by Sam Carver
When image, sound, music and dialogue are orchestrated with skill, film can be an immersive experience. It can bypass your rational judgment and lodge itself deep in some core of memory.
My first cinematic experience that I can recall in any detail was a terrifying story of a beautiful young woman in a dangerous wilderness taking shelter with a misfit band of social outcasts, on the run from a jealous and vengeful woman of power. When my sister and her friends took me to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs I went home traumatized and bawling from the intensity of the images. I’d witnessed the transformation of a queen into a grotesque green-skinned witch, Snow White’s death and resurrection from a prince’s kiss and a chase through a violent storm, all projected on a huge scale before my eyes. It was an overwhelming experience for a six year old.
A film doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to get under your skin. It was not long after Snow White that I saw a piece of World War II propaganda on TV called Wake Island in which Japanese troops overwhelm the small but determined marine garrison of a tiny Pacific outpost. I was in shock at the end, expecting another movie triumph by American fighting men. If I remember it faithfully, the final shot is a slow push in on a grimy leatherneck manning a last machine gun, firing away at the encroaching enemy.
“So,” I addressed my dad. “They get rescued, right? More marines come and they beat the japs. Right?”
My dad had lived through the war, served in the army. His brow furrowed and he shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they all get killed.” In my boyhood world this was not supposed to happen. It completely flipped my world on its head, broke it, in a way.
That kind of transformative experience, the immediate reordering of my perception of the world, is rare for me these days, at the movies or anywhere else. Having seen the man behind the curtain it’s more difficult to trick me into that kind of childlike engagement. I can still be moved by a film but most of the life changing events I’ve experienced in a movie theater came when I was young and seeing things in films that reflected an aspect of life I had not yet encountered or realized.
I kept watching movies as I grew up, graduating from straight adventure to more complicated dramas, satire, even foreign films. My reactions became less emotive and more reflective. Your approach to watching film changes when you realize that the sailor in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the cowboy in Lonely are the Brave, the gladiator in Spartacus, and the marine colonel in Seven Days in May were the same guy.
I entered my adolescence, on my way to becoming an adult, slowly, painfully and by fits and starts. Maybe I was looking for something in the movies that would help me figure out what or how to be. A lot of men who grew up when I did cite John Wayne as an ideal American role model. A lot of women, too. I watched a lot of the Duke when I was a boy. It was easy to want to be tough, in control of the situation and your emotions, taking crap from no one, winning every fight. It was a mature ideal, a father figure. By his early forties, Wayne was already playing characters ten or fifteen years older in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He was the male standard for the moral certainties of World War 2.
I don’t remember when exactly I first saw From Here to Eternity. I want to say I was eleven or twelve. It was on TV and I watched it with either my brother or my dad. I had heard of it. The scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing in the rolling Hawaiian surf was famous, but when I watched the film these were not the characters I focused on. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played with injured gravity by Montgomery Clift, is a young soldier who arrives at Schofield barracks already carrying some emotional weight in his bags. We first see him from a distance as he walks towards the camera from across the parade grounds while a unit of soldiers march in lock step in front of him. Initially unremarkable, part of the background, he moves forward until we can see his face, a recognizable individual in the conformity of the army.
Prewitt has been demoted and transferred for refusing to box in military tournaments after accidentally blinding his best friend in the ring. His continued refusal to resume fighting for his new company commander brings him merciless hazing and abuse which he undergoes without complaining or giving in.
It wasn’t until recently, entering old age, in one of those moments of reflection common to that time of life, that I realized how much I had measured myself against Prewitt’s sense of personal honor, how much he had been a model for my young manhood. I had never made a conscious decision to mold my behavior that way, but the film had worked its way into me to a deep place that turned to Prewitt as a guide for conduct.
Prewitt, parentless, heartbroken and guilt-ridden over the injury to his friend, has a strong code and a kind of wisdom. He sees that Warden (Burt Lancaster) is “a good man” and Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine) is a corrupt sadist. He never bends from his decision not to fight, despite tremendous pressure. He has his friend Maggio’s (Frank Sinatra) back. From the moment he lays eyes on his dancehall sweetheart, Alma (Donna Reed), he never seems to look at another woman, but focuses all his devotion towards her.
Prewitt’s actions are sometimes irrational, at times problematic, but always masculine in a way that does not reject vulnerability or tenderness.
Prewitt was much closer to the turmoil going on in a teen-aged soul than any character Wayne might have played at the point in his career when it was relevant to me. Closer to Dean, closer to Brando. A rebel, but not without a cause and never against whatever “you got.” His was a different kind of “cool,” a quiet self possession in the face of adversity.
Of course, this was an impossible bar for any screwed-up kid and if I’d been paying close attention I would have seen that I missed the mark more often than I reached it. Or maybe I just wasn’t Prew, but was forming my own character. As Prewitt says himself, “a man should be what he can do.” He is no saint, capable of anger, even pettiness. He’s never anything more than human. Even these failings make him more attractive to someone who was sharply aware of his own imperfections.
Part of the poignancy of Prewitt’s story is that he would rather not be an outsider. More than once he expresses his love of the army. He is grateful for the opportunity to have something to love, both the army that torments him and the girl that refuses to marry him. “Just because you love a thing, don’t mean its gotta love you back.” Prewitt wins respect and grudging admiration, even from the non-coms perpetrating “the treatment.” The other characters in the film recognize his decency and integrity.
Of course he’s doomed. After he takes lethal revenge for the fallen Maggio he is photographed in darkness and shadow for the rest of the film. His unbending nature won’t stand up to fate and history. As Warden remarks, Prewitt “just had to be a hardhead.”
For a young person wrestling with the idea of mortality maybe that was Prew’s final lesson. We’re all going to the same place. We can either march in lock step or find our own way there. He is extreme even in the story-world of the film. Other characters seem to understand his principles but are puzzled that he actually goes to the lengths he does to adhere to them. He is an odd mixture of pride and humility. He was just a soldier, “two steps up from nothing.”
Alma, with her own issues about social position, tries to mythologize Prewitt, making up a story in which he is a decorated Air Force pilot. She shouldn’t have bothered. Prew is fine the way he is.