No, not the tasty corn snacks that fit oh-so-snugly over your fingertips. We're talking about the actual army-issued abbreviated trumpets.
Prewitt is a bugler—and a really good one. We see him wail out on it later in the movie, and jam with Sal Anderson's band to "Re-Enlistment Blues." He's clearly got chops. However, his bugling skills haven't been rewarded: he was passed over by his old unit, spurring his transfer to Hawaii.
Unfortunately, the officers in Hawaii aren't interested in quality bugle music either. They want Prewitt to go back to his old ways and box, which Prewitt is loathe to do after accidentally blinding a friend in the ring. (Seems fair.)
Prewitt and Holmes have the following exchange when they first meet:
PREWITT: I was First Bugler for two years. The Top Kick had a friend who transferred in from another outfit. The next day he was made First Bugler over me.
HOLMES: And you asked out on account of that?
PREWITT: Maybe it ain't sensible, but that's the reason.
Maybe it ain't sensible, but it sure is symbolic: the bugle is an artistic alternative to violence. However, like with a lot of real artistic alternatives to violence, it seems to be receiving pretty short shrift. Prewitt can bugle to his heart's content, but it's not going to get Captain Holmes to be less of a jerk.
The only thing that's going to do that is physical violence, directed at one of Holmes' henchmen. So, unfortunately, the position of art and music in this world appears to be kind of undervalued and weak.
Prewitt used to be an awesome boxer, but when he blinded his friend during a casual sparring match, he decided it was time to quit. When Captain Holmes wants Prewitt to fight, Prewitt explains what happened, but Holmes reacts with callous disregard. He says, "You might as well say stop war because one man got killed." Holmes decides he's going to force Prewitt to fight, bullying him into it.
Prewitt tells his girlfriend Alma about what happened after he knocked his friend out:
"He was in a coma for a week. Finally, he did pull out of it. Only, the thing was, he was blind. I went to see him at the hospital a couple of times. Finally, I just couldn't go back. The last time he and I started talking about fighting and... He started to cry. Seeing tears coming out of those eyes that couldn't see anything... I thought I ought to tell you."
The whole incident serves to illuminate Prewitt's attitude, and the way it differs from that of a jerk like Holmes. Prewitt, while tough, still has a lot of natural human sensitivity—Holmes isn't particularly tough or virtuous in any way, and he's cruel.
So Prewitt, while a warrior, doesn't love violence and cruelty—he wants to minimize its role in his life, chill out, and play the bugle. But, like Al Pacino said in The Godfather Part III, "Just when I thought I was out… They pulled me back in."
We're going to drag a ridiculous song out of the 90s nostalgia vaults just for this occasion: Vengaboys' "Sex on the Beach." (There is literally no other instance where this song is appropriate… and there are exactly zero instances where this song could be defined as "good.")
But hey—it's From Here To Eternity that made the idea of sand-itchy surf-necking seem appealing in the first place.
The kiss is the most famous single image in the whole movie—and more famous than most other iconic movie stills. In fact, it's so famous that we're not even going to link it in. Just Google Image search "From Here To Eternity" if you don't know what we're talking about… you'll get about a million images.
It's pretty hot, right?
Funny enough, it wasn't even in the script (which only called for a standing-up kiss). As it happened though, Sgt. Warden and Karen Holmes commence their affair by making out on the beach, lying down on the sand as a wave crashes over them. It's been parodied and repeated in about a thousand different TV shows and movies, from Airplane! to The Simpsons.
Leis are super-pretty tropical flower necklaces—in our opinion, they absolutely trump flower crowns. They're iconic of Hawaii, luaus, and (thanks to this movie), uncertain war-torn romance.
At the end of the movie, Alma and Karen Holmes are on a boat leaving Hawaii. Prewitt has been accidentally shot by his own men, and Sgt. Warden didn't want to become an officer and try to leave Hawaii with Karen Holmes. So they're both fairly disappointed.
As they drop leis into the ocean, Karen Holmes says,
"There's a legend: if they float in toward shore, you'll come back some day. If they float out to sea, you won't."
