From Here to Eternity (1979)

Remaking James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” had to be a big risk back in 1979.  The seaside kiss between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster alone is part of movie history and the film is widely regarded as a classic.  But, since the great American Miniseries thrives on war, especially World War II, here is a readily-accessible property that was bound to spark interest. 

In fact, this version is much closer to Jones’ novel than the movie, which had to tame things down for 1950s audiences.  Donna Reed’s prostitute is certainly not as obvious as Kim Basinger’s. 

Steve Railsback is Prewitt, who wants to be part of the force amassing in Hawaii in the run-up to World War II (you know, that top-secret run-up that no one was supposed to know about, the one that lasted from 1939 until 1941 when it could finally be made official).  He’s a great bugler, but he’s an even better fighter, and that’s what his superiors want of him.  They want to win the intra-military bouts, but Prewitt has turned his back on fighting.  You can take the performance of Steve two ways: incredibly lazy, or inspiringly lazy.  Though he’s the lead character, he surrounded by some wild over actors.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this context, which is essentially a war-time potboiler and hardly the great piece of literature some have made it out to be. 

Va-va-va-voom Natalie Wood, in one of her spiciest roles, is Karen Holmes, the neglected wife of Roy Thinnes, a big cheese at the naval base.  Her very entrance into the movie is racier than the entire 1950s (the decade not the movie).  Karen shows up in a barely-there shirt that has William Devane and everyone else slobbering.  Everyone except Roy, that is.  William follows his Superior’s moves carefully (especially when he’s off boozing it up with Andy Griffith and a couple of Hawaiian hookers, which is downright strange) so he knows just when to launch his own secret attack on Natalie.  Fortunately for him, Natalie succumbs without a second thought.  Hell if she’s going to be a nun during a war that has nothing to do with her!  She nags at Roy an awful lot, but she’s trapped in Hawaii with lecherous soldiers and a wardrobe that runs the gamut between slips and slips-off. 

The main plot comes down to whether Prewitt will fight or not.  He’s hazed mercilessly and still refuses. In fact, the only friend he makes is Maggio, played by Joe Pantoliano (and, with Frank Sinatra safely dead, I can openly avow that Joey Pants is far better than Frank in one of Oscar’s most questionable wins).  Maggio gets Prewitt drunk and takes him to Madame Salome Jens’ abode where he meets Kim Basinger, fresh off the boat from the mainland to actually be a hooker.  Good for her, she has career goals.  Salome runs a classy joint for the sailors, not tolerating drunks very well.  Prewitt is a sweet drunk, but completely smitten when he meets Kim’s Lorene.  But, she’s a businesswoman, and she knows paying clients are better than the nice guys.

Meanwhile, William Devane and Natalie Wood’s affair goes from passionate to torrid to volcanic.  Every time he goes to leave the room, Nat goes into a wailing fit, but at least she does it wearing not much more than a towel.  Three years from her untimely death, she is still one of Hollywood’s greatest lookers ever and her fiendish performance is fitting. “From Here to Eternity” seems to have a budget only for beloved Natalie.  She and William Devane are forced to meet outside in the night, and the outfits, make-up and lighting lavished on Natalie make for a ravishing sight.  And considering the only other dames in the movie are sloppy Kim Basinger, Salome Jens and a bunch of un-named Hawaiians (of course they are, this is Hollywood in 1979, if they were named, they would have names like Clip Clop or Ho Chi Sin), why shouldn’t Natalie get the star treatment?

Clueless Roy Thinnes is too preoccupied with getting Steve Railsback to fight for his unit to notice what’s going on, especially since William Devane, as his second-in-command, make sure Roy is always in the wrong place at the right time for his affair with Mrs. Roy Thinnes.  For nearly an hour, not much happens other than Steve being put through arduous paces by Roy and his goons, hoping to break him.  He has to bike up every mountain on the island (multiple times) and still he doesn’t crack.  If you are getting the idea that he’s going to make a “damn fine soldier” because his will is so iron-clad, you know your movie cliches! 

As much as I prefer this version of “From Here to Eternity” over the snoozy original, it must be said that the middle few hours are awfully repetitive.  Natalie and Billy Devane run from tree to tree and bed to bed making love and then throwing all but the coconuts at each other (they can’t throw the sheets, because Natalie is usually wearing them).  Maggio gets the stuffing beaten out of him (and eventually dies) as Steve continues to get hazed while falling in love with Kim.  Oh, we know Kim is in love with him too, because she does her hair if he’s around.  Even if they are just in bed.  When she’s in hooker mode, it always hangs down seductively. 

Natalie and William go off for a mini vacation together, where William gets on stage and dances a hula with the locals, leading to a gigantic argument between the two.  Natalie is just hating on him because she’s fallen passionately in love with him and he hasn’t asked her to marry him.  She is married already and William has made no secret of the fact that he just wanted a casual, if passionate, fling with the local hottie.  But, of course he loves her too. 

Around the four hour mark, after Natalie and William have argued and made love in 60 different positions, all without anyone remembering she has a young son, and after Steve has defied every attempt at breaking his spirt, IT happens.  Yes, IT.  Did you think this would be done without the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor?  Actually, this movie handles it very well.  Rather than having everyone turn into John Wayne suddenly, we see mass confusion and a lot of quick death.  William Devane, who has basically been running the outfit because Roy Thinnes is too much of a dunce, is quick to take charge and damn good at it.  Steve, has missed it, caged up with Kim, but he feels terrible about it. 

Our leads all survive the attack, but not for long.  The twists of the plot eventually find poor Steve killed by his own men, but bravely and with a lovely death speech by William Devane.  Now that the US is in the war, the wives and hookers are packed off to the mainland (all but Sharon Stone…oh, wait, that’s Pearl Harbor in “War and Remembrance,” sorry), meaning, natch, that Natalie and Kim happen to sit next to each other on the boat.  Kim is dressed in her finery, so Natalie has no idea what she really is, and just as the movie ends, we wonder if perhaps this friendship might not just be the equivalent of the male bonding going on in the war.

The four hours and change of “From Here to Eternity” are infinitely preferrable to just the hour or so it takes in “The Winds of War” to achieve the same goal.  This movie can be repetitive and overacted at times, but in context, none of that really seems to be objectionable.  It may be the best performance William Devane ever gave, but then again, his career is filled with “I’m just here for the paycheck” acting, so maybe we just caught him early enough in his game.

The main point of contention and argument has to be Steve Railsback.  And it’s a debate I encourage.  At times I find his performance vapid to the point of fading out, but at other times, I think he’s mining some sort of genius, the only person in the whole of Pearl Harbor who has conditioned himself not to feel any emotion so that when war comes, he’s numb enough to fight it without any internal clouds.  Of course, since he gets shot before having a chance to fight, perhaps that interpretation is a bit overzealous, but I’m sticking to it.

Oh, and how do Bill and Nat do with the famous beach kiss?  It’s hard to tell because it happens at night and it’s dark.  They are actually in the water and not on the sand, so the striking visual of the water sweeping past their bodies is left out, wisely.  That belongs to Deborah and Burt.  The love affair in this version is not at all pretty, just lusty and needy, so a picturesque romp would be inappropriate.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

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