Top Sergeant

D.A.N. Jones

  • An Autobiography by Fred Zinnemann
    Bloomsbury, 256 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1131 4

Fred Zinnemann’s movie, From Here to Eternity, came out in 1953. I saw it in 1955, when I was a conscript soldier in Hong Kong. Since it was a story about a peace-time army in an exotic station (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii), eventually surprised by the Japanese attack of 1941, it seemed to me and my fellow-rankers markedly relevant to our situation – though we were less unprepared for invasion and insurrection than those surprised Americans at Pearl Harbor. The movie (and James Jones’s novel, on which it was based) presented that peace-time army as a community wherein a vicious and slothful officer might neglect his duties, turning over his responsibilities to the Top Sergeant, while the Other Ranks (or the Enlisted Men, as the Americans say) might be unjustly convicted of trumped-up offences and made to suffer cruel and unusual punishments. A young British soldier might say to himself: ‘Yes, it is all true. Armies are like that – so why are you rather enjoying this life?’

Admittedly, the sympathetic hero, Private Prewitt, seemed to have retained an irrational near-mystical devotion to the Platonic idea of The Army, despite all his sufferings. Then there was a scene to console and reconcile an audience of soldiers. While the most contemptible officer was behaving particularly badly, two very senior officers happened to pass by – looking god-like or vice-regal, rather like General MacArthur – and they said something like: ‘Who is that officer? Take him and break him.’ This was satisfying, a gesture towards the fairy-tale happy ending, with the villain getting his just deserts.

When I interviewed Zinnemann some twenty years later, about his new movie, Julia (1976), I mentioned the circumstances in which I and my fellow-rankers had seen From Here to Eternity, how we had read the long, baleful book of the film and found it relevant to our own grievances. He listened with an expression of grave, compassionate respect: he seemed to feel that I had suffered a bitter experience and his movie had rubbed salt in my wounds. But when I mentioned the scene I liked, with the deus ex machina bringing justice, he frowned and confessed that he hated it: ‘To me, it’s just like a wart on a pretty face.’ He had put in that scene in order to placate the US Army: without their co-operation, he would get no real soldiers in his movie, only actors with slapdash square-bashing, idle on parade.

As I hoped he would, he has developed this point in his Autobiography:

The year was 1953, long before the Vietnam War, Watergate and the era of disillusion. There was an automatic respect for Federal authority. To voice doubts about any of its symbols – the Army, Navy or FBI – was to lay oneself open to deep suspicion. McCarthyism was still very much alive.

To make a movie from Jones’s book was considered ‘foolhardy if not downright subversive ... The Pentagon’s position was that no film based on this novel could possibly benefit the Army, therefore assistance would be denied.’ There was need for ‘great tact and wariness’ in making this film and getting over ‘the Army’s nervousness’. Fortunately, his producer was a tactful and wary ex-officer, and Zinnemann’s own previous work with soldiers and military affairs (in The Search, The Men and Theresa) gave him some standing.

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