The AFI Top 100 Films: From Here to Eternity (#52)

From Here to Eternity (1953)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed
Directed by Fred Zimmerman
Written by Daniel Taradash

From Here to Eternity almost comes across as a melodrama, and without a doubt all of the ingredients are there. Shocking revelations from damaged people with haunted pasts, villains who are infuriatingly incompetent and unlikeable in a way that gives you pleasure in hating them, and an interesting, unique location, for example. This movie, about an Army barracks on the island state of Hawaii before the start of World War II, could have easily become a potboiler romance that stood out as a prime example of its kind.

What makes it different is the sure-handed, subtle direction of Fred Zimmerman, which is a real asset here. He strives for a sort of realism that feels counter-intuitive given the subject matter, but it turns out to elevate the material quite well. Scenes are tightly constructed, with small Easter eggs hidden in the background and peripheries that enrich the personalities of the characters you’re watching on-screen. Conflicts and interactions come across organically, and even though the lives of these people amount to a huge hot mess, you see how they ended up where they did logically and emotionally. It’s quite impressive.

Montgomery Clift is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (yes, really), a rebel (hah!) who’s just joining the G Company after a falling-out with his previous commander. The Captain of the company wants Prewitt to box but he steadfastly refuses, which draws him the ire of the commanding officer and other folks in the outfit. This, of course, leads to extra chores and abuse. The second-in-command, relatively straight-laced Sgt. Milton Warden, doesn’t approve of this but goes along with it despite the respect he has for Prewitt. He also has his eye on the Captain’s unhappy wife, Karen.

During one of his rare base leaves, Prewitt meets Alma, one of the girls at a club downtown. They hit it off pretty well, but their relationship is complicated by their desires — for all his trouble with the company, Prewitt wants to make a career out of the Army, while Alma wants someone rich and respectable. The tension between their dreams and the good life right in front of them grows more and more taut until a chain of events caused by the company’s dysfunction forces them to make a decision, one way or the other.

The movie explores the way our sense of duty to the wrong things really runs us through the wringer. Almost every major character has a misplaced sense of loyalty that makes them unhappy and in some cases, ultimately does them in. Instead of working towards things that deepen the relationships with the people they’ve come to care about, everyone struggles to uphold a misplaced ideal that they don’t even care about. What’s interesting is how this makes them all feel victimized and wronged, so that they feel those closest to them owe them breaks. Prewitt feels a loyalty to the Army that has consistently run him ragged. Warden hates Army officers (presumably) for their feeling of entitlement, and it keeps him in a miserable position where he has all of the responsibility of running the ship but very little power to do so. Alma’s insistence on status keeps her from giving in to the love she shares with Prewitt, while the Captain’s wife feels a strange bond with her philandering husband even though he’s wrecked their marriage beyond repair.

The tragedy here is that people stay the course in their lives hoping that things will magically become better instead of acknowledging that they’re on the road to ruin. It’s puzzling behavior from the outset, because each of us can clearly see that things will never change for them unless they do — something has to give. But haven’t each of us done the same thing, staying in an unhealthy situation for far too long with the hope that something will put things together?

Clift, Lancaster, Kerr and Reed all portray their characters as smart people with large blind spots, and you genuinely empathize with them even they’re being exasperating. That’s a fine tightrope to walk, and everyone does it expertly. By the time the finale rolls in and the consequences of everyone’s actions are forced to the surface, you get the sense that really, it couldn’t have ended any other way. The fragile ambition of even the most competent people is no match for the pulverizing tide of society and history.

So what do we learn from this? I walked away from the movie with the idea of adaptability in my head. It’s incredibly important to be adaptable to your situation, recognizing when your ideals need to be softened in the face of an untenable situation. I don’t necessarily mean throwing out the values that mean the most to you in the face of the slightest resistance, but more recognizing when a certain value needs to be sacrificed for something greater. We live in a world that can be much more stubborn than we could ever hope to be, and learning how to bend when it’s necessary is one of the greatest assets we could have as adults.

From Here to Eternity is a great study in characters who are too stubborn and headstrong for their own good. It’s something that we still struggle with as a society, pretending that “strength” means unwavering from a decision even when it’s revealed to be wrong. It’s interesting to me that this individual drama can be drawn over a larger tapestry today, and how if we’re not careful we could find ourselves facing the same unhappy fates of Prewitt and his company.

Rating: 7/10.

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