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A Pearl Harbor movie with real meaning


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.

Only two people are lauded specifically for their soldiering in "From Here to Eternity": Warden by a fellow noncom and Prewitt by Warden. And it all makes sense. Warden is determined to keep his squad in tune according to the men's abilities; Prewitt wants to be judged on his merits as a soldier, not a boxer. Prewitt can take the punishment as long as he knows he can preserve his integrity.

The film is remarkably acute psychologically. It's sympathetic to the female characters, but it sees them from the men's point of view, as outsiders who can't grasp the intricate allegiances of their all-male world. Prewitt falls for a social club "hostess" named Lorene (Donna Reed) who can't picture herself as an Army wife -- she wants to rise in the world and show off whatever respectability she can buy to the rich folk who have snubbed her. Warden has a dangerous liaison with Holmes' wife (Deborah Kerr), a touching, haunted, nerve-wracked figure who urges Warden to become an officer and can't understand why he wants to stay close to his men.

The movie's most famous scene has Lancaster and Kerr clinching in the waves, but the real love story here is between Warden and Prewitt. During his last scene with Mrs. Holmes, Warden is struggling to explain himself to her when he notices a scrawny soldier who could be the now-AWOL Prewitt. (Sadly, it isn't.) He shifts attention so abruptly it's hard not to miss where his heart lies.

The meaning

What does this have to do with the wartime army and Pearl Harbor in particular? I'd say, just about everything.

In the June issue of Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz quotes a passage from Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers," persuasively dissecting Ambrose's continuing attempt to canonize the Second World War generation. In it, Ambrose concedes that according to the spoken and written records left by American GIs, "What held them together was not country and flag, but unit cohesion."

"From Here to Eternity" is about the pain of building that unit cohesion, and the rewards it gives to all who join it, be they selfless, selfish or damaged. The brief spurt of action we see in "From Here to Eternity," as Lancaster's Warden springs into command with electric authority, shows the military payoff of his efforts.

If men like my father, who served in the Army Engineers and won a Purple Heart, were part of a "greatest generation," it's not merely because they fought a horrible enemy and won; it's also because those who came back lived complex lives, and bought books and saw movies like "From Here to Eternity." They refused to sentimentalize themselves.

I'd guess they responded to "From Here to Eternity" because it is knowing without being cynical. The screenwriter, Daniel Taradash, knew he didn't have to spell everything out for this audience; the director, Fred Zinnemann, and his astonishingly deep and seamless cast, made the script's tensions ripple, never resorting to histrionics or hyped violence. This movie's kind of realism is actually as stylized as "Citizen Kane"; it takes a master craftsman like Zinnemann to establish a setting in which a dozen characters crisscross believably and convey a full measure of intransigent, irreducible emotion.

In this movie, innocence is not necessarily a virtue -- Pauline Kael has shrewdly called Fatso Judson "innocently murderous." At the same time, no matter how jaded or hardened the soldiers, they respond to the purity of Prewitt's talent with the bugle. He displays it first when he blows a few riffs on "Chattanooga Choo Choo" with a borrowed horn. He proves it definitively when he plays taps for Maggio.

Today, a director would draw out the scene when Prewitt avenges Maggio with a knife and telegraph the one when he mourns him with a bugle. Zinnemann does just the opposite.

We grasp the notes first as they come in from the parade grounds through the barracks windows, then as Prewitt repeats the somber tune with the amplifying megaphone pointed in an alternate direction. Men stand on the barracks steps and listen for a second time. It's one of the most stirring and heroic sequences in any military movie, and there isn't a shot to be heard.

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