From Here to Eternity (1953)—Our Principles Fall

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, an ending of the world by God. Our faith does not require this. The prophecies of the New Testament, whether spoken by Jesus or written by John, do not have to be understood this way. When Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished,” it was truly so. God and humanity would be reconciled, and the new creation was underway from that point forward. We are living—just as the title of the famous movie would have it—from here to eternity.

In the movie From Here to Eternity, two men are stuck in the “here.” They are stuck in the positions in which they find themselves in the Army, at their posting at a not-yet-famous location in the Hawaiian islands just before the United States has entered World War II. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who has recently transferred to this base, finds that his reputation has transferred ahead of him. A talented middleweight boxer, he refuses to join the company boxing team—the pride and passion of the commander, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober)—because of Prewitt’s determination not to risk repeating a tragedy, his once blinding a man by injuring him in the boxing ring. The private’s refusal to add his talents to the company team brings the ire of Holmes and his boxers, who inflict punishments on him including forced marches and menial duty.

Lancaster and Clift
Prewitt’s commitment to his principles and his endurance in the face of suffering draw the attention of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who competently runs the Army base on Oahu in the vacuum left by the neglect of the boxing-obsessed (and philandering-obsessed) commander. Warden falls in love with the commander’s neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who promises to divorce her husband and marry Warden if he will become an officer. But in this she has come to the point of Warden’s principles. Whatever his gifts, whatever his leadership, the sergeant is determined that he is an enlisted man. Remaining true to himself and his dignity requires this. He refuses to repudiate his status for the sake of becoming an officer and obtaining authority over other men.

The wonderful thing about this movie, and the profound truth it expresses that gives the viewer pause, is found in the way the story has no care for the principles of either man. Our principles do not necessarily matter, in part because our principles do not necessarily express a commitment to morality or truth, even when we find high-sounding ideals to attach to them. Our principles can express our pride even when they are wearing morality or truth as raiment. The conceit of both of these men in the movie who are standing on their principles is that they are making a claim to know the future. They insist they know exactly what effect their decisions will have and where their choices might take them.

The most brilliant scene in this movie is not the iconic scene of Lancaster and Kerr kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. That scene was just a special effect, a trick of timing. The most brilliant scene in the movie is when Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden walks out from behind his desk, the desk at which we have seen him sitting from the viewpoint of only one camera angle throughout the movie so far. As he leaves his desk, the camera pivots for the first time to follow him, and thus we learn something about the office we have never seen before. The office has a calendar on the wall facing the desk. Perhaps illogically (the detail only bothered me when I thought about it later), it is a daily calendar like one that might be used in a bank. A single large number announces the day’s date. Lancaster’s character walks over to this calendar as he is speaking on the phone and, still talking into the receiver, he happens to lean on the wall beside it. Though he is naturally oblivious to the date, we see it and cannot help but take note. We learn that the day’s date, for these two men who are stuck, for everyone else at this base on Oahu, is December 6, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comes the next day. Warden is surprised, Prewitt is surprised, the entire base is surprised and thrown into confusion, until the soldiers begin to understand, begin to rally, and even begin to fight back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Warden.

The base’s new commander (Captain Holmes’ abuses having been found out by this point) is not to be found at the moment of the attack. Events therefore give no regard to Warden’s principles; he is thrust into the role of an officer even if he does not formally hold the rank. It is he to whom the men look, it is Warden who hastily organizes resistance against the Japanese, and it is even he who has the ammunition storage shed torn open when he is told that an officer’s key is needed to unlock it.

The events are equally callous toward Prewitt’s principles. He could have joined the boxing team anyway. Because of this attack and because of the war it will bring, there would never have been any intracompany boxing championship for him, or even a single match to fight. All of that would have been abandoned.

It is a surprising moral, but one the story invites us to contemplate. Our principles are our pride, or they might as well be. Our principles—the codes we write for ourselves—are not necessarily the codes to which we are called.

An error we make in choosing these principles, or choosing these boxes that we dignify to be principles, is that events are not constant. The time and the season are not constant. Things change, as you know. The circumstances around us will shift or dissolve, and the next instance of this dissolution could happen any moment. It could happen tomorrow. (What is today’s date?)

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean much. It might come anyway. At the very least, God has all manner of small apocalypses in store. They are terrible and total while they are happening, and the pain and loss are consequences of the fact that Death still has its way. Yet the work of Jesus is finished, and one consequence of this is that Death has been routed and its rule has been deposed. Thus, life awakens past every such apocalypse. The new creation brings freedom, including shedding the shackles of what we thought would happen, and dropping the burden of that person we had thought ourselves to be.