Now, according to the screenplay, the garlands float out to sea—so, technically, the women never come back (if this legend is even true). But lots of things from the screenplay were changed before they made it to the screen, and we can't really tell where the garlands are floating. It's left up in the air. Who knows what will happen to these characters after the war ends… or even while it's happening?
When Prewitt refuses to participate in the military boxing tournament, Captain Holmes decides to give him "The Treatment." "The Treatment" is not a treat; it's abuse. It's really, really messed up… and makes the army seem like an extension of the most demented aspects of middle school.
Holmes gets his goons to constantly abuse Prewitt until he relents—which he doesn't do (unless you count getting into a fistfight with Sgt. Galovitch).
When Lorene (Alma) asks Prewitt to explain the treatment, they have this discussion:
LORENE: What's 'The Treatment'?
PREWITT: Some of the guys putting me over the jumps because I won't fight.
PREWITT: Yeah. On the boxing team. I don't want to box. I don't even want to think about it. I don't want to think about it. And they make me think about it. Every day.
Of course, the irony is that the boxing tournament will never even take place. We, the audience, know (or are supposed to know) that war will break out first.
It makes all of Prewitt's suffering extra pointless—but it also enhances his dignity and his status as a quiet hero. He's enduring a gauntlet that doesn't lead anywhere—but he won't issue an official complaint because he loves the army. He's suffering for the sake of something he loves, selflessly.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Prewitt left behind a decent soldiering-gig back on the mainland. He was irritated when he was passed over and someone else was made the company's "First Bugler." So he requested a transfer and shipped out to the Pacific, to Oahu, Hawaii.
Prewitt probably thinks he's in for a typical gig—bugling in the sun and surf. Plus, he runs into his old friend, Angelo Maggio, as soon as he arrives. How bad can it really be?
Pretty bad, it turns out. Immediately after his arrival, the Captain in charge of Prewitt—Captain Holmes—tries to get him to participate in a military boxing tournament.
Prewitt explains that he swore off boxing after he accidentally blinded a friend in the ring. Holmes is insistent, but there's no rule that says he can force Prewitt to box.
Prewitt never refuses the call, because the call to adventure, in his case, is a call to disobey the Captain. He's not supposed to listen, and his real adventure is enduring the hellish torment that Colonel Holmes is going to force on him. Holmes piles on immediately, getting his goonish soldiers and certain sergeants to single out Prewitt for harassment and punishment.
Prewitt doesn't really have a mentor per se, but he does have friends who help him. Maggio supports Prewitt, and once he meets Lorene/Alma, she's helpful and comforting too. For the most part, however, he has to rely on his own resources to endure "The Treatment"—no one is giving him any special or pointed advice on how to do it.
Prewitt really does resist Holmes. At one point, one of Holmes' toadies, Sgt. Galovitch, unreasonably bullies Prewitt and gives him an unfair order. Prewitt refuses to obey, and Holmes wants to court-martial Prewitt. But Sgt. Warden recommends doubling up on company punishment instead.
Prewitt runs into more problems—mainly involving his friends. Lorene, the hostess he's been seeing from The New Congress Club, reveals that she (supposedly) doesn't love him when he says he wants to marry her, but that she still wants him to be her boyfriend for the time being.
Meanwhile, Maggio decides to skip watchman duty and winds up being court-martialed and sent to the stockade, where he's viciously beaten by another soldier, Sgt. Judson, with whom he's had a beef in the past.
However, there is one positive thing that happens—when Sgt. Galovitch picks a fight with Prewitt, Prewitt beats him. Holmes won't punish Galovitch, but the base commander, General Slater, sees this, and forces Holmes to resign. But this is just the calm before the storm.
Maggio escapes the stockade but dies of the wounds he's received from Judson. Outraged at what happened to his friend, Prewitt tracks Judson down and challenges him to a fight in an alley. When Judson pulls a knife on him, Prewitt does the same. He ends up murdering Judson and receiving a painful stab wound himself. Injured, and now AWOL from the army, Prewitt hides with Lorene.
While lying in bed and recovering from his wound, Prewitt hears on the radio that the Japanese military has launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Actually, he doesn't even need the radio, since he can hear the attack from where he's lying.
Since he's committed a murder and is AWOL, he should probably stay put. But his loyalty to the Army is so great that he feels impelled to go, even though Lorene/Alma begs him not to.
