July 4, 2005
A Different Drummer/The Critical Critic/New York Times
Got paid out on Monday,
Not a dog soljer no more,
They gimme all that money,
So much my pockets is sore,
More dough than I can use,
Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 masterpiece, which won eight Oscars and deserved even more, may seem tame by today’s standards, but it was hot stuff at the time. (And if it seems tame, that is a negative reflection on today’s movies.) FHTE, with a marvelous screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on James Jones’ sprawling, "unfilmable,” epic 1951 novel set in pre-WWII Pearl Harbor, tells the story of two soldiers and the women who fall in love with them. (With all due respect to winner Bill Holden, who was excellent in Stalag 17, the picture should also have won the Oscar for best actor, but since the two best performances of the year were given in FHTE by Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster, respectively, and both were nominated, each knocked the other out of the running.)
Took my ghelt to town on Tuesday,
Got a room and a big double bed,
Find a job tomorrow,
Tonight you may be dead,
Ain’t no time to lose,
First Sgt. Milton Warden (Lancaster) and Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift) each, in his own way, exemplifies the best of this man’s Army. And this man’s rotten, stinking Army may appreciate Warden, to a point, but it certainly does not appreciate Prewitt, whose credo is, “A man’s got to go his own way, or he’s nothing.”
Hit the bars on Wednesday,
My friends put me up on a throne,
Found a hapa-Chinee baby,
Swore she never would leave me alone,
Did I give her a bruise?
The women who fall in love with these men are, each in her own way, forbidden. Warden’s lover, Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), is the commander’s wife; Alma (Donna Reed), Prewitt’s girl, is a prostitute, though in a nod to the censors, the movie turned her into a “hostess.”
Woke up sick on Thursday,
Feelin’ like my head took a dare,
Looked down at my trousers,
All my pockets was bare,
That gal had blown my fuse,
The men’s corrupt, commanding officer, Capt. Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober), wants Prewitt to box for the company. Prewitt, an excellent middleweight who accidentally blinded a friend, refuses. And so, Holmes tries to break him with “The Treatment,” as carried out by his cowardly boxer-sergeants. Warden admires Prewitt, and is cordial to him, but there is little he can do on his behalf – beyond counseling him to box.
Prewitt, the “thirty-year man” with a touch of Spinoza, is one of the great tragic heroes of American fiction. As he says of the Army, “Just because you love something, doesn’t mean it has to love you back.”
Went back around on Friday,
Asked for a free glass of beer,
My friends had disappeared,
Barman say, “Take off, you queer!”
What I done then aint news,
Among a brilliant cast, Clift and Lancaster shine the brightest, with each giving the performance of a lifetime, while Frank Sinatra steals almost every scene he’s in as Prewitt’s best friend, the combative, proud Pvt. Angelo Maggio.
That jail was cold all Sa’day,
Standin up on a bench lookin down,’
Through them bars I watched the people,
All happy and out on the town,
Looked like time for me to choose,
Them Re-enlistment Blues.
In this indictment of the corruption, casual cruelty, and class politics of the pre-WWII U.S. Army, the dialogue is excellent for the men, but melodramatic for the women. And yet at the time, women and men of certain strata thought like these characters, most of whom are tortured and miserable.
Slep in the park that Sunday,
Seen all the folks goin' to church,
Your belly feels so empty,
When you’re left in the lurch,
Dog soljers don’t own pews,
If you have a contemporary sensibility, you may hoot at the screen. So much the worse for you. But if you can appreciate the honor of fighting men, and the time and the place, this story, one of the masterpieces to come out of the war, will break your heart.
So I re-uped on Monday,
A little sad and sick at my heart,
All my fine plans was with my money,
In the poke of a scheming tart,
Guy always seems to lose,
So you short-timers, let me tell you,
Don’t get yourself throwed in the can,
You might as well be dead,
Or a Thirty-Year-Man,
Recruiting Crews give me the blues,
Old Re-enlistment Blues.
(“Re-enlistment Blues” ©1951 by James Jones.)