Viewer Guide: From Here to Eternity and Sideways

June 28, 2019 | Richard Peña


This week’s classic is From Here to Eternity, a 1953 wartime drama starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Adapted from author James Jones’ 1951 best-selling novel, From Here to Eternity was allegedly inspired by Jones’ own experiences as a 17 year-old infantryman in the US Army’s Hawaiian Division during the final days of peace before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Montgomery Clift plays Robert E. Lee Prewitt, more often just called “Prew,” a member of the Bugler Corps transferred to an infantry division on the island of Oahu. Suspicious of Prew’s downward trajectory, Prew is grilled for the reason why by Sergeant Milton Warden, played by Burt Lancaster. Turns out the transfer was actually arranged by Captain Dana Holmes, the regiment’s boxing coach, who knows Prew’s repuatation as a talented middle-weight. But Prew announces that, for personal reasons, he’s hung up his gloves, refusing to box. In retaliation, Holmes unleashes an increasingly brutal campaign to change Prew’s mind. Relegated to the most menial chores, Prew bonds with Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, another maverick whose constant clashes with authority seem to be leading him to a stint in the stockade, run by the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, played by Ernest Borgnine.

Yet when night falls, and these men get to put the military to one side, it turns out that romantic and sexual relationships are no less complicated. Deborah Kerr plays Captain Holmes’ embittered wife Karen, whose empty marriage gives her plenty of reasons to have a roving eye, which eventually lands on Burt Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden. And across town at the New Congress—a so-called “social club” where female companionship is available with the price of admission—Donna Reed plays Lorene, a “hostess” planning to save up enough money to buy the security and respectability she never knew growing up in Oregon.

And so life goes on at what had been a sleepy military outpost on Oahu, until the calendar turns the page to Sunday, December 7, and life, as well as history, as everyone knows them are changed in an instant.

Reeling from the twin impact of television and the new availability of foreign films, Hollywood by the early Fifties was increasingly willing to take on provocative material that might have been unthinkable even a decade before. Yet even with this greater permissiveness, the filmmakers still were required for the movie adaptation to tone down the novel’s use of profanity and cut out a number of characters and sequences to satisfy Hollywood’s Production Code, as well as to secure the cooperation of the U.S. Army for locations, equipment and documentary footage of the actual Pearl Harbor attack.

A Jewish soldier who commits suicide out of fear of being gay was one plotline omitted entirely. In the novel, Karen’s inability to have children is the result of having acquired gonorrhea from her husband. Not surprisingly, Lorene is in fact a prostitute and not simply a dance hall hostess. The movie version of Maggio is actually a compilation of characters in the novel created in order to streamline the plot as well as to beef up the role. From Here to Eternity provided the comeback vehicle that Frank Sinatra had been searching for; having lost his place as the bobby-soxer icon, and after a string of movie failures, Angelo Maggio introduced us to the new, more serious Frank Sinatra, ushering in his most creative period both in music and in the cinema. He was rewarded for his great performance here with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, although years later he would claim that his performance as a heroin addict in The Man with a Golden Arm was actually a lot better. And no, it wasn’t a bloody horse head between silk sheets that got Sinatra the role, but the encouragement of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn’s wife—who herself had been encouraged by Sintara’s then-wife Ava Gardner—to give ol’ Blue Eyes a shot.

In addition to Sinatra, the film also provided both Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed with career re-defining roles. Cast against type from her customary ladylike image, British native Kerr is strikingly American as well as strikingly sexy as an embittered army wife, and her passionate roll in the surf with Burt Lancaster was one of the most iconic images of the era, still widely reproduced today. Likewise, Donna Reed’s softly sullen interpretation of the damaged and ultimately deluded Lorene is a far cry from her role as Jimmy Stewart’s wholesome wife in It’s a Wonderful Life. Reed joined Sinatra in picking up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, with the film winning a total of six Academy Awards including Best Director honors for Fred Zinnemann and Best Picture.


This week’s indie is Sideways, the 2004 comedy drama directed by Alexander Payne.

In one of the defining roles of his early career, Paul Giamatti stars as Miles Raymond, a San Diego-based novelist making ends meet as an English teacher who finds himself arriving at middle age without much in the way of publishing success, as well as nursing his wounds from a painful divorce two years earlier. Furthermore, his expertise as an opinionated wine connoisseur is starting to cross the line into a questionable relationship with alcohol. Anxiously awaiting news from his agent on the latest submission of his novel, Miles picks up his old college roommate Jack Cole for a bachelors’ getaway in the picturesque wine country of Santa Ynez Valley before Jack’s impending marriage to Christine, the daughter of a local real estate magnate. As played by Thomas Haden Church in an Oscar-nominated performance, Jack is a charming but roguish Hollywood actor whose career has waned from primetime to daytime to TV commercials, and whose decision to get married seems more based on facing his dwindling prospects than true love. Initially planned as a week of relaxation, golf and wine-tasting, Miles and Jack’s holiday begins to swerve off course when Jack announces his intention to partake in some pre-marital entertainment, dragging the awkward Miles along as an unwilling wingman. Despite their bickering, the duo soon enlist female companionship in the form of Sandra Oh as a vineyard wine server and Virginia Madsen as a friendly waitress. Sideways spins an increasingly raucous tale of men of a certain age simply behaving, shall we say, very badly. Will they—and their friendship—survive the week in order for Miles to get Jack to the church on time?

In broad outline, Sideways could be said to anticipate the arrival of 2009’s The Hangover, an even wilder comic tale of bachelor party shenanigans gone terribly wrong. The script for Sideways—co-written by director Alexander Payne and his frequent partner Jim Taylor—was based on an initially unpublished novel by author and independent film director Rex Pickett. With strong echoes of Miles’ frustration in getting his novel published, Pickett’s manuscript for Sideways was initially submitted to 18 publishers without success. Eventually, Pickett’s agent shared the draft with director Payne’s agent, who happened to be at the same talent agency. Payne optioned the manuscript—but despite much ballyhoo in the trades, the book remained unpublished after yet another round of submissions. Putting the project on hold to make About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, Payne returned to Sideways in 2003, with Pickett’s manuscript finally getting picked up by St. Martin’s Press for a mere $5,000, arriving at bookstores in June 2004 just five months before the release of the film. A major box office hit, the film garnered five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor and Actress nods for Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor taking home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. And here’s a great bit of trivia: as a result of Miles’ passionately expressed dislike of Merlot, sales for the varietal that year actually dropped by 2%, with sales for Miles’ preferred Pinot Noir surging by 16%.


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