From Here To Eternity (1953)

My hitch was up Monday

Not a dog soldier no more
They give me all that money
So much my pockets is sore
More dough than I can use

Re-Enlistment Blues

Fred Zinnemann’s celebrated production of James Jones’ 1951 novel about the goings-on at a pre-World War II American army barracks in Hawaii, is less a wartime actioner than a compelling drama about the human lives affected by the conflicts that occur much closer at hand. Jones’ bitingly racy novel had many of its teeth extracted because of the production code in place at the time (much to the author’s chagrin), but that doesn’t stop it from being a searing look at the moral corruption and hypocrisy underlying a doggedly puritanical society.

At the Schofield Barracks, lowly Private Angelo Maggio (Sinatra) is the jester who with wit and irony surveys all the sordid messes around him: the otherwise upstanding Sergeant Milt Warden (Lancaster) who carries on an adulterous affair with his Captain’s wife (Kerr); the seedy world of the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ where off-duty soldiers ‘socialise’ with female talent like the lovely ‘Lorene’ (Reed); and the special ‘Treatment’ meted out to guilt-ridden career soldier Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift) who, having once accidentally blinded a fellow soldier in the ring, refuses to fight on the company’s boxing team. Maggio himself cannot escape the wrath of the loutish stockade sergeant, ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Befitting a story that ends with the attack on Pearl Harbour, even love can’t save the day for these tormented folk.

Even though Eternity is a first-rate production with impressive visuals (just check out the haunting images of the first wave of attacks on the barracks), and a tightly woven screenplay by Daniel Taradash, it is really a film of, for, and about the actors. And what a magnificent coterie of actors it is!

Beauteous Deborah Kerr, all white-hot and blonde, chucks her familiar sweet English rose persona out the window here. Considering she was a proud Scotswoman who was never too happy with the epithet in the first place, she seems to relish doing that as the promiscuous yet sympathetic army wife who cavorts with Lancaster’s officer on a secluded beach in a sequence that has long since entered the collective cinematic consciousness as one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed.

Similarly, Donna Reed had hitherto been known for her saintly, wholesome image in family fare like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. So she positively shocked with her über sultry portrayal of Prewitt’s lady love of the night, even though the film changes her profession from hard-bitten prostitute to the more ambiguous ‘escort’. She was rewarded with an Oscar for the switcheroo.

Of course the legend about how a down-and-out Sinatra allegedly wangled the part in the movie ended up being immortalised first in Mario Puzo’s novel of The Godfather and then in Coppola’s film version. But his performance is much richer than what one would expect from even an alleged sifarishi – he gets into affable Maggio’s skin, and makes a memorable tragic-comic figure, winning an Oscar for this make-or-break turn.

Lancaster, in top-notch form here, delivers what is arguably his finest performance – it’s really a toss-up between this and his chilling portrayal of media man J. J. Hunsecker in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success. All the more admirable because the two parts are so dissimilar; Eternity’s Sgt. Warden is as forthright and honourable as Hunsecker is cunning and ruthless, and he plays both with the same amount of conviction.

Beating old Burt in the acting stakes (but only just) is Method man Montgomery Clift, who would walk away with the film even if he wasn’t so blindingly beautiful. As the tortured ‘thirty-year man’, Clift is at once tough and heartbreakingly vulnerable, his intuitive naturalism a standout amid the more classical stylings of his co-stars. The scene where he haltingly and with nary a hint of melodrama describes the moment when he saw tears in the eyes of the man he blinded – well, words are too futile, too feeble.

There have been other productions of Eternity (mainly for television), all truer to the book, but this remains the definitive version, reaching for and attaining an emotional resonance that has aged gracefully.

On a separate note, Deborah Kerr, who also aged rather gracefully, passed away in October. A fond farewell to the sweet Scottish rose…

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