From Here To Eternity (1953)


The orthodox trip to Hawaii is to Maui or the Big Island, but the haunting place is Oahu–Schofield, Hickham, Camp Smith and the view from there of Pearl Harbor, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, the Pink Palace, crowded Kalakaua Avenue, Diamond Head, the Crouching Lion, the preserved bullet holes in the command walls from December 7, 1941, Michel’s Restaurant.

It gets to you, this uncanny blend of beauty, splendid isolation and, not so long ago in the long blink of Time, the surprising dawning on a Sunday morning of a new History, not tumbling but doubling forward, ours, beyond imagining.

James Jones’s From Here to Eternity will always bring alive this surreal island, Oahu. Jones isn’t much of a stylist but this one time he became a great storyteller of the final sadness of ordinary lives; you’d guess his editors worked hard–completed some sentences, no doubt pruned some modifiers, and inserted colons, semi and plain.

And even surpassing Jones’s book, I think, is the 1953 movie version of From Here to Eternity. For me it is among the best of movies, one Hollywood got better than right.

I hadn’t seen it in years, but there it was the other night, on TCM and hosted by the indispensable Robert Osmond as part of a tribute to the late Ernest Borgnine. “Fatso” Judson is a memorable performance as is Sinatra’s lauded and awarded Private Angelo Maggio, but as this classic thrives in revisits you see that Deborah Kerr’s Karen Holmes, Burt Lancaster’s First Sergeant Milton Warden, Donna Reed’s Alma “Lorene” Burke and Montgomery Clift’s Robert E. Lee Prewitt simply must be among the finest performances ever in the movies. George Duning’s score, especially his inspired theme for the telling, truthful, terribly sad scenes–even the famous ecstatic one–with Warden and Karen, who should have gone off together but from the beginning, as the story makes you understand early, had no hope of doing so, is used sparingly and is very moving in ways beyond analysis. Fred Zinnemann’s directing is superb: not even a glimmer of unneeded light is to be glimpsed anywhere in this airtight, scenically hard-boiled and noirish movie which owes but soars over those “genres,” and whose outcome is never a mystery but one of a flourishing sadness and its lifelong aftermath of dreaded regret.

Be thankful if you don’t have that regret. The movie is still going to move you.

Not only is the movie From Here to Eternity timeless; it seems highly timely. The Depression frames much of the story. With one exception, the hateful Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes, Jones’s story is about “ordinary” people, and the sadness of lives unfulfilled and swept away lost in history colors the entire movie blue, though one of its score themes, “The Reenlistment Blues,” written in part by Jones himself, is not really a blues because it doesn’t defeat its own titular import by raising your spirits; it’s not true blue: true blue is the old blues singer interviewed about his essential take on a long, tough life who said, “Some’s bastards, some ain’t.”

The Army is especially a haven in those times, and Prewitt, Warden and Maggio proudly love soldiering. Pretty young Alma Burke from the state of Washington and landing a job at the New Congress Club dreams the dreams, especially intense in Depression times, that are lived by that same Donna Reed as “Donna Stone” in the tiresomely sentimental but indicative The Donna Reed Show coming along a few years after Alma has sailed from Oahu never to return as foretold when those leis tossed from the railing of the cruise ship by her fellow passenger Karen Holmes float not landward but seaward.

Tough times (as are all times). But the movie seems in many ways to be not so far away fundamentally from today, that is, from the Recession and the hard, unlucky, punishing times of so many of our fellow citizens.

This movie will touch you. Now seems a good time to see it again.


Here is a link to the sound track of George Duning’s love theme for the romance of Karen Holmes and Sgt. Warden: