From Here to Eternity

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From Here to Eternity

First as a novel and then as a film, From Here to Eternity enjoyed enormous critical and popular success in the early 1950s. The novel, the first published work of James Jones, is a long and powerful fictional treatment of the United States Army climaxing with the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on U. S. military installations at Pearl Harbor. The bulk of Jones's novel relentlessly exposes the exploitation of enlisted men by a cynical officer class. Its naturalistic descriptions of an inhumanly brutal stockade constitute some of the most harrowing passages in American fiction. Still, the novel is, to a large degree, a kind of elegy for the sustaining camaraderie among enlisted men as well as for the sanctuary that the army offered the economically destitute during the Great Depression. It is then a unique variation on proletarian fiction with officers equated to corrupt capitalists and enlisted men to oppressed workers. Jones's book was awarded the National Book Award for 1952, received overwhelmingly favorable reviews, and became a sensational best-seller (in no small part because of an elaborate publicity campaign by its publisher, Scribner's). The novel's two central characters, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a boxer and bugler of unusual talent and unyielding principles, and Sergeant Milton Anthony Warden, also a man of integrity but a master manipulator and covert enemy of the officer class as well, are exceptionally well realized.

Largely because of its unrelenting expose of the corrupt officer class in the old peacetime army and the frankness of its treatment of sexuality, From Here to Eternity benefitted, in its popular success, from the public's appetite for sensationalism. These two motifs are carefully intertwined in Jones's text. For instance, Warden sets out to seduce Karen Holmes, the allegedly promiscuous wife of his corrupt commanding officer, merely as a political statement but quickly finds himself falling in love with her. Prewitt, after being forced to desert the army following a horrendous experience in the stockade during which he experiences physical torture and sees another soldier die at the hands of Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, seeks refuge with his prostitute girlfriend, Alma Schmidt, who has taken the professional name of Lorene. The novel contains a comically graphic scene in the brothel where Alma works and in which Prewitt finds relief from the endless harassment which he is receiving at the direct orders of Lieutenant "Dynamite" Holmes. In the scene, Prewitt is accompanied by the only friend that he has in C Company, Private Angelo Maggio, an enormously likeable but recklessly defiant young man from Brooklyn.

Despite (or because of) the novel's sensational elements, producer Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures eagerly purchased the rights to film it and hired Jones, who had by then become something of a celebrity (partly because of extensive coverage in Life magazine) to write the screenplay. Cohn also acquired the services of Fred Zinnemann, the acclaimed director of High Noon and other successful films. Jones's screenplay was rejected in favor of a subsequent effort by film writer Daniel Taradash. Because of the novel's emphasis upon memorable characters, Cohn and Zinnemann realized that casting would be a crucial element in the success of their final work. In this, they were to be extremely fortunate. For the crucial role of Prewitt, Cohn initially pushed for actor Aldo Ray, but ultimately yielded to Zinnemann's insistence upon the casting of Montgomery Clift, whose ability to project a threatened sensitivity had been established in such films as George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1951). Burt Lancaster and relative film newcomer Ernest Borgnine were easy choices to portray Sergeant Milt Warden and "Fatso" Judson, but the casting of the two female roles surprised many Hollywood observers. Initially, Joan Crawford was chosen to play Holmes, but she withdrew from the project before filming began and was replaced by Deborah Kerr, unquestionably a fine actress, but one best-known for portraying genteel and sometimes aloof characters. The choice of Donna Reed for the role of Alma was unexpected for comparable reasons. Even though the script overtly made her a dance-hall hostess instead of a prostitute, the character's original identity as conceived by Jones in his novel was more than implied; and Reed was known for such "wholesome" performances as the wife of James Stewart in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The process of choosing the actor to play Angelo Maggio became the stuff of Hollywood and pop legend. Then at the nadir of his career as a singer, Frank Sinatra, who had read Jones's novel and identified with Maggio, campaigned tirelessly for the part and was somewhat reluctantly given it. This episode would be fictionalized by Mario Puzo in his novel The Godfather.

Taradash's screenplay downplayed Jones's depiction of military corruption. For instance, the corrupt Captain "Dynamite" Holmes is exposed and disgraced in the film, when Jones's novel last shows him rising higher in the military command; and the stockade sadism is largely kept offscreen. Still, the finished film, released in 1953, captured much of the novel's emotional power primarily because of Zinnemann's directing and the exceptional performances of his cast. Critics Pauline Kael and Michael Gebert have correctly observed that Clift's inspired interpretation of Prewitt is the real heart of the film and is so intense as to be almost unbearable at times. Lancaster and Kerr are exceptional in playing off each other, and a scene in which, dressed in bathing suits, they kiss while lying on a beach with the waves splashing over them is probably the movie's best-known single image (ironically the scene does not exist in the novel). Sinatra, Read, and Borgnine are perfect in their secondary roles.

Not surprisingly, the film gathered a number of major awards. Out of thirteen Academy Award nominations, it won eight, including best picture, Zinnemann as best director, Taradash for writing, and Sinatra and Reed as supporting actor and actress (Clift, Lancaster, and Kerr were also nominated). It also received the best picture award from the New York Film Critics Circle, and Zinnemann was named the year's best director by that organization and by the Directors Guild of America. In 1953, much of the film's power originated in its being filmed in black and white in a technicolor-dominated age. This deliberately anachronistic approach achieved the realistic effect that Zinnemann wanted.

Both as novel and as film, From Here to Eternity occupies an important place in American culture. In the conformist and sexually repressive 1950s, its advocacy of oppressed enlisted men and its frank depiction of their sexual hunger seemed daring and even revolutionary. Some of the images from the film (Lancaster and Kerr on the beach, Montgomery Clift playing "Taps" for the dead Frank Sinatra) are indelibly engraved on the consciousness of a generation of moviegoers; and Jones's novel remains perhaps the best fictional treatment of the U.S. Army. Despite its considerable length, it was, in fact, conceived by Jones as the first volume in an "Army trilogy," the last two volumes of which appeared as The Thin Red Line (1962) and Whistle (published posthumously in 1978).

—James R. Giles

Further Reading:

Garrett, George P. James Jones. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards. New York, St. Martin's, 1996.

Giles, James. James Jones. Boston, Twayne, 1981.

Giles, James, and J. Michael Lennon. The James Jones Reader. New York, Birch Lane, 1991.

Harkness, John. The Academy Awards Handbook. New York, Windsor, 1994.

Hendrick, George, ed. To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones. New York, Random House, 1989.

Kael, Pauline. I Lost It at the Movies. Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1965.

LaGuardia, Robert. Monty: A Biography of Montgomery Clift. New York, Arbor House, 1977.

McShane, Frank. Into Eternity: The Life of James Jones. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Whipple, A. B. C. "James Jones and His Angel." Life. May 7, 1952, 143ff.

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From Here to Eternity