26. From Here to Eternity

The soldiers drink, fuck, fight, and kill in From Here to Eternity. Entertaining as hell, even fun at times, the movie is not gung-ho about the Army – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at the end, is the least interesting conflict. The women are betrayed, the men die dishonorably, and starring in this menagerie of damaged humans is maybe the best cast in film history.

I mean it. All five principals were nominated for an Oscar. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed won, and Montgomery Clift was robbed for Best Actor.

Yes, Montgomery Clift, the sad, brilliant artist whose face conveyed our capacity to suffer. It is awesome to watch Clift and Burt Lancaster share scenes. They’re polar opposites. Clift is angst-ridden, complicated soldier Robert E. Lee Prewitt, who takes brutal abuse because he won’t box for the company (he was so good in the ring he once blinded a man). Lancaster is badass sergeant Milton Warden, bossing the men with confident relish. When Warden stands up to someone, someone backs off: “OK, Fatso. If it’s killin’ ya want, come on!” These diametric characters (and actors) find themselves sitting on a road, plastered, passing a bottle and bonding. (IMDB says Clift was actually drunk for this scene, and Lancaster was not. This seems sad in hindsight.)

Thanks to The Godfather, a rumor prevails that Sinatra was cast as Angelo Maggio because mobsters put a severed horse head in the producer’s bed. That’s apocryphal; Sinatra is simply perfect for the part. Maggio is cocky, and cool when he’s drunk, but there’s bitterness behind his eyes. He takes the worst abuse of anyone, and spits in his abuser’s eye.

And Donna Reed, classic TV mom, plays a hooker! But she’s the wisest of everyone, saving for a “proper” future she can’t embrace (she sneers as she describes it), but knows she must meet.

We must remember these old movies. A Hollywood blockbuster in 1953 was nothing like the giant flicks we get today. From Here to Eternity is a dirty, mean movie about complicated men and women. Compared to now, it’s quaint. And better.

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