The Best Picture Project – From Here To Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity

Based on the novel by James Jones

Directed by Fred Zinneman

Starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Donny Reed, Ernest Borgnine and Jack Warden

From Here To Eternity was based on an absolute brick of a book by James Jones – also the author of The Thin Red Line – and tells the story of four people on an Army base on pre-December 7 Hawaii.   There is Prewitt (Clift), the stubborn bugler who refuses to box because he accidentally blinded a man some time ago. There is Warden (Lancaster) the pragmatic non-commissioned officer who resists a commission because he doesn’t see himself as one of ‘them’. There is Lorene/Alma (Reed) the ‘hostess’ – read prostitute – Prewitt falls in love with. Finally there is Karen (Kerr), the wife of Warden’s superior, who he risks life and limb to have an affair with.

The plot, such as it is, is fairly rote but this is no fault of the film itself. Rather, that blame falls on the intervening 50 years of filmmaking, which has routinely stripped away all the best elements of the film. After all, how often have we seen the hooker with the heart of gold? Or the fighter who won’t fight? Or national tragedy reduced to personal tragedy? These weren’t new ideas when Michael Bay made Pearl Harbor, and probably weren’t all that new when Zinneman made this film. After all, within a two year stretch we saw films about fighters who won’t fight – The Quiet Man, with John Wayne, and this film, with Montgomery Clift.

Aside from the cliché of it, the acting in the film is a bit indifferent, for me. Kerr’s shrill, off-kilter qualities work well in The Black Narcissus, but here seem a little off-putting. Lancaster is Lancaster, as always, and while he’s good, he’s unremarkable. And the most lauded of the bunch, the Oscar winners Sinatra and Reed, fall the most flat to me. Sinatra is just all right as the ill-fated Maggio and that he was the winner over the ice-cold Jack Palance in Shane is unthinkable. But while Sinatra is just ‘all right’, Reed with dyed-black hair is completely wrong as the prostitute. Some actors can seamlessly move through their careers from part to part, with ease and believability – these are character actors – but it was a bit jarring to see Mary Bailey working as a hooker. I kind of kept waiting for George Bailey to pop out of the woodwork and snap her to her senses.

Given all this it might seem like avoiding the movie is the wrong thing to do, but that’s far from the case. Despite the familiarity of it, there are good bits. The book is epic in length, but the movie clocks in at 118 minutes, a bit of efficient storytelling. The Lancaster/Kerr roll in the surf has achieved icon status for good reason, and there are some good performances to watch. Of the main cast Clift is easily the most impressive, though, if you like Lancaster as Lancaster, you’ll like him here. But for a performance that’s not to be missed it’s Borgnine, who easily steals the film in but three scenes. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I saw Marty, where Borgnine was incredibly charming and sensitive as the lovelorn butcher. After that, to see his racist, murderous, ‘Fatso’ Judson made it all the more apparent that he clearly has much more talent than many people would give him credit for and when he shows his range it’s nowhere near as jarring as Reed’s. No wonder he won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1955.

Given that, in my mind it’s still not the best picture of 1953. In a year that had Roman Holiday and Shane among the competitors, and Stalag 17 sitting on the sidelines, there are easily three other films that should have finished first in this race. Still, From Here To Eternity is not the worst choice that could have been made. It’s just not the best.

Trivia:

For those familiar with The Godfather, From Here To Eternity should prove to be an important movie. After all, legend has it that the story of Johnny Fontane in the book and movie, who seeks his godfather’s assistance in achieving a role in a film that might jumpstart his film career and win him an award – thus far he’s been a crooner – was inspired directly by Sinatra and his ability to secure the role of Maggio in this film. True or not, one likes to imagine how the scene played out in real life, Sinatra weeping to his godfather and getting slapped and told, “Act like a man!”

The cinematographer for From Here To Eternity was Burnett Guffey, who won an Academy Award for in the black-and-white category for his work. He received three other nominations in the same category over the next dozen years. However, he was nominated but one time for a color film, and actually won. The movie? Bonnie and Clyde. Sometimes it’s amazing to see how startlingly dissimilar the achievements on a man’s resume can be.

The major story in the film, the one that revolves around Clift, is of the regiment boxing team trying to convince him to come out and box for them. To make their case they take many liberties in their attempts to win him over, even resorting to brutalizing him, without success. One of the other boxers on that team was Claude Akins. That’s right, the consummate Polygrip pitchman played a tough guy. I guess it’s not just Reed and Borgnine who can stretch. You can see some of his late-career work below. 

For the list of other winners, click here.

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