The massive James Jones novel, deemed impossible to put onscreen because of its strong sexual content and language, finally emerged as a lavish, star-studded spectacle, much bowdlerized but redeemed by a slew of fine performances.
The film opens as Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a soldier with a reputation as both a fine boxer and bugler, arrives at Schofield Barracks at Pearl Harbor. His new commander, the brutal, philandering Captain Holmes (Philip Ober), promises Prewitt that if he boxes on the company team he
will be rewarded with the post of bugler--a job Prewitt covets. But Prewitt refuses, haunted by a previous ugly experience in the ring. For Prewitt's obstinacy, Holmes orders Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) to give the soldier every dirty detail in the company. As it turns out, Warden is about to
begin a torrid affair with Holmes's wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Meanwhile, Prewitt's suffering is eased by his newly established relationship with Lorene (Donna Reed), a nightclub hostess. Prewitt's only other friend, Maggio (Frank Sinatra), a wisecracking enlisted man, commits several small
offenses and draws repeated punishment--especially from a sadistic Italian-hating sergeant named Fatso (Ernest Borgnine).
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY was an uphill battle all the way for director Zinnemann. Most of his war was with Columbia's dictator, Harry Cohn, who had purchased the novel for $82,000 and was determined to retain its seamy story, raw language, and violence, rejecting one adaptation after another. The
Army was not happy with Jones's fierce indictment of its system and refused to allow the use of Schofield Barracks unless some major concessions were made. One chief point involved the role of Captain Holmes. In the novel he gets away with everything and is even promoted to major, but in the film
he is cashiered for his cruelty and malfeasance.
The featured roles were also difficult to cast under Cohn's capricious supervision. Zinnemann had to fight to cast Clift, who gave one of his greatest performances; ditto Sinatra, whose faltering career received a much-needed boost here. He had to beg Cohn for the part of Maggio and ended up
playing it for practically nothing (this episode was exaggerated and fictionalized by Mario Puzo in The Godfather). Joan Crawford was to have played the straying wife, but the icy-turned-passionate Kerr helped keep the famous lovemaking scene on the beach more realistic and low-key. Reed's part,
on the other hand, was softened somewhat, her occupation being changed from prostitute to "hostess."
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