Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Day 64: "From Here to Eternity"

Director: Fred Zinnemann 1953
James Jones’s three best novels—“From Here to Eternity,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Whistle”—remain in print, according to Amazon.com. That’s good news, for Jones’s World War II trilogy is a real literary achievement, filled with vivid characters and realistic depictions of combat seen from the grunt point of view. Although main characters die, they reappear in subsequent books. Prewitt, the boxing bugler played by Montgomery Clift in the movie version of “Eternity,” becomes Witt in “The Thin Red Line,” and Prell in “Whistle.” You can follow these men as they evolve from peacetime soldiers to hardened vets to convalescing short-timers. The books are well worth reading, perhaps more so today as grunts continue to die in Iraq.
Jones was part of that post Hemingway generation that went to war and dreamed of coming back and writing the Great American Novel, a time when people genuinely cared about such ambitions. Along with Norman Mailer (“The Naked and the Dead”), Irwin Shaw (“The Young Lions”), William Styron (“The Long March”), Gore Vidal (“Williwaw”), Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”) and countless, forgotten others, Jones returned to the states from the Pacific theater with a burning need to write about his experiences (he also returned with a Purple Heart). After several false starts, he drew the attention of Hemingway’s masterful editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins, and “Eternity” was born (sadly, Perkins died before the novel was finished).
The result was a long, compelling, and roughly told story describing the Army in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jones recreates a completely believable world. While Jones’s style could be less than polished, his passion and talent were so big that “Eternity” and the other books in the trilogy deserve to remain in print as long as people read novels (how long exactly that will be is anybody’s guess).
Mailer, never known for going out of his way to praise a fellow writer, once wrote that, “The only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself was James Jones . . . I felt then and can still say now [circa 1959] that “From Here to Eternity” has been the best American novel since the war . . . “
Jones’s daughter, Kaylie, wrote an excellent novel about her life with her father, mother, brother and their ex-pat experiences (the Joneses lived in Paris for many years). In 1998, the book, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” was turned into a movie directed by James Ivory. Kris Kristofferson played the character inspired by Jones. It’s an underappreciated film, worth renting.
Which finally brings us to the movie version of Jones’s first book. “From Here to Eternity” remains a terrific film, filled with great acting (Burt Lancaster, Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra, who copped a supporting actor Oscar and resurrected his career—without “Eternity” it’s unlikely we’d ever have those classic Capitol albums from Sinatra). While the damn Production Code toned things down a bit (Reed’s character, a prostitute, morphs into a dance hall hostess), Kerr and Lancaster still conduct an adulterous affair, and several major characters do not survive. A solid movie (and far superior to that bloated Michael Bey film, “Pearl Harbor.” Ben Affleck is no Burt Lancaster, Senator.).
James Jones died in 1977. He was only fifty-five. Luckily, we have his books.


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