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Damned from here to eternity

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By Dr Naazir Mahmood


If you have read James Jones’ book or seen the movie ‘From Here to Eternity’, do it again and you are likely to find some similarities with today’s Pakistan. At times, I feel we are damned from here to eternity. James Jones took the title for his novel from an 1892 poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled ‘Gentlemen Rankers’.

Kipling framed this as a song soldiers sang while serving in the British imperial army. They were soldiers from all corners, serving the British army, putting their own lives at stake, realizing that they were damned from here to eternity. But complain they must not; they sing the song, and the verse in question reads: “Gentlemen Rankers out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity, God ha’ mercy on such as we”.

You may ask if they know they’re ‘damned’ from here to eternity why they are singing. Being damned, after all, isn’t such a nice thing. Perhaps they are trying to refer to immortality in an interesting way, but is it really interesting or rather depressing? Presumably, we may shift the context across continents and countries. Is there a positive way of looking at your life and what it entails, and still remain positive? In the long run, if people tend to forget the services rendered, is it worth it?

Perhaps it depends on the cause you are fighting for and the leaders who put you in that situation. Being damned from here to eternity seems to be a timeless story. It has a darker origin and the darkness may intensify or lighten up a bit from time to time.

James Jones served in the US army during the Second World War and then wrote the novel, just at the age of 30 in 1951. The book revolves around events immediately preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The setting is intense, as it is in Pakistan today. One of the main characters is a new arrival at the unit – Private Robert Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift in the movie. He is a boxer who refuses to fight after blinding an opponent in the ring. Then there is First Sergeant Warden played by Burt Lancaster.

These two we may consider common members of any society including Pakistan. Prewitt is at the lowest rung of the hierarchy, a simple man who loves to play the bugle and who avoids fights. He represents the people in any country: simple, peace loving, with moderate ambitions. Just like any regular person, he wants to have some connections with fellow human beings, craves love and respect, and is attracted to women. He is a common person who does not want to be damned from here to eternity – but he is bound to be.

Prewitt reports to his sergeant who is slightly higher in the scheme of things. The sergeant warden is concerned about Prewitt’s disciplinary problems. The warden represents the lower middle class in society – any society, including Pakistan. His class character forces him to serve his boss, Captain Holmes. The captain is more concerned about his own promotion than the wellbeing of his team. He wants Prewitt for the boxing team, which is a gang of tough boxers.

Prewitt is not inclined to be a boxer again; he knows the dangers of punching somebody in the head. He longs for companionship like most people. Punching others is not his priority, but the system does not like his peaceable manners. He falls for a girl Alma – played by Donna Reed in the movie, for which she won an Oscar. Alma is again a commoner; a representative of women from among the people. She finds it hard to earn a living so turns to the oldest profession in the novel, but in the movie she is an entertainer at a local club. She has a desire to live a respectable life and not be damned from here to eternity – but she is bound to be.

Then there’s the captain’s wife Karen, neglected by her husband. Since the captain represents a middle-class man, he is unscrupulous in his own ways. He exploits his team members for his own benefits and wants to lead a promiscuous life. His wife – Deborah Carr in the movie – is a middle-class woman dissatisfied with her circumstances, and rightfully so. If the captain could have multiple affairs, why couldn’t she? The captain had infected her with a sexually transmitted disease in the novel, but in the movie it is a miscarriage due to her husband’s negligence that renders her infertile.

Karen’s barrenness is a symbol of an intellectually infertile life that most middle-class women – or most women for that matter in any society including Pakistan – end up living. The captain’s wife does not want to live a life like that. She takes solace with the sergeant who is lower in rank but slightly more caring and has a lower-middleclass human touch that most middle-class people seem to lack. She indulges in adultery but does not want to be damned from here to eternity – well, she is bound to be.

This novel is an unflattering look at life in which economic and social injustices prevail. There is nothing sacrosanct in it. It reflects boredom and isolation that haunt nearly every individual who feels. Those who don’t feel, they target their subordinates and their fellow human beings. The story challenges traditionally held notions and exposes cracks in a seemingly solid facade. This is the history of personal lives that should not be damned but they are. Flawed characters are loveable; pristine images are not. The novel is voluminous but the film rendition does full justice to it, of course with some sanitization of the 1950s.

The original storyline was complex but the film made it digestible. Film and literature – if bold and explicit – make you wiser. In societies such as in Pakistan now, the system considers too many things unsuitable for readers and viewers. We end up with near-trash that critics in any other more open society would reject at once. To be acceptable, if the system wants you to produce watered-down versions of creative arts, a lot is lost in translation. There is outright brutality and sadistic pleasure that the powerful enjoy. ‘From Here to Eternity’ depicts them well.

Lastly, two more characters from the novel attract attention. Private Maggio – Frank Sinatra in an Oscar-winning performance – is Prewitt’s friend. Maggio becomes a victim of torture, both mental and physical. His tormentor is Fatso – Sergeant Ernest Borgnine in the film – who believes in physical supremacy and beats Maggio to death. Fatso is ultimately killed by Prewitt who takes revenge for his friend’s death. Maggio and Prewitt are loveable, so are Alma and Karen; they all receive mistreatment by the powerful. Their options are limited; both men lose their lives, the women continue to live.

There are some famously iconic chapters and scenes in the novel and film. If you have not read the novel, watch the movie, I am sure you won’t regret your two hours. I have read the novel once and watched the movie multiple times, and after each iteration, I feel more sensitive towards life – and hope not to be damned from here to eternity.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: [email protected]

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