As Hawaii is bombed by the Japanese (period slurs are used in this film, by the way), Prewitt makes his way back to his unit like a prodigal son returning to his family. But his unit, confused, shoots him dead. The reunion is almost comically one-sided; for Prewitt, it’s going home again. For the actual unit, it’s a threat.

There are a lot of other factors for From Here to Eternity’s eternal popularity, most of them contextual to film in the nine-fifties. For instance, Deborah Kerr is playing against type here. But the larger message, the one they couldn’t sanitize out of the novel, is what gives it timelessness.

Bottom line: From Here to Eternity’s longevity is due to how the film explores the futility of loving an institution.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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