A Pearl Harbor movie with real meaning

'From Here to Eternity' offers a sophisticated antidote to the simplistic sentiment of 'Pearl Harbor.'


May 27, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

When you think of films about Pearl Harbor, the movie version of James Jones' novel "From Here to Eternity" may not come immediately to mind. After all, the Japanese surprise attack takes place only near the end of the film. And "From Here to Eternity" is better known as a serious slice of American life: an unblinking look at the pre-war U.S. Army.

Moreover, though it was a huge hit and Academy Award-winner, it dates from 1953, when blockbusters could be adult movies. This weekend's new entry, "Pearl Harbor," is instead the unholy progeny of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Titanic."

But watching "From Here to Eternity" again, it's clear that it really is about Pearl Harbor. And it's the perfect antidote to movies like "Pearl Harbor," which pretend to depict Americans losing their innocence.

"Loss of innocence" has emerged as a hallmark of American moviemakers' naive brand of pomposity. Every time an American director decides to craft himself a prize-winner, "loss of innocence" becomes his favorite catch phrase. When Robert Redford made "Quiz Show," the rigging of Fifties TV game shows was suddenly thought to be what made a generation lose its innocence. Now, with director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace, it's the bombing and torpedoing of Pearl Harbor.

The best proof for the infantile state of American pop culture may not be the onslaught of teen gross-out comedies, but the need of adult filmmakers to celebrate junior high school ideals. (Even the three-sided romance of Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in "Pearl Harbor" would play better in classrooms, gyms and locker rooms.) What makes Americans think that their loss of innocence is such an important ingredient of every political or cultural conflict? Isn't loss of innocence a good thing, if it leads to, say, maturity?

How refreshing, then, to watch a picture like "From Here to Eternity." This movie says that Americans didn't have any innocence to lose, that we might have actually regained our innocence after Pearl Harbor, because it gave us a focus for our wayward energies.

The story

Although in summary "From Here to Eternity" sounds like an anti-military movie (and the picture is often written about that way), its anti-hero, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, loves the Army and wants to be "a 30-year man." The Army taught him how to bugle, and Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift) admits, "I bugle well." As he says in some of the most profound words uttered in any American movie, "A man loves a thing, that don't mean it's got to love him back. ... You love a thing, you got to be grateful."

At the start, Prewitt, who is a genuine artist with the bugle, transfers from a bugling outfit to an infantry company stationed in Schofield Barracks near Pearl Harbor because a lesser man with a horn has been unfairly named First Bugler. Unfortunately for Prewitt, his new captain prizes boxing over bugling, and though Prewitt was a budding middleweight star, he gave up boxing after blinding his mentor in a sparring match.

Much of the movie is about how Captain "Dynamite" Holmes, a corrupt careerist, tacitly encourages his boxers -- whom he has promoted, one and all, into noncommissioned officers -- to give Prewitt "the Treatment" until he agrees to become part of the team. The Treatment includes nonstop menial duties and cruel and arbitrary punishments like digging a 6-foot grave and then "burying" a paper at the bottom.

The Treatment also involves being distanced from the rest of the troops, except for those fellow misfits who come to Prewitt's defense, like Frank Sinatra's irrepressible, liberty-loving Maggio. Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster), who in effect runs Dynamite Holmes' unit, tries to protect Prewitt from his own hardheadedness. But Prewitt feels "If a man don't go his own way, he's nothin'."

Although Warden has become a wily infighter, at root he agrees with Prewitt. The movie is only partly about individualism and conformity. It's also about the mysteries of masculine and military virtue.

The psychology

Prewitt calls only two active soldiers "a good man" -- Maggio and Warden, and they couldn't be more different. Maggio can't help blurting out the truth as he sees it or reacting with hair-trigger reflexes to any racial slur or personal slight. Warden keeps his own counsel and works to shield his men from within the chain of command.

Yet each is true to himself, and, more important, each is true to himself without lording it over others. After all, you can argue that Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine), the sadist who heads the stockade, has been going his own way; the difference is, Fatso's way flattens out anyone who crosses it.

After Maggio runs up against Fatso with tragic results, Prewitt says he knows the Army will catch up to the bully. In short, Prewitt never loses his devotion to the service, even after it persecutes him and allows the slow murder of Maggio. But he wants a piece of Fatso for himself.

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