' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: From Here To Eternity

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: From Here To Eternity

I first put up this post last December but thought I'd re-offer it today because 1.) It's Veterans Day 2.) It's one of my favorite movies and this is a post where I feel like I really did capture my thoughts about a favorite movie and 3.) It's my blog and I can do what I want. Enjoy! I hope!

The 1953 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, based on the award-winning novel by James Jones, set in and around Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, contains a third act featuring the attack on Pearl Harbor way back on that infamous date of December 7, 1941. There are, of course, numerous aspects to that terrible event and this review is not in any way meant to be some sort of historical discourse but there have long been questions as to how America was supposedly caught so off guard. Who knew what, how much did they know, when did they know it, on and on it goes. I do not mean to suggest that significant higher-ups in the U.S. Government knew precisely what was coming but it seems rather certain there was information suggesting an imminent attack. Perhaps it was misunderstood, perhaps it was ignored, or perhaps, in accordance with the theory of the harbor's "inherent invulnerability", people with the power were merely taking part in our nation's grandest pasttime. No, no, no, no, not baseball - Lying To Ourselves.

Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a private in Company G, suggests to his kinda, sorta girlfriend, Alma (my Iowa homegirl Donna Reed), a (cough, cough) "dance hall hostess", who had been claiming her name was the more lyrical Lorene, that they could get married. Lorene....er, I mean Alma....says she doesn't want to be a soldier's wife. Then she steps forward and delivers a blistering, unforgettable monologue: "Nobody's going to stop me from my plan. Nobody, nothing, because I want to be proper. In another year, I'll have enough money saved. I'll go back to my hometown in Oregon. I'll build a house for my mother and myself. Join the country club and take up golf. I'll meet the proper man with the proper position. I'll make a proper wife who can run a proper home. Raise proper children. I'll be happy because when you're proper, you're safe."

The way she says it, the way she looks while she's saying it, however, suggests Lorene....er, I mean Alma....might also be indulging in our nation's grandest pasttime.

As for Prewitt? Man, Prew's got problems of his own. He's just gone AWOL for avenging the murder of a friend. But when Pearl Harbor is attacked he knows he has to return to his unit. After all, he loves the army, loves it more than any soldier his First Sgt. has ever met. Strangely, this is the same army that screws him outta First Bugler's Chair because of a commanding officer's friend at which point he gets a transfer to a unit that wants him solely as a boxer even though he doesn't box anymore and therefore proceeds to give him the "treatment", which consists of lovely activities such as scrubbing god-knows-what and mopping up please-don't-ask and hiking, with a full field pack, up to Kole Kole Pass and back, again and again. Upon hearing of this most unharmonious behavior toward a fellow man in uniform, Lorene....er, I mean Alma....observes, "You must really hate the army." But he says he doesn't. He says he loves it. He says: "You love a thing, you gotta be grateful." Grateful? Really? Is he grateful? Or is he possibly partaking in our nation's grandest pasttime?

That First Sgt.? That's Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) who essentially runs Company G for his commanding officer, promotion-obsessed Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), who seems to have done nothing to warrant his nickname of "Dynamite" (probably invented it himself and then told some fancy-pants lie to back it up), declaring, "He'd strangle in his own spit if I wasn't here to swab his throat out." Guy seems like he'd make a great officer so why's he choose to be a stooge for Holmes? Well, when he's accused of being just that he replies, "You won't see it much longer. I'm getting sick and tired of it myself. I'm through. Any day now. I mean it." This? This isn't even a tiny bit convincing. You just roll your eyes and shake your head and think, Milton, buddy, you're just wallowing in our nation's grandest pasttime.

And what about Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra)? Goodness gracious sakes alive, he's the hard-drinking, fast-living Private who talks tough and threatens to pound on ol' Fatso Judson (Earnest Borgnine), head of the stockade, because, uh, why again? Because he doesn't like how Fatso plays the piano? I suppose that's a reason but has Angelo really seen Fatso? This dude didn't make up his nickname, not like "Dynamite" Holmes back at the ranch. Angelo wouldn't have a chance in a ruckus and when he and Fatso threaten to go at it in this barroom it's Warden who stops it and dismisses the both of 'em: "Killers, huh? I'd trade the pair of you for a good campfire girl." Yup. That's about the size of it. Maybe Maggio isn't quite the bad boy he believes himself to be. Maybe he's not quite as tough as he acts. Maybe, just maybe, he's joining in on our nation's grandest pasttime?