Prewitt staggers out to try to join his fellow soldiers and help avoid any potential Japanese invasion (which didn't end up happening). He's fully demonstrating his courage in the face of terrible circumstances, participating in the flow of historical events. But, unfortunately, he gets shot by a soldier who mistakes him for a potential Japanese invader.
There's no road back for Prewitt—he's dead. But Sgt. Warden pays tribute to him, standing over Prewitt's dead body, saying that he loved the army more than any soldier he ever knew.
Prewitt doesn't get resurrected in any literal or metaphorical way—this is the kind of movie where the hero dies. But he lives on in the hearts of those who remember him, like Warden and Alma, who reminisces about him to Karen Holmes as they leave Hawaii on a ship.
Prewitt doesn't return with any elixir either, except maybe in a metaphorical sense. The courage he demonstrates and the devotion to the army demonstrate the kind of qualities that will help the American army win the Second World War. Prewitt proves that he's got the kind of mettle and determination needed to defeat Japan and Germany.
It's easy to forget that, when the Pearl Harbor attack happened on December 7, 1941, Hawaii wasn't actually a state—it was a territory, like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands still are today. So everyone in this movie is hanging out in a U.S. territory, one geared around its military base, during the months prior to Pearl Harbor, waiting for the hammer to fall, even though they don't necessarily realize it's going to fall. (To be specific, the action is set at Schofield Barracks, part of the army's base.)
The setting itself adds tension, since, presumably, we know that Pearl Harbor isn't so far in the future. It also adds irony, since we can surmise that this boxing tournament that Prewitt doesn't want to join isn't going to happen anyway. The war is going to intervene, making all the suffering Prewitt undergoes at the hands of his comrades all the more pointless.
James Jones, author of the novel From Here to Eternity, was himself stationed on Hawaii—specifically, in Honolulu on Oahu. So the movie's depiction of life in the service on Oahu has personal accuracy. When Jones shows the soldiers hanging out and carousing in different places—like the bar Choy's and the not-really-a-brothel New Congress Club—we can assume that he's drawing on his own experiences of how they killed time.
The New Congress Club is a particularly unusual setting, since in the book itself, it really is a brothel. In the movie they're not able to say that, because of the censorship of the time. This makes its status sort of ambiguous. It's a place for the soldiers to hang out at and be entertained by "hostesses"—women who might or might not be prostitutes. This setting is sort of confusing for that reason.
But it's Schofield Barracks itself that shapes action and character the most. Naturally, almost everyone there is a soldier. And the ways they interact are all structured by military rules and regulations. When the officers higher up the hierarchy—like Captain Holmes—abuse that structure and take advantage of it, it creates something that actually goes against military order, transforming it into a gangster-ish fiefdom. Military drills and training become a form of persecution for Prewitt instead of a form of discipline. But fortunately, by the end of the movie, the structure manages to clean itself out, with Prewitt's superiors punishing him and forcing him to resign.
From Here to Eternity sticks to a pretty conventional form of narrative structure—there are no flashbacks or dream sequences. This is straightforward storytelling, from beginning to end.
The story follows Robert E. Lee Prewitt and Sgt. Warden: the things that happen to them are generally highlighted as central, and they both appear in the most scenes. However, there are a couple scenes that actually feature other characters, like Maggio and Lorene/Alma and Karen Holmes.
Prewitt and Warden's story arcs give structure to the whole film, while only sort of intertwining. Warden unwillingly helps give Prewitt "The Treatment," Prewitt and Warden drink together at one point, and Warden speaks words of tribute over Prewitt's dead body. But for the most part, they have their own problems. Prewitt isn't involved in the storyline about Warden's affair with Karen Holmes to any extent. Of course, at the end of the movie, the ex-girlfriends of both characters chat with each other and share a moment of recognition, when Alma tells Karen Holmes that her dead boyfriend was named Robert E. Lee Prewitt. It brings the two big story arcs together in a final poignant moment… complete with leis.
From Here to Eternity isn't really a war film until the very end of the movie—but that still counts, dagnabbit.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor happens, the course of the movie's action gets totally interrupted. Everyone's been dealing with their own domestic problems—having affairs and knife fights and so on—but now that war is on, things are about to get way different. The nature of all those problems changes.
