The first time I watched From Here to Eternity, I went in entirely cold.
I only knew the iconic photograph of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr sharing a passionate embrace on an unknown seashore.
I thought it was an epic love story.
But Warden (Lancaster) and Karen’s (Kerr) affair is only a subplot in a larger story about life on a United States Army base in 1941.
The story begins when Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He’s young and stubborn, and though he once had success as a middleweight fighter, he refuses to box for the company’s team.
The Captain and the other soldiers try to bully and haze Prew into boxing, but he refuses because he blinded his friend in a fight. Despite being an outcast, Prew has two supporters—his old friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Warden (Lancaster), who talks the captain out of court martialing Prew.
These are soldiers without a war, and so they live a life of waiting and boredom. They march, they box, they drill, they shoot pool. When they get leave, they head into town to drink and chase women.
They begin ill-advised love affairs.
For Sergeant Warden is sleeping with his boss’s wife, and risking “fifty years in Leavenworth” penitentiary if his captain finds out. He and Karen sneak around the island and long for a future together that will likely never be.
For his part, Prew takes up with Lorene (a double-take reveals a brunette Donna Reed), a girl he met at a social club. Their love affair is just as doomed, for though Prew proposes marriage, Lorene isn’t interested in life as a soldier’s wife. She’s on a mission to meet a proper man, become a proper lady and return to her home town and throw her proper life in the face of the man who threw her over for someone of higher class.
Cold is the best way to go into From Here to Eternity, because at first the soap opera lives of the soldiers distracted me.
And then it clicked. World War II has begun, but the United States is not yet involved.
And these men are stationed in Oahu.
Eight miles from Pearl Harbor.
These men and women are caught up in their tiny lives, unaware of what fate has in store for them.
But we know.
And that knowledge gap is what gives From Here to Eternity its poignancy and depth. Things are going badly for these men—broken love affairs, poor Maggio’s fate, and Prew’s revenge gone awry.
How can they possibly know they will long for these innocent days?
We know the day is coming, and yet when Warden stands next to a calendar showing December 6, 1941, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.
So they have one last morning, then.
We watch as they begin a sleepy Sunday morning, fidgeting in our seats, all but screaming at our screens that the Japanese are coming.
We see them caught unaware and unprepared, just as the real United States Army was on this day eighty-one years ago.
Today we remember Maggio, who didn’t make it to Pearl Harbor day, Prew, who didn’t make it to December 8, and Sergeant Warden, who maybe lead his troops on D-Day or Guadalcanal.
And we remember the real soldiers too, who died that day.
And all the United States soldiers who went on to fight in World War II. Not all saints, not all heroes.
Just ordinary men and women who answered the call.
A moving tale that won 8 well-deserved Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and saw every one of the main stars (Clift, Lancaster, Sinatra, Kerr, and Reed) nominated for an acting award (Sinatra and Reed won for their supporting roles), From Here to Eternity is not to be missed.
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