This, like Best Years of Our Lives and Streetcar Named Desire and All Quiet on the Western Front, seemed from the sound of its title and austere legacy like it’d be stuffy, hard to follow, but just like all those other movies it proved to be the opposite: a beautifully shot, persuasively acted, propulsive and engaging story that has absolutely invaded my imagination and now feels like a part of me in the way that particularly-resonant stories do. Sounds kinda dramatic, I know. But I’m feeling kinda dramatic int he wake of it.
From Here to Eternity took a buncha Oscars home and this kinda lends to the austerity of its title, its clout, but it’s basically a simple love story set under a cloud of impending war and it trades heavily in themes of courage, aimlessness, angst. By following a few soldiers in the months leading up to the Japanese attacks on a US military base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, it feels like a statement about postwar life. Like maybe a needed reminder that we were still all just aimless fuckups before this massive thing that seems to’ve changed the world? Like maybe the postwar malaise is something just viscerally human and simple?
Montogmery Clift (a figure of nuanced young talent on the List so far with A Place in the Sun, The Heiress, and Red River) is a stubborn young soldier who, as a boxer at his previous base, blinded one of his opponents. His new commanding officer, familiar with Clift’s impressive record as a fighter, aslo happens to coach the boxing league. he wants to put Clift in the ring.
Clift doesn’t wanna do it. Refuses. So he’s subjected to months of labor, digging holes and filling them, endlessly marching and running through drills, being made to worke very slavish job int he cafeteria, the bathroom, all over the base’s grounds.
In the process he befriends another young soldier plays by Frank Sinatra, whose fledgling career as a singer was rescued by the Oscar-winning performance he gives here as Angelo Maggio (a role for which he lobbied hard), and the two of them bond over heavy-drinking furloughs where, at a nearby bar, beautiful women are kept on the payroll to entertain GIs.
Clift, who’s appearing on the List for a fourth time, plays his richest character yet here. He’s beautiful and charming alongside John Wayne in Red River, convincingly smarmy and hard-to-read in Heiress, and even though I’m kinda puzzled by the legacy of A Place in the Sun (maybe it’s mostly famous for being his first collaboration with Liz Taylor?) I can see lots of quiet strength int hat performance too. But here he gets to play a role that feels like Henry Fonda would’ve won an Oscar for. It’s got that Fonda-like lockjawed stoicism. Wide eyes indicating some kind of coiled violence. I’m thinking mainly of his turns in Grapes of Wrather, Jezebel, and My Darling Clementine. Clift, here, plays the passive Christian type who turns the other cheek from persecution while lashing out at injustice done to others. He’s calm and cool and keeps humbly to himself but gets jealous and passive-aggressive and snide when a woman he lkes goes off and chats with another soldier.
Like a dude who’s got a lotta shit going on inside that he doesn’t talk about, a guy who really needs love, but who then has no patience for the patience who have no patience with his repressive bullshit.
It’s a great role. Sinatra’s is a good one, too, and having read the Kaplan biography about him I know a bit about his life but I also, for some reason, always envision him as he looked int eh 1970s and ’80s. Girthy. “Bewigged,” as Kaplan says, with a shitty toupe that was absically a yarmulke with feathers. But here he is looking bony, young, a thick head of hair. Springy. Fast. His arc is fleshed out by picking a coupla bar fights with a higher-up played by Ernest Borgnine–who I think utters one of the first (deliberate) epithets in a Hollywood movie from the List when he calls Sinatra’s character a “wop.”
This is also the source of that oft-parodied love scene where two people collapse and embrace on a beach and make out while the tide washes over them. Cinematic, but impractical. but that’s from a whole ‘nother sub-plot I wasn’t so interested in. Burt Lancaster falls for his superior’s neglected wife, played by Deborah Kerr.
What I wanna get to is the digression, you probably don’t wanna hear it, about Donna Reed, who plays Clift’s romantic interest as one of the girls hired to entertain soldiers at the bar. They get close while she’s on the job and then one night, when Clift is kicked out, she promises to meet him at another bar. She shows up looking almost unrecognizable out of her work-required cocktail dress, with her hair styled differently.
The digression here is about Marianne, a girl I was involved with a few years ago. our affair or tryst or whatever you wanna call it is talked about in essays about The Crowd and a few others. Search it if you want. it was a lopsided fling. I had way stronger feelings, she’d just gotten out of a four-year relationship and didn’t wanna be tied down, so we dated otehr people while seeing each other, each of us being simultaneously promiscuous and halfway committed to one another, but I was more interested int he commitment and she was more about the promiscuty. Each of us got frustrated about that disparity, and we argued a lot, but I loved her and she said as much about me right toward te end. Somehow the thing lasted. But it was petering out by the time sh efinally moved to NYC. I think we exhausted each other.
But it was the most passionate, turbulent, charry and cordial and casual and quiet romance I’ve ever had. I think it might be safest if I never surpass it, too, cuz I didn’t get much done during those months. I thought about her constantly, with either longing or resentment. We were never neutral. it was the sort of love that isn’t conducive to productivity. (In that respect, though it might have been one-sided.) Anyway. Sh ewas working at an Austrian restaurant and the first couple times we got together, she was wearing her uniform. A corset and push-up bra and skirt (skeezy place).
One night we were gonna meet at a bar near my house, Ale House, at 9 p.m. I was all butterflies and giggles, talking to myself in the car, couldn’t focus. i got there early with a book, hada drink, tried to read but had some trouble. The hour comes. And then it goes. Fifteen minutes late. Thirty. Forty. Se texts me about car trouble and I’m willing to go pick her up but I don’t wanna be pushy and so I tell her instead that I’m fine, just reading, no rush.
She shows up a little past ten. I keep looking at the door and I end up catching sight of her just as she walks in. Jeans and a black tanktop with her long black hair in a ponytail. she was only a couple months into the restaurant job and she was reedy with new muscle from hefting plates and bins and dragging the heavy wooden furniture.
I don’t wanna wax too poetic about it. Point is just that this scene in the movie where they meet outside of her job reminded me of how awestruck I was by her simple beauty when she was dressed down for comfort.
Anyway. This is an incredible movie. Give it a shot.
(I just looked as an afterthought to see who directed this and I can’t explain why it seems to make so much sense that it’s the same guy who did High Noon but, yeah, it makes a lotta sense.)