(Plus, it would be wrong to say that a movie dealing with the outbreak of the American role in the biggest war in the history of the world is somehow not a war film.)
The movie's a romance too, though not a romantic comedy by any means. There are two major love stories in the film, Prewitt's relationship with Alma/"Lorene" and Warden's affair with Karen Holmes. Spoiler Alert: no one ends up happy.
These love affairs are pretty much doomed, and in Alma's case she claims she's not in love with Prewitt. Valentine's Day, it ain't.
The "romance" part of From Here to Eternity is closely tied to its being a melodrama… which isn't a bad thing. You can poo-poo the term "melodramatic" if you want, but this movie is melodramatic in more of a good way (given its status as a classic and everything).
It's got sensationalistic characters and events designed to give you all the feels: Captain Holmes gets drunk, passes out, and causes his wife to give birth to a stillborn baby! Sergeant Warden is sleeping with Captain Holmes' wife! Sgt. Judson beats Maggio to death, and then Prewitt kills Judson in a knife fight! Pearl Harbor happens and changes the nature of everyone's problems!
We bet your heart rate rose just reading about all that.
James Jones took the title for From Here to Eternity from an 1892 poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled "Gentlemen Rankers." It's framed as a song sung by soldiers in the British imperial army. The verse in question reads:
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!
It's interesting, because these soldiers are saying that they're "damned from here to eternity"—which, presumably, isn't such a nice thing. If you didn't know the context, you'd look at the title and probably think that it was referring to immortality in a more positive way, meaning that people won't forget the service rendered by these soldiers "from here to eternity."
And, in a way, that also is what the title means, as far as the movie version of From Here to Eternity is concerned—it's a timeless story. But it's funny to note the darker origin of the term.
It's also funny to note the phrase Baa! Yah! Bah! (what does it mean?!).
The ending of From Here to Eternity is pretty dang grim. Prewitt courageously risks life and limb to rejoin his fellow soldiers after the Pearl Harbor attack breaks out. (Meanwhile, Warden is commanding a machine gun and firing at Japanese planes.) But Prewitt, of course, dies—even though the Japanese never tried to invade Hawaii on foot, a U.S. soldier mistakes Prewitt for an ejected Japanese pilot and guns him down.
Prewitt dies an ironic death, accidentally shot by his own comrades after he'd triumphed over so much adversity from the army itself. He's killed by the army while attempting to rejoin it. But it's still a heroic death, since it demonstrates his real qualities as a man and a soldier.
Warden pays tribute to Prewitt as he looks at his dead body:
"Sir, this man was a good soldier. He loved the Army more than any soldier I ever knew. I would like to make a formal request that this body be buried in the Army's permanent cemetery at Schofield Barracks."
In the final scene, we see Karen Holmes and Alma Burke together on a ship, leaving Hawaii. They talk about how beautiful Hawaii is, and how depressed they are. Karen says that the leis, the flower garlands they've dropped into the ocean, will predict their return if they float back toward the island. If they float out to sea, Karen and Alma won't come back.
Alma tells her that her fiancé died in the attack—stretching the truth a bit, since she said she didn't want to marry Prewitt. But when Karen hears Prewitt's name, she's struck by it, since she presumably knows the full truth of the story, as opposed to the romanticized version Alma is giving her. (Alma says Prewitt was a pilot who died in combat.)
In the movie's final image we see the garlands floating. It's left as a mystery where they're headed, and whether Karen or Alma will ever return. Originally, Daniel Taradash's screenplay had the garlands floating out to sea, but in the movie it's not clear where they're headed. A return—and a potential reunion between Karen and Warden—is left open as a possibility.
From Here to Eternity wasn't actually rated on release, but the suggested rating is PG. It sure ain't G—you never saw two cartoon deer make out on the beach like that in Bambi, right? Plus, there's lots of adultery, an implied brothel, a brutal knife-fight, a guy getting beaten to death in prison, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
That would all add up to make From Here to Eternity a pretty hardcore PG, otherwise known as "you-don't-really-want-to-watch-this-with-your-parents-but-it's-not-as-bad-as-Game-of-Thrones."