Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Remember Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor? The internet, and also Team America: World Police, have turned that movie into such an endless punchline that it feels almost pointless to critique this motion picture once again, but for the purposes of this review, I feel it is imperative to do so. The feature film that Roger Ebert once accurately described as “…a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle” (God bless Roger Ebert) failed to make a compelling drama all about small-scale human drama that transpired before, during and after the real-life attack on Pearl Harbor for too many reasons to count. There’s no single solution to all of them, but if Michael Bay and company wanted a better blueprint for how to make a drama that incorporates Pearl Harbor into its plot, maybe they should have looked to 1953’s From Here To Eternity for inspiration?
Perhaps no one in the production had seen From Here To Eternity and, like me prior to actually watching the movie, had no idea this Fred Zinnemann involved the events of Pearl Harbor. Actually, I had no idea what From Here To Eternity was about prior to seeing it aside from knowing it was the motion picture responsible for spawning that famous scene depicting a man and a lady kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. To my surprise, From Here To Eternity is far more effectively gloomy than expected as its story follows the lives of a handful of characters who all are connected to a Hawaiian training camp for U.S. soldiers with the most prominent of these characters being Private Robert e. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift).
Newly transferred to this base, Prewitt is ready to fight for his country but refuses to partake in the base’s boxing competition, something that upsets numerous soldiers and generals on the base due to the success Prewitt had in boxing matches in the past. However, Prewitt is haunted by the injuries he caused his last boxing opponent and stands strong in his pacifist leanings, much to the anger of everyone on the base save for his new pal Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Also getting large amounts of screentime is First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), a man who’s carrying on an affair with the wife of a higher-ranking officer.
The mantra of “War Is Hell” comes up frequently in war movies, but for the characters of From Here To Eternity, their lives and relationships are already hell before they even step onto the battlefield. Hell, a number of our main characters are already facing their own personal wars, whether it’s Prewitt trying to stick to his ideals in the face of relentless torment or Maggio struggling to cope with his over-reliance on alcohol to Warden being conflicted about carrying on his affair with Karne (Deborah Kerr). They’ve all got their own fights to endure and the script by Daniel Taradash gives these individual internal quarrels plenty of time to get fully fleshed out as well as allowing the characters to blossom into well-realized human beings.
The aforementioned darker than expected tone means there aren’t easy solutions to be found for the various problems each character is facing. That’s one of the best assets of From Here To Eternity, it’s not using these plot points for thinly-sketched melodrama but rather wants to explore them in realistic manners through characters the audience can get invested in. All of the assorted actors playing these individuals are certainly up for the task of properly depicting these characters struggles in a more intricate manner, especially Frank Sinatra. I had no clue he was even in this movie, let alone playing one of its key players, but he’s great here at portraying Maggio’s temper and alcoholic tendencies realistically without playing these aspects of his character as broad caricatures. It also amused me how, the moment he starts speaking, it’s very clearly Frank Sinatra whose speaking, the man’s got an iconic voice even when he’s not singing!
Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift are also doing strong work here, especially Clift in portraying his characters seething anger at the world around him that escalates as the plot goes on. That plot concludes with an on-screen depiction of the Pearl Harbor attack as well as solemn scenes depicting our main characters reacting to this attack. This is where From Here To Eternity excels where Pearl Harbor stumbled; Michael Bay’s 2001 movie used an on-screen depiction of a real-life atrocity as a brief interruption in its monotonous plot for the purpose of providing big explosions. For From Here To Eternity on the other hand, the Pearl Harbor attack recontextualizes the entire plot of the movie, it actually serves a thematic purpose for the story at hand. As shocking as it may be to here, Fred Zinneman showed more craftsmanship with From Here To Eternity as a filmmaker than Michael Bay.