Monday, May 13, 2013

Reeling Backward: "From Here to Eternity" (1953)

Last year I wrote dismissively of the 1955 film "Battle Cry," with my chief complaint being that it was a war movie with very little war. The story mostly concerned itself with the various romances of the soldiers as they geared up for battle. When the fighting finally arrived, it was only a cursory bit near the end.

Only after recently reading Eli Wallach's autobiography did I realize that this narrative rather closely followed that of the revered classic "From Here to Eternity," which came out two years earlier and won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and statues for director, screenplay, supporting actor and actress and cinematography.

As to the latter, my guess is Burnett Guffey cemented his award for black-and-white photography with the now-iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing on the beach as waves crash over them. It's a gorgeous scene, and technically difficult as hell -- shooting day for night, with a host of unpredictable elements.

The pair are nearly carried away by the waves, which were probably much more forceful than director Fred Zinnemann intended. According to legend they were supposed to kiss standing up, but Lancaster suggested they lie down. It's also notable that the camera is much more revealing of his body than hers, which is nearly hidden except for her head and shoulders.

So why is "Eternity" such a thrilling success while "Battle Cry" is an utter bore? The storytelling is much sharper, obviously, with Daniel Taradash's script based on the popular novel by James Jones. And the cast is just splendid -- in addition to Kerr and Lancaster there's Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, Oscar winners both, plus Montgomery Clift in his prime. Ernest Borgnine and Jack Warden even have small roles.

The tale of how Sinatra got the role has entered into mythology, even being portrayed in "The Godfather" building up to the infamous horse-head-in-the-bed scene. It's no secret that Sinatra coveted the role and sent the studio chief many letters and telegrams, and agreed to a massive pay cut to secure the role. It's doubtful, though, that the Mafia actually played any role. In Wallach's version, he had discussions about the role but was never officially offered it. People forget Wallach was entirely a Broadway star at the time, and wouldn't even make his film debut till "Baby Doll" three years later.

It's interesting that the Lancaster/Kerr pairing is what most people remember about the movie. Watching it again recently, it's clear to me that it's really Clift's story, and everyone else around him is a supporting player. He's the nexus of the story -- every other character's tale is derived in relation to how they interact with his character, Private Robert E. Lee "Prew" Prewitt.

It's a bold, authentic portrait by Clift, who goes sideways from conventional Hollywood acting style. He plays Prewitt as a determined man who's defined by his principles, to the point that even those who like him think he's too stubborn for his own good. As the story opens, Prew has just requested a transfer out of the bugle corps because he lost his position as first bugler through favoritism -- absorbing a bust from corporal to private in the process.

Having suffered for his convictions, Prew is immediately forced to do so again: the company commander, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), demands that he resume his promising boxing career so his outfit can win the regional Army boxing championship. Prew refuses, and refuses to say why -- though he later reveals that he blinded a friend of his while sparring, and vowed never to fight again.

This sets off a long reign of quiet terror as the NCOs team up to give Prewitt "the treatment"  until he agrees to box again. This involves extra unpleasant detail work, being singled out for undeserved punishment, and outright physical abuse. Prewitt absorbs it all stoically, earning the silent approbation of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Lancaster), the "top kick" who really runs the company.

Sinatra plays Angelo Maggio, a skinny, tough kid from the Bronx who takes no guff from anyone. He repeatedly scrapes with "Fatso" Judson (Borgnine), the belligerent sergeant who runs the stockade. Fatso icily warns Maggio that he's the type of hothead who invariably ends up in the clink, where he'll receive a lesson or two. It turns out exactly that way, and Sinatra is a vivid presence as the proud, doomed Maggio.

Prewitt's love interest is Lorene (Reed), a hostess at the local members-only club for soldiers. (It's exclusive to only those with the $4 membership fee.) Her role is to entertain the men, flirt and be pleasant, a job she admits is just a couple of steps above working the street. Her plan is to save a bundle of money and return home to settle down with the right kind of man. But she finds herself drawn to the fatalistic Prewitt. He's so smitten he's even willing to go back on his word and start boxing again, if it means earning sergeant stripes so he can better take care of her.

Warden's affair is a risky one -- with his commanding officer's lonely wife, Karen (Kerr). It's a strange, antagonistic relationship where they end up sparring more than they do wooing. She has a reputation as a loose woman, something Warden repeatedly throws back in her face as a way of testing her feelings for him.

Both Kerr and Lancaster were nominated for Academy Awards in a leading role, although both are really supporting parts. I think the fact that they were big stars put them over the top.

The film also has a few notable musical interludes I'd forgotten about, including a couple where Prewitt improvises jazzy melodies on the bugle, and later just the bugle mouthpiece. He carries that mouthpiece around in his pocket like a totem, a signal to the world that he's a man who keeps himself to himself, except for the little bits he's willing to share on his own terms.

The war finally arrives with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A lot of it is portrayed through stock footage and models of ships blowing up, but there are also some expertly-staged scenes with the company fighting off some Zeroes. But the action scenes are always subservient to the human drama.

In the end, the reason I prefer "From Here to Eternity" over "Battle Cry" is that it's simply a damn good movie.

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