This is the first time that I had ever seen From Here to Eternity and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. We’ve all seen the iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing on the beach as the wave washes over them. Then there is the nearly as iconic moment a moment later when Kerr is lying on the towel and Lancaster in all of his bare-chested manliness stands over before falling on her and passionately kissing her yet again. The thing is that there is a lot more to this movie than those two scenes. From Here to Eternity tells a complex pre-war story about loyalty to one’s self as well loyalty to others. It’s about staying true to yourself no matter what others are trying to make you do or how much pressure they put on you.
Yes, this is a love story as well, but there are two competing love stories happening in this film and one of them is rarely, if ever, mentioned. The famous love story in From Here to Eternity is the one between Sgt. Milton Warden (Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Kerr). It’s a compelling love story because Karen is married to Captain Dana Holmes, who happens to be Warden’s superior officer. This adds a level of tension to their relationship because if they get caught, there’s a little more to it than just having an affair with your boss’s wife. If this affair is discovered, Warden could be court martialed and sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in Leavenworth. Knowing all of that, Warden is so in love with Karen and she’s so in love with him that they’re willing to risk everything in order to be together. The one problem that I have with the love story between Warden and Karen is that it starts rather abruptly. This is a complex story with many levels to it, and so not everything could get the setup that it deserved, and I was having a hard time buying that they’d get together so quickly. I wouldn’t have minded having one or two more scenes of their relationship developing, but that ultimately is a minor point. When you get right down to it, it’s one of the great love stories in the history of American cinema.
However there is a second love story in From Here to Eternity that doesn’t get nearly the notoriety of the first one, but is nearly as compelling and is also better developed. That is the love story between Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) and Lorene (Donna Reed). What makes this love story compelling is the passion and brooding that Clift brought to his role and the loss of innocence that Reed brought to hers. Their relationship also takes much longer to develop, as Prewitt is the sort of person who doesn’t easily let people in. In a lot of ways Prewitt and Lorene are unwilling partners, even though Prewitt clearly initiates contact with her. However, as they slowly open up to each other, we find ourselves as an audience rooting hard that they’ll find a way to be together.
So those are the love stories, but together they probably only constitute half of what is going on in this picture. The story primarily follows Prewitt as he resists Capt. Holmes urgings for him to join the company boxing team. Prewitt used to be a good boxer but he paralyzed another fighter in the ring and now he wants nothing to do with fighting anymore. No matter how much the other guys on the boxing team make his life miserable, no matter what they try to do to force him on the team, Prewitt is steadfast and resolute. His stubbornness catches the eye of Warden who develops a budding respect for this young man and his idealistic convictions. Although Warden does try to nudge Prewitt to be more reasonable, Prewitt won’t be moved and Warden respects it to the point where they two of them become friends.
There is another important subplot as well. Prewitt’s best friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) has run afoul of Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine), who runs the stockade. Judson calls Angelo some pretty derogatory names and Angelo, being the hothead that he is, won’t take that from anyone. There is another famous scene from this film where Judson threatens Angelo with a knife while they’re in a bar and Warden comes to Angelo’s rescue by breaking a bottle on a table and fending off Judson. Unfortunately for Angelo, his hot headedness lands him in the stockade where Judson has free reign over him and the results are… well, you’ll just have to see the movie because, like any well-written screenplay, everything that happens in this film is either a result of something else in the story or has consequences later on down the line in the story. The other important thing to note is that screenwriter Daniel Taradash did an excellent job in this screenplay of building the tension and raising the stakes throughout. In fact, this film couldn’t have had a more climactic finish.
The film takes place in Hawaii in the days leading up to World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, there are a couple of subtle moments that foreshadow the attack, but the story is so riveting that you’re not really thinking about it until Warden and Karen leave a pier and we see a sign pointing to Pearl Harbor. As the attack begins, Prewitt is AWOL and the rest of his platoon is in the barracks. They hear explosions and figure some training exercises are going on. But something is wrong. Finally they hear someone yelling from outside that they’re under attack and we see the Japanese planes flying overhead. Warden then leads his troops into battle and the last few minutes of the film shows the men fighting the first American battle of World War II.
One thing that I noticed while watching this film was how well Taradash and director Fred Zinnemann weaved the competing storylines into one compelling story. From Here to Eternity walks a very fine line between deep and complex story and mangled up mess, but it always comes out on the right side. The film makers combined an all-star cast with fresh memories of the war that had been over for less than 10 years, and a tragic event that, at that point in our history, was still felt very sincerely by many people in this country. The scar was still there and it still stung.
There is one other point I would like to make about From Here to Eternity. I think ultimately it is the acting that put this film over the top. The performances by the actors in this picture were extraordinary, as exemplified by their success on Oscar Night. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed won Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively. Both Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor, and likely split the vote in losing to William Holden for Stalag 13. Debra Kerr was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. One thing that I noticed in From Here to Eternity is that it lacked the more over the top type of acting that was prevalent up to that point. Method Acting was starting to take hold, and Montgomery Clift was one of the major proponents of that movement. What also helped the performances was the chemistry that they all had with each other. Nothing seemed forced or coerced. It was as though we had a window into this world and what we were watching was really happening.
Thematically, as mentioned before, this is a very strong film. It covers a wide array of thematic issues and, for the most part, the people that deserve some sort of comeuppance, even the people we like, receive it.
All of those elements, the themes, the acting, the writing, the direction, combined to make From Here to Eternity a powerful and dramatic film. Audiences and critics agreed, and the film was nominated for a record 13 Oscars in 12 different categories.
Did the Academy get it right?
They certainly did get it right this year, and it was a strong year of nominees. The Robe may be just short of a classic, but it had Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, and was the type of Biblical epic that the Academy generally considers. One of my favorite scenes of all time from any film is Marlon Brando as Marc Antony giving the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears!” speech from Julius Caesar. Roman Holiday was one of the great romantic comedies of all time and starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Finally, Shane is one of the greatest westerns of all time and is ranked #45 on the AFI list of top 100 movies (From Here to Eternity is not on the list). However, the Academy is famous for dissing westerns, and this year was no different. That said, I still feel that From Here to Eternity