Be quiet, Prew

Deborah Kerr 

British actress Deborah Kerr, dead at 86 — a sad fact which gives me an excuse to write not about Kerr but about From Here to Eternity (yes, this is how writers think about the death of people they don’t know personally — as a wonderful opportunity to write more). Its 1953 release date marked the end of the Korean War and the first year of the Eisenhower era, a time that American culture now mythologizes as a kind of uncorrupted and naive utopia of family values and patriotism, the Greatest Generation having settled down to raise their children (who would soon ungratefully grow up into the flower children of the late 1960s) and enjoy prosperous middle-management careers at large manufacturing concerns, thin-tied and grey-suited to a man.

Dealing with themes of adultery, brutality, drunkenness, prostitution, and murder, all of them set in and around a Hawaiian military base in 1941, From Here to Eternity reminds us that the past is just as complex — and just as real— a country as the present. This was no avant garde production intended to dissent from mainstream American life. Winning eight Academy Awards, the most for any film since Gone With the Wind, this was mainstream American life. In its sense of disillusion and of the difficulties faced by ordinary soldiers, it stands alongside films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which focused on the psychological and familial troubles of veterans returning from the war.

A few scenes in particular come to mind. When Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) struggles to explain to a warm-hearted prostitute (Donna Reed) why he plans to stay in the Army for life, despite the mental and physical battering he is receiving from his barracks for refusing to box for the regimental team, he sounds like someone trapped in a violent marriage. His eyes are open, he knows his devotion is a one-way street, but he cannot conceive of an alternative.

Alma: Gee, you must hate the Army.
Prewitt: No, I don’t hate the Army.
Alma: Yeah, but look what it’s doing to you.
Prewitt: I love the Army.
Alma: But it sure doesn’t love you.
Prewitt: A man loves a thing. That don’t mean it’s gotta love him back.

Private Angelo Maggio (a young and scrawny Frank Sinatra), by contrast, is a scrapper — but all the same he is doomed. Picked on and abused by the thuggish stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine), Maggio faces him down in a bar fight. Humiliated, Fatso warns him: “Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Someday you’ll walk in. I’ll be waitin’. I’ll show you a couple of things.”

Ernest Borgnine

An undisciplined soldier, Maggio is eventually sentenced to six months in the stockade for being AWOL on guard duty. As Maggio enters the sergeant’s office, Fatso sees him and is flushed with a gloating victory. “Hello, tough monkey,” he says. As the scene ends, Fatso picks up his billy club.

After a month of beatings, Maggio escapes the stockade and finds Prewitt, only to die in his arms. As he fades, he gasps out:

Fatso done it, Prew. He likes to whack me in the gut. He asked me if it hurts and I spit at him like always. Only yesterday it was bad. He hit me. He hit me. He hit me. Then I-I had to get out, Prew. I had to get out…They’re gonna send me to the stockade, Prew? Watch out for Fatso. Watch out for Fatso. He’ll try to crack ya. And if they put ya in a hole, don’t yell. Don’t make a sound. You’ll still be yellin’ when they come to take ya out. Just lay there. Just lay there. And be quiet, Prew.

As the film ends, what many Americans now call “The Good War” is reaching Pearl Harbor in the form of Japanese planes, itself spawning another myth about good and evil which would rapidly sand down all the hard edges of the time as it really was, leaving it, like the Eisenhower era, a shiny caricature of itself.

A final note. The movie’s title comes from a book by James Jones, which in turn got its title from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “Gentlemen-Rankers”; the poem, appropriately, depicts the dissolute and jaded military life of another era.


TO the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yes, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy living cleanly
Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.

If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

– Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads (1895)


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