The technical perfection of From Here to Eternity leaves no chance for the reflection and dispassionate evaluation dear to the critical heart. The movie so quickly captures the viewer that his reactions are purely sensory. It takes a second look and a good deal of thought before Eternity, the completely successful motion picture, can be discussed as a work of art.
In this light the movie's great advantage is that its protagonist, Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, is a true tragic hero, a man destroyed by the thing he loves. Prewitt loves the Army; the Army reciprocates by stepping on Prewitt, humiliating him, and finally killing him. Like a brilliant freshman who flunks out by ignoring exams as an imposition on his freedom, Prewitt is a born soldier who masters and loves all the mechanical; aspects of the Army, but who can not accept its small demands on his self-respect.
The issue of man versus society is stated so that even the densest teen-age should be able to tell that there is more in the picture than a couple of livid love scenes and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the first minutes of Eternity the sadistic and ambitious Captain Holmes says to Prewett, "You should know that in the Army it's not the individual that counts." The remainder of the film is devoted to a more subtle exposition of this theme, and that the only way the individual can make himself count is by preserving his integrity.
Most movies--and indeed, most plays and novels--which treat such basic conflicts manage to kick away the dramatic possibilities by reducing them to Cowboy and Indian, Cop and Robber puppet shows in which both the outcome and characterizations are as automatic as a pinball machine. The plot may get bounced around a good deal, but it always ends up in the same place. The audience unconsciously knows that everything will turn out all right in the end, and thus its attention is never fully concentrated on the screen.
Not so with Eternity. The acting of Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, and every single supporting player confront the spectator with real people. The dialogue, much of it taken directly from the book, allows them to talk like normal people. The screenplay skillfully moves them back and forth in plausible situations. The capsule of authenticity is absolute, and thus none of the force of the action is dissipated.
Unlike the book, the film version of From Here to Eternity does not bury its dramatic aspects under a heavy mass of superfluous detail and fuzzy verbiage. Where James Jones spent pages describing the torments of the penal stockade at Sheffield Barracks in Hawaii, director Fred Zinneman achieves the same effects by a few shots of a brutal guard and several whispered conversations. The scenario is a masterpiece of ingenuity and economy; furthermore, it manages to take such material as a syphilitic husband, a wanton wife, a soldier-infested brothel, and the ordinary obscene talk of the Army and translate it into terms acceptable to the Johnson Office. It's translation, of course, but as in any good translation, the flavor of the original is not lost.
The very conciseness of the film, however, detracts slightly from its long-range impression. The crucial matter of Prewitt's masochistic devotion to the Army is, for example, never given much more of a basis than his muttered, "If it weren't for the Army, I wouldn't have learned how to bugle." The book had the space to go far back into Prewitt's boyhood, and thus give a more convincing picture of a man who had known but one family, one friend, one lover in his life, and that the Army. From Here to Eternity runs for a little less than two hours, and, considering the excellent material that had to be omitted, an extra-half-hour wouldn't have slowed it down much, and would have added considerably to its documentary force.
So, if you want to root around and brood for a while, it is possible to conclude that the picture isn't quite perfect. Which it isn't. Not quite. But I doubt if that's going to bother anyone. As an immediate experience it is overpowering; as a lasting work of art it is memorable.