17 August 2009 | EUyeshima
Involving Military Soap Opera Elevated by Sturdy Performances from an Offbeat Cast
In hindsight, this 1953 classic doesn't seem as much a military drama as it does a highly charged soap opera, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that master filmmaker Fred Zinnemann ("the Nun's Story") was at the helm. The veteran director upended the western genre just a year earlier with the Gary Cooper classic "High Noon", and he places the same incendiary focus of character over action here, that is, until the inevitable climax which uses the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a catharsis for the characters' dilemmas now dwarfed by the coming world war.
Based on James Jones' epic novel, screenwriter Daniel Taradash manages to reduce the complexity of the book's themes without trivializing them, and then-offbeat casting enhances the movie immeasurably. Set on a U.S. Army base in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack, the focus is on two men, both dedicated to the military with no aspirations to become the officers they have grown to detest. One is Private Robert E. Prewitt, a talented boxer (and bugler) who refuses to fight on his regiment's team since blinding a sparring partner. The other is First Sergeant Milton Warden, a take-charge, professional soldier who earns the trust of his men even as he kowtows to his weak-willed commanding officer.
Life in the barracks is fraught with adversarial personalities, chief among them Private Angelo Maggio, Prewitt's loudmouthed best friend, and Staff Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, the sadistic stockade warden. Both Prewitt and Warden meet women who seek to change their lives. Prewitt finds cynical nightclub "hostess" Lorene at a brothel masquerading as a social club, while Warden embarks on a passionate affair with his commanding officer's wayward wife Karen. Burt Lancaster is well cast as Warden, and he brings surprising nuance to his character's clandestine encounters with Karen. However, it's Montgomery Clift - despite looking too slight to be genuinely believable as a boxer - who transcends his loner role by playing off his innately sensitive nature to portray a man who will never sacrifice his honor despite how dire the consequences. Well within his comfort zone, Frank Sinatra's turn as Maggio is small but impactful.
Still two years away from "Marty", Ernest Borgnine makes Judson's malevolence palpable in just a few scenes. Deborah Kerr submerges her Scottish accent and previous lady-like demeanor to reveal the embittered, sexually assertive side of Karen without sacrificing any of the character's vulnerability. The legendary, much-parodied beach scene with Lancaster still sizzles after all these years. Similarly, Donna Reed foregoes her good-girl image (epitomized by her memorable turn as Mary Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life") to play the sultry, delusional Lorene. The 2003 DVD comes with a small set of extras - a three-minute making-of retrospective short, a nine-minute collection of on-set footage and interviews from a documentary entitled "Fred Zinnemann: As I See It", and the original theatrical trailer. The best extra is the commentary track from Tim Zinnemann (the director's son) and screenwriter Alvin Sargent ("Spider-Man 2"), who had a small role in the movie.