Jul 13, 2023

From Here to Eternity at 70: an unusually soulful, feel

Fred Zinnemann’s sturdy adaptation of James Jones’s army melodrama remains an underrated slice of homoerotic, bittersweet war-is-hell film-making

Seventy years ago, in the midst of mass critical adulation and storming box office for From Here to Eternity, the Guardian published one of the film’s few tepid reviews. “No doubt no army in a free country was at its best in pre-war years,” wrote the paper’s unnamed film critic, “but surely no unit of the American Army was quite so corrupt as this account would have us believe.” The acting and directing were “first-class”, the critic acknowledged; the film itself “[defied] credibility”.

Viewed in 2023, Fred Zinnemann’s big, muscular melodrama of Hawaiian barracks life in the months leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor has inevitably dated a bit – though perhaps not as much as the Guardian’s concern that it did the US army a bit dirty. Adapted from a sprawling, near-900-page bestseller by James Jones – the soldier turned author who witnessed the bombing first-hand – the somewhat streamlined film cleaned up Jones’s more damning portrait of corruption and abuse in army ranks. That was in large part so as to secure the army’s cooperation while filming on location at Schofield Barracks, and to gain access to the archival military footage of the attack that makes the film’s finale so jolting. The novel itself, meanwhile, had been censored by its publisher before going to press: in particular, multiple passages detailing homosexual activity and even sex work among soldiers were scrapped, restored only in a revised digital edition in 2011.

In 1953, then, From Here to Eternity had already been watered down by several degrees – which, of course, was what enabled it to be a cultural phenomenon: a commercial colossus that got audiences hot under the collar and wound up winning eight Oscars, then a record that it shared with no less mighty a milestone than Gone With the Wind. Pearl Harbor was still recent history, a raw wound: American viewers could read into the film’s stern, stoic account of events precisely as much honour and flag-waving patriotism as they preferred to.

Any controversy centred less on its military portrayal – though the army was said to be less than pleased with the final product – than on a scene of personal intimacy that, seven decades on, is the film’s most enduring fragment: that torrid glimpse of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr adulterously making out in the surf, a not quite sex scene cannily pitched to limbo under the Hays Code while raising midcentury eyebrows. Set to the swooning strings of Morris Stoloff’s score, otherwise rather modern in its restraint, the scene still carries a rushing erotic charge; frankly, studio films these days tend to shy away from anything that flagrantly sexy.

But it’s a rare moment of unbridled pleasure in a film otherwise swamped by anxiety and melancholy – an unusual feel-bad blockbuster in which good men die, women are left lonely and war has no winners. The mollifying compromises made en route to the screen were obvious even then: Zinnemann himself professed his disgust that a key storyline of Jones’s novel, in which an officer’s abusive behaviour towards his men is covered up, instead culminates, at the insistence of producers and the army itself, in the man’s forced resignation. It “resembled a recruiting short”, he complained.

Notwithstanding such instances of whitewashing, however, From Here to Eternity movingly retains a streak of Jones’s anti-military spirit – if not in its depiction of the army’s administration, then in its more interior study of masculinity at war with itself, of young men’s spirits soured and eventually shattered by the rigid system around them. And in casting Montgomery Clift, never more beautiful or more vulnerable than as pacifist, individualist Pte Robert Prewitt, the film pulled off – by accident or by design – an extraordinary feat of life enriching and enhancing art: today, it’s impossible to pry the actor’s closeted queerness from his performance as a soldier singled out and tormented for his sensitivity, his resistance to violence and surely (it’s never spoken, but just look) his porcelain prettiness.

“You got any prejudices against girls?” jokes his one ally, Frank Sinatra’s jocular, ill-fated Italian-American recruit Maggio – himself a victim of racial discrimination by his superiors – in one of several lines that makes you wonder just how much the film was teasing its own leading man. Prewitt gets a girlfriend, naturally: Donna Reed’s pragmatic nightclub hostess Alma (tidied up from a less savoury profession in the novel), who loves him without much understanding him or his tortured, love-hate relationship with the army. (The film’s exquisitely sad final lines see her simplifying that conflict into a nobler, simpler lie.)

But it’s with his first sergeant, Lancaster’s decent, timber-cut Milton Warden, that he has chemistry. Each tacitly understands the other’s discomfort with authority, with violence, and the way they both compartmentalise their emotions in order to survive it – until at least one of them can’t any more. Lancaster has his verboten affair with an officer’s wife to contend with, but beach snogging aside, that’s a secondary subplot in a film that devotes considerably more screen time to the silent, sorrowful romance of sorts between these two men. The gay strands of Jones’s novel didn’t involve their characters – in fact it was Maggio who performed oral sex on older men for a quick buck to supplement his meagre army income – but a poignantly chaste, stifled air of army-base homoeroticism feels passed down from its excised pages just the same.

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Even when they’re not expressly bonding, as in one key scene of drunken, sympathetic late-night banter, it’s striking how many shots simply follow Prewitt’s and Warden’s steady, watchful gazes to each other, taking in each other’s body language, attempting to read each other’s thoughts: a mutual fascination into which we can project sexual desire, political complicity, a hollow yearning for friendship or some inchoate combination of all three. “A man loves a thing, it don’t mean it gotta love him back,” Prewitt says of his thankless commitment to the army – it’s a line that echoes across multiple stymied relationships in the film.

From Here to Eternity hasn’t retained its place in the American canon in quite the way that other, equivalently prestigious films of its era have done. Its hedging between military elegy and inquiry renders it unfashionable; the sturdily handsome craftsmanship of Zinnemann’s film-making isn’t credited with much of a signature these days. (A failed, windy stage musical adaptation by Tim Rice did little to bolster its legacy in 2013.) But this still stirring, quietly soulful film deserves a reappraisal, as much for its bittersweet hell-of-war messaging as for its conflicted, between-the-lines nuances.

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