The year is 1941. Prew (Montgomery Clift) has requested an Army transfer and ended up in Hawaii. His new captain, Holmes, knows his reputation as a keen boxer and is anxious to get him on the company team. Prew refuses, he’s given it up, but Holmes isn’t used to being told no and enlists all of his subordinates to make his life hell until he relents.
There’s more to it though: turns out a certain smoldering sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) starts seeing the captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr). Prew’s friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) keeps running into trouble with a stockade sergeant (Ernest Borgnine) with a mean streak. And Prew himself is falling in love with Lorene (Donna Reed). It might seem like normal every day stuff, except you and I know what’s coming: Pearl Harbor. It’s awful to know what’s around the corner for them, how petty all of these problems will seem soon enough, if any of them are left to still have them.
Montgomery Clift really threw himself into the role, learning to play the bugle and taking up boxing, and this in turned forced better and better performances from his cast mates. Burt Lancaster was so nervous to act alongside him he’s visibly shaking in their first scene together. Sinatra was just grateful for the part. You may know that Mario Puzo fictionalized his movie career in The Godfather; a certain studio exec is convinced to hire him after finding his prized horse’s head in his bed. In real life, it was a lot less dramatic: Sinatra was married to Ava Gardner at the time, and she happened to have some pull with Columbia. Or at least that’s the version everyone agrees to.
The now-famous scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (who were romantically involved in real life) rolling around on the beach was banned by the MPAA for being too erotic. If you were lucky enough to see the scene included in the movie at the theatre, it was probably foreshortened because lots of naughty projectionists would cut out a slice to keep as a souvenir. Censors demanded that Kerr’s swimsuit be skirted so as not to be too “provocative.” And that wasn’t the only modification made. In the book, the captain’s wife gets gonorrhea from her philandering husband, but that part is conveniently edited out. And in the credits, Donna Reed is credited as a “social club employee” which is 1950s code for hooker. And the military had their own standards to contend with: you couldn’t portray military sloppiness, hypocrisy, brutality…or homosexuality. Not to worry. The gay stuff was also left out, along with all the other juicy bits that led to the novel being called From Here to Obscenity by some. But that scene. The scene on the beach. Makes me want to recreate it when we’re in Oahu today (it was in Halona Cove), but only if I can find a modest skirted swimsuit.