FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)

  • Director: Fred Zinnemann
  • Writers: Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by James Jones
  • Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober, and Ernest Borgnine
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#52), shown at Cannes Film Festival, 8 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Fred Zinnemann, Best Supporting Actor – Frank Sinatra, Best Supporting Actress – Donna Reed, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography – B&W, Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Montgomery Clift, Best Actor – Burt Lancaster, Best Actress – Deborah Kerr, Best Original Score, Best Costumes – B&W)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

From Here to Eternity is one of those movies that is basically a melodrama, but was lent an air of “importance” by its larger context. It is a drama about illicit love and corruption in the military, at a time when memories of World War II remained fresh, the draft was very much still a thing, and the Korean War was in full swing. It was a such a massive part of the zeitgeist at the time of its early 50s release that it remains known to this day, particularly for its most famous scene (Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing passionately on a Hawaiian beach as the surf rolls over them) and for its somewhat accidental all-timer of a cast, which includes not only Kerr and Lancaster but also Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Ernest Borgnine, among many others. In setting its story in Hawaii in the direct lead-up to World War II, the entire proceedings have a dramatic subtext they would lack otherwise.

From Here to Eternity was one of those productions that makes big news even prior to its release, as it was based on a controversial bestseller by James Jones, a novel that was both intensely critical of the military and involved explicit portrayals of prostitution. Given that the movie version both had to pass scrutiny under the Production Code and had to get the approval of the U.S. Military (because it was shot on location at Oahu military bases and because it needed to include archive footage of Pearl Harbor), some slight narrative changes were necessary. The intense abuse Sinatra’s character suffers in the brig at the hands of Borgnine’s character was still included, but had to take place off-screen. Donna Reed’s character was changed from a prostitute to a “dance hall hostess,” though most 1950s viewers would likely have realized what that was code for. Director Fred Zinnemann’s biggest regret was the inclusion of a scene where it is revealed that the corrupt officer played by Philip Ober has been under investigation for his many transgressions and will be asked to quietly resign. Zinnemann said the scene was “like an army recruitment film.” In the original novel, in a final twist of the knife, the officer character receives a promotion despite his abuses.

Meanwhile, the casting of Frank Sinatra became the stuff of movie legend. His singing career on the ropes because of damaged vocal cords, he needed a big dramatic role like this one to start a next act in his career. Some alleged even at the time that Sinatra only got the role through his close connections with the mob, with a lightly fictionalized version of this story even making its way into The Godfather (this is the context for the movie producer waking up to a horse’s head in his bed). Zinnemann insisted nothing like this ever happened. It is more likely that Sinatra’s then-wife, the actress Ava Gardner, used her friendship with the head of Columbia Pictures to get Sinatra cast. This turned out to be a wild success, with Sinatra winning one of the movie’s eight Oscars.

I’m not sure I’d say From Here to Eternity still holds up today, though I’m also not sure I wouldn’t have said something similar at the time of its release. It is certainly well made, as is basically everything Zinnemann ever did (his other films include High Noon and A Man for All Seasons), and it is also full of top-notch performances. Both Kerr, as the wife of Ober’s officer who is heading toward middle age, and Reed, as the dance hall hostess, play against type. Reed in particular had mostly been known up to this point as a sitcom star who generally played the perfect housewife, including her role as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clift plays the hotheaded young soldier whose refusal to join the regimental boxing team (because he previously blinded another soldier in the ring), causes him all-sorts of problems. His “method acting,” vaguely James Dean approach is toned down here in a way it isn’t in some of his other roles, especially when his character falls for Reed’s. Even the smaller roles are full of actors like Jack Warden and George Reeves (famous for playing Superman).

It is entirely possible that modern viewers will not immediately cotton on to the general implications of the movie being set on an army base in Hawaii, and so the movie climaxing with the attack on Pearl Harbor plays today almost as a twist. I have a feeling that in 1953 it would instead have lent the movie a sort of sense of impending doom that I’d say it mostly lacks these days. Today it feels like a bold choice that the movie does not end happily for basically anyone. Lancaster is promoted to being an officer for his heroism at Pearl Harbor, despite his oft-professed hatred of officers. Clift is killed in friendly fire, leaving Reed to head back to the mainland alone (by boat rather than plane, as this movie is set before the advent of frequent commercial air travel to Hawaii). On the same boat is Kerr’s character, who has come to the conclusion that she can neither stay with her jerk husband or continue her illicit affair with Lancaster. Oh, and Sinatra gets beat up by Ernest Borgnine and dies.

This ending was a product of the novel’s general nihilism, but even if it hadn’t been it might have been forced on the movie by its studio. In a movie full of characters breaking the rules and having plenty of extramarital sex, the Production Code mandated that wrongdoers be punished, even if the wrongdoers are our “heroes.” Yet From Here to Eternity’s popularity can at least partially be attributed to its transgressive nature. For the time of its release, this is a very horny movie, as best exemplified by that beach makeout scene that erroneously led many other couples to think doing sexytimes on the beach would be erotic rather than a great way to get sand in some very inconvenient places. It also dared to criticize the military at a time when many more people had personal experience with it, not always positively. For me, though, From Here to Eternity was one of those movies that is more interesting than entertaining.

5 thoughts on “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)

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