Thursday, March 31, 2011

Maybe It Was From Here To Eternity That Made Me Not Join The Military...

The Good: Interesting characters, Generally decent story, Moments of performance, DVD Bonus features
The Bad: Plot is a little slow
The Basics: Entertaining and engaging, From Here To Eternity is a character study of two men trying to make their lives work outside a base in Hawaii before World War II!

When I was very young, my family got a VCR and I remember the three of us kids in the family were immediately thrilled. We figured the VCR would be the gateway to all of the movies we wanted to see, but could not afford to go to the theaters to watch. Instead, it rapidly turned into my father's weekends of cinematic education as we would be subjected to old black and white films we did not care one wit for. So, I was actually surprised when I began watching From Here To Eternity how familiar it was to me. This was one of the movies my father had us watch back in the day and the longer I watched, the more I remembered being a kid and being confused by the movie. Watching it now, there are still elements that are fairly confusing; all of the characters are Hollywood beautiful wearing similar (tan, one assumes - the movie is in black and white) uniforms. They are all dark-haired men with short hair and kind of whitebread looks to them. In fact, Frank Sinatra stands out for looking moderately different in facial structure from the leads.

The rest of the experience, I appreciated for the first time. From Here To Eternity is yet-another military film and the real twist on this one over most of the films featuring characters in the military is that this is less about war and more about relationships. As well, From Here To Eternity is more about the training and off-duty time of military personnel than it is a war story. Because of this, I found myself enjoying the movie quite a bit initially. As always, this review is based upon the film, not the novel upon which it is based.

Private Prewitt arrives at the Pearl Harbor military base with a mysterious past. A bugler, he refuses to play the bugle and he refuses to box, which is a big deal for the head of Company G. Prewitt quickly befriends the easygoing Maggio and the two often go to town together. While the base commander, Captain Holmes, goes off on many affairs, his desk clerk Sergeant Warden finds himself taken with the commander's wife. Hitting it off with Karen, Warden begins a long affair. On-base, Warden begins to realize that Prewitt is actually something special. While Holmes punishes Prewitt for sticking to his guns, Warden tries to protect him quietly.

Things change for the outfit as Maggio gets into a brawl and skips out on guard duty to get drunk. Prewitt takes up with a woman he meets at Maggio's Gentleman's Club, Lorene, and to try to get promoted so he might care for her financially - and on the mainland - he considers giving up all he has stood for. And engaged in a full-on affair with Karen, Warden decides he might be willing to become an officer to try to stand up for her. But as all of the principle characters prepare to make their moves, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and everything changes!

From Here To Eternity might be best known to cinema newbies for the iconic image of Warden and Karen on the beach kissing as a wave washes over them. What is sometimes hailed as a great romantic moment is actually anything but. The moment, so well-known it is what appears on the DVD case, is the beginning of an infidelity on the part of a married woman and the scene might open with a passionate kiss, but it leads to an awkward conversation between Warden and Karen that is more uncomfortable than even remotely romantic.

From Here To Eternity is an odd mix of men being manly in the military and being . . . well, a chick flick. The men may all be in uniform, but the women are strong, with motivations of their own that defy any code or social mores. Instead, they go after what they want - like the way Karen goes after Warden and makes demands of him so she might leave the Captain or the way Lorene details her goals for getting off the island and returning to Oregon - and the movie is surprisingly dialogue-based. Also a strange dichotomy comes from the way the film advertises the military and then features characters who rail against the military lifestyle. So, while moments when Karen mentions an initiative to turn enlisted men into officers sound like advertisements for the military, elements like Maggio being severely punished and beaten by the stockade warden are clearly meant to show the flaws in the system.

What makes most of the movie work is the fact that the characters are interesting, even if it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart! While the musical cues like "Renlistment Blues" might flesh out the reality of being a soldier on a base and just sitting around singing (men being men in the 1950s or 40s), the flavor in the film comes from the fact that the characters are genuine characters, even if they do reprehensible or unlikable things. There are very few movies I like where married people have extramarital affairs, because it so dramatically clashes with my own personal code (if it's real, get a divorce, then go through with it; it takes low character to break one's word, vows, by just cheating on their partner), but From Here To Eternity is one of them.

Holmes is motivated entirely by career ambitions and Karen is left in a position where she is forced to comply to certain standards. As a result, Karen might have many affairs that everyone seems to know about, but she feels trapped by the demands placed upon her. And there is irony in Karen complaining about Warden not keeping his word about officer training, but her character is remarkably empathetic, even if we only get her side of the story. Karen almost makes the cheating housewife classy and a character the viewer may believe is doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

Prewitt is a likable guy and he is difficult to not empathize with as a principled man with a past. Similarly, Warden makes a convincing leader, as he seems to know how to get the best of men - which Captain Holmes is not able to do. Even Lorene's brief role in the film is interesting and her simpatico with Prewitt actually works beautifully.

Despite the way much of the casting is too close, Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed have wonderful on-screen chemistry, as do Deborah Kerr (Karen) and Burt Lancaster (Warden). For all the comparisons James Franco now gets to James Dean, it seems like Clift is the actor whose style he is more clearly the evolution of. The acting in From Here To Eternity is homogeneously wonderful and this boosts the movie up.

On DVD, what pushes From Here To Eternity up into near-perfect film territory for me is the wealth of DVD bonus features. In addition to an informative commentary track and more languages in the subtitles than virtually any other DVD presentation I have seen, this features the theatrical trailers for the movie. As well, there is a featurette on the making of the movie and elements of the director Fred Zinnemann's documentary on his views of making the movie. These home movies are actually incredible for the detail and alternate takes (in color!) that they show of many scenes.

This is a movie where the bonus features eek the film up the last few notches to allow me to consider it perfect. For those looking for a war movie, this isn't it. For those looking for a character-driven movie about the lives of soldiers with little apparent love for the service, well, that's more what this is. And it works. Anyone who likes great drama will find something to like in this.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]

For other reviews of war films, please check out:
Charlie Wilson's War
Battle Los Angeles


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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