This, of course, brings us to iniquitous Karen Holmes, Captain Holmes' wife, the reputation on base of being promiscuous hovering over her like the Hualālai volcano hovers over Kailua Kona. Her affair with the usually straight-laced Warden, though, which takes shape after this riveting sequence in her kitchen with the rain pouring outside symbolizing that the two of 'em are....woah, let's not go any further. Like I was saying, this affair seems like something different. Seems, I said. She pushes Warden to apply to for an officer's position because if he can become an officer then Karen can divorce her husband and marry Warden, but heck, man, why can't Karen divorce her husband, anyway, if that's how she feels about the whole thing? Why's she gotta have someone else all lined up and ready to go? And why when Warden admits he never put in his commission to be an officer and that their little foolproof plan fell by the wayside does she say she's staying with her husband because "there's nothing else for me to do." Nothing else for her to do?! There's plenty else for her to do! But, you know, that's what happens when you fall under the spell of our nation's grandest pasttime.

Matter of fact, the concerns over casting Jones' novel were legendary and seem to suggest that perhaps those behind the scenes might have drank just a little too laboriously from the canteen of our nation's grandest pasttime. Most everyone knows the whole Sinatra deal where Ol' Blue Eyes was considered washed up and he fought and screen tested and slashed his salary and found himself with the role after Eli Wallach dropped out and good thing, too, because, sure, Frank's range may not have been like the Himalayas but, come on, the guy knew how to play brash boozehound and then there was Joan Crawford initially being cast in the role that went to Kerr which apparently indicates the producers wanted the film to be even more of a melodrama than it already was but the real folly was how producer Harry Cohn wanted Aldo Ray (who?) for Prewitt, not Clift, and how he denounced Clift but director Fred Zinnemann fought like Sinatra for Clift and won. And thank God, too, because Clift's ornery nature made him perfect for the part. "Maybe in the days of the pioneers a man could go own his own way," says Warden to Prewitt, "but today you gotta play ball." Do you? Prewitt is, in a sense, defined as much by what doesn't do as what he does do and so, too, was Clift, famous for turning down roles in "Sunset Boulevard" and "East of Eden" and "Mrs. Miniver", the latter because he refused to sign a long term contract with MGM.

And that brings us to Donna Reed as the (cough, cough) "dance hall hostess", who Cohn wanted and Zinnemann did not. To this day you will often hear the sentiment that Reed was miscast, that perhaps she was too virginal, too bounteous. But was she a (cough, cough) "dance hall hostess" or was she a (gasp!) "turner of the tricks"? The movie is vague on that count....eh, kind of. There is one shot of Ms. Reed in the (cough, cough) "dance hall", reposed on a couch, cigarette in hand, and, of course, we all know what a smoldering cigarette in repose in the 50's cinema meant and, after all, as Lorene....er, I mean Alma....says, "Mrs. Kipfer pays us to be nice to all the boys." (Yeah, I'll bet she does.) So okay. So let's say she's a "turner of the tricks"? Is she really as virginal and bounteous as the naysayers would have you believe? Isn't she sort of a manipulator and/or user and abuser? Consider that first meeting with poor Prew when she spins the yarn of the fiancé back home who left her ("They could write a story about it." - "They did. Thousands of 'em.") which prompted her to light out for the islands and then contrast it against the yarn she spins in the film's final astonishing sequence aboard the boat to, yes, Karen Holmes as they both leave Oahu behind. It's the curtain being pulled back, the lady getting sawed in half, it reveals Lorene....er, I mean Alma....for who she is and you realize she was merely acting virginal and bounteous all the while and now is set to use the memory of Robert E. Lee Prewitt for personal gain. It smashes my soul to smithereens.

But why? Why, Lorene....er, I mean Alma? Why must you resort to such acrimonious depths? "We do not always like the world we live in, our place in the world, the world's demands. We substitute a preferred version," writes Sallie Tisdale. "With the lie, we can temporarily create a new world."

There is but a single instance in the two hours "From Here To Eternity" runs in which honesty prevails. It's right after Lorene....er, I mean Alma....has delivered that blistering, unforgettable monologue regarding a "proper" life. She tells Prewitt, "I do mean it when I say I need you. Because I'm lonely." She smiles, wistfully, and finishes, "You think I'm lying, don't you?" And then he replies with that line, that line in a movie filled up and overflowing with exquisite lines that trumps 'em all, that line that's like a wicked shot to the solar plexus, that line that cuts like a Mariano Rivera pitch, that line that leaves all of us gasping like those mountaineers who scale Everest sans oxygen, that line we all feel deep down in those places we don't talk about at parties: "Nobody ever lies about being lonely."

No. They sure don't. And that, of course, is exactly why Lying To Ourselves so very, very long ago became our nation's grandest pasttime.

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