From Here to Eternity

Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1952) is a film based on a novel of the same name by James Jones. It is set in Hawaii and details the troubles of soldiers and civilians in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Authority in this film is assigned through military rank first and foremost. The main instances of opposition occur when a soldier of a lower rank challenges the authority of higher-ranking official. These retaliations are sparked by humiliation, and disrespect, provoking within the lower ranking soldiers a drive to defend themselves and their dignity. There are other characters within the film, civilians, such as Karen and Lorene, who fight for their dignity as well. In From Here to Eternity, opposition is portrayed as a means to maintain one’s humanity and humility, and to be allowed to exist as a free-thinking individual with his or her own agency.

Initially we are introduced to Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Cliff) who is characterized as a strong-willed, just individual. Prewitt is non-confrontational, except when he is disrespected or made to do something that defies his morals. Throughout the film, the officers of his base harass him to fight in a boxing match in which he does not want to fight. He injured a friend the last time he boxed, and swore off boxing. Prewitt refuses, even though he is mistreated for saying no. His captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), looks upon him unfavorably, letting him be mistreated and disrespected. When one of the other soldiers starts a fight with Prewitt, Holmes looks the other way. Prewitt’s outright refusal to do things is the main way in which he rebels against his authority figures.After a higher-ranking soldier intentionally kicks a bucket of water over the area on the floor that Prewitt is cleaning, that soldier tell Prewitt to clean it up. Prewitt reacts by telling the soldier to clean it up himself. Prewitt’s retaliation is a direct effect from his mistreatment. When someone degrades him, or attempts to take away his humanity, Prewitt stands-up for himself. His pride and self-respect are his sole drives to defy authority figures. He also determines that these authority figures don’t deserve to command his respect, as they abuse their power and needlessly degrade those beneath them.

Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) is Captain Dana Holmes’s neglected wife. She is portrayed as headstrong, feminine and unhappy in her marriage with her cheating and negligent husband. Karen was pregnant once, and miscarried one night. However, her husband was out having an affair while Karen suffered at home. When he came back home, he was too drunk to help her and passed out. Karen is deeply dissatisfied by her marriage, and that is also a commonality of the times. During the 1950s, “many men and women felt coerced into getting married, trapped in their families, unable to achieve the harmony, security, and emotional satisfaction they had been promised” (Brym 443). Divorce is not an option if a woman wants to maintain a higher social status, because in the 50s it holds a certain stigma. Instead of getting a divorce Karen has affairs. Through the years she has affairs with other officers and soldiers on the bases where she lives with Dana. In Hawaii, she ends up getting involved and falling in love with First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster). Karen’s retaliation against her husband and her unhappy marriage, through having affairs, is a reaction and thus a direct retaliation against the authority of men and the patriarchal society that stifles her. She is expressing her individuality, femininity and exercising her human agency.

In some ways, Karen’s behavior is a lash out against her husband, whom Karen feels doesn’t deserve her respect. She is responding to the authority he assumes over her, that society has given him as a man. What’s more is that she is responding to the fact that he doesn’t deserve his social authority. He knows she doesn’t respect him as a wife should, and other members of the military know about her affairs. She makes her unhappiness with Dana public, almost humiliating him by being so obviously not committed to him. This action could be construed as Karen’s payback to Dana, for him being so apparently uncommitted to her. Now he is forced to bear the embarrassment that she had to endure, and she delivers blows to his dignity the same way he did to her. Nietzsche once said, “Feminism is not about equality but about revenge”  (Franklin 158). Karen is exacting her revenge on Dana. Here, as in A Streetcar Named Desire, the woman gains an air of authority by exercising her sexuality. Karen’s expression of her sexuality, through her relationship with Warden, isn’t necessarily used as a manipulative device. Unlike in Streetcar, in From Here to Eternity Karen is not only exercising her sexuality but she is also pursuing a right to be happy, and a right to love someone and be loved back, which is something she wouldn’t experience with Dana. In this way also, Karen is standing up to the authority of the patriarchal society of the 1950s United States. Therefore it isn’t necessarily problematic to call her retaliation a progressive movement in feminism. There is an article from Good Housekeeping, which details the steps to being a proper wife. It was published in 1955, two years after the release of From Here to Eternity, but is still representative of the attitudes of the time revolving around women, their sexuality and their place in the household. If this is the definition of a “good wife” then Karen is the opposite of a good wife. She defies all the rules on this list, especially the last one.

Ultimately, Karen’s motive for challenging the authority around her is to maintain her self-respect, dignity and sense of human right. The same could also be said of Prewitt, who maintains his morals in the face of the higher-ranking officers who try to destroy them.

Curator: Hailey Mawhinney


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