David Thomson on Films: ‘From Here to Eternity’

by David Thomson | March 5, 2011

It was a Friday night, and Turner Classic Movies were doing “Thirty-One Days of Oscar,” so the network played From Here to Eternity (1953). It’s a film I’m fond of (being twelve when I first saw it), and, when you’re that familiar with a picture, you’re not quite watching any more. But then, something happened. I tuned in to this screening halfway through, so I was paying attention, and the film hit me.

It was the scene where Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is talking to Lorene (Donna Reed), the girl from the New Congress Club (the film doesn’t say it, it couldn’t in 1953, but she’s a prostitute). They’re in love, which is nice, because Prewitt’s having a very hard time in the Army, getting the “treatment” for not joining the regimental boxing team. So Lorene is a comfort.

But there she was in this scene, there was Donna Reed, gazing into the depths of life with shocking bleakness and talking about how one day she’d go home and get married and join the country club and do all the “proper” things for the “proper” people. The scene jumped out of the picture—how did Lorene and the lovely, sweet Donna Reed get all that self-loathing and contempt on screen? Well, maybe she was more interesting than anyone guessed. I looked the picture up in the collected reviews of Manny Farber and, wouldn’t you know it, he said this in The Nation in 1953: “Miss Reed … is an interesting actress whenever Cameraman Burnett Guffey uses a hard light on her somewhat bitter features.”

In truth, the scene is better than Farber suggests, and it leaves Montgomery Clift’s Prewitt (the self-conscious emotional heart of the picture) somewhat at a loss. Because Reed’s face has seen a truth that exceeds the rest of From Here to Eternity. That’s saying something for 1953, because, in its day, the film was startling—in part because it got made (everyone had warned that the James Jones novel was too dirty). In addition, the film was boldly cast: Deborah Kerr (it was going to be Joan Crawford) is a surprise as the disillusioned wife, Karen; Burt Lancaster is subtle as Sergeant Warden; Clift is Clift; and then, there was Frank Sinatra, who knew this was his title shot and wasn’t going to let it get away.

At the same time, the movie (directed by Fred Zinnemann) is too tidy: At one point, a character is on the phone and the camera pans to the right to show a wall calendar—December 6, 1941. Got it! The Army is treated as a tough boarding school, but a place that can be reformed and fought for after 7:50 a.m., December 7, with unflawed conviction. The love stories don’t work out and in 1953 that was an attempt to be “grown up.” But Warden and Prewitt and Maggio (Sinatra) are saints of different rough degrees, though they have a dash of stupidity, too, which makes them more plausible.

These lead characters are honorable and worthy of an America that is judged to be OK—until the end of the picture. After Prewitt is killed, after Pearl Harbor has been attacked, after Warden and Karen have broken up, there is a scene on a ship leaving Hawaii for the States. We look at Karen’s face watching the shore recede. It is a face filled with conventional loss and memory. Then a voice says, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” It’s Lorene who is standing beside her, and Reed has that same hopeless look.

The two women have never met before, but there they are on the boat going home. Fair enough. A tidy dramatic closure. Except that Lorene starts to tell a story about her fiancé, a pilot, and how he was killed on December 7 being a hero, and how crushed she is.

Karen is sympathetic until Lorene mentions the man’s name—Prewitt—and Karen knows the name from stories Warden had told her. But that isn’t the real point. The revelation is that Lorene is a liar and a mess and she is going to go on for the rest of her life living one lie after another. (Her name isn’t even Lorene, it’s Alma.) And, when you look at Reed’s face from 1953, you realize she’s from a different movie. She isn’t honorable or worthy, and she isn’t remotely OK. She’s American.

You want to know what is going to happen to that woman. They gave Donna Reed the best supporting actress Oscar (Sinatra got supporting actor, too), and so they should have. But I think, at the time, the feeling was that Lorene was simply a nice girl, who just talked to lonely soldiers at the Club, and who had given Prew warmth and affection when he needed it. But Lorene is a wreck and a true portrait from life as well as the film’s best forecast of what was going to happen to honor and decency in America when this necessary war was over.

Go look at the picture and tell me I’m wrong. Something happens in the film that it seems unaware of—it’s like a snake creeping into a bed where complacent lovers are sleeping. Donna Reed was always known and cast as a very nice young lady—she is Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life, if you recall. She was pretty as a picture, and I don’t know one thing about her to the contrary. There was a story a few years ago that she had kept a lot of heartfelt letters written to her by guys she never knew who were away in the war. She was a comfort. She had a TV show later on (1958-66), in which she was married to a pediatrician with kids. All the family problems got solved, and “Donna Stone” told the decent truth, despite the onset of the 1960s.

But, in those scenes in From Here to Eternity, you can glimpse an uneasier future for America, with the social wreckage and the pretending. That hurts more than the beating Maggio gets or the moment when Prewitt is shot down as he tries to get back to the regiment. But I don’t think anyone on the film ever quite realized. I wonder if Donna Reed knew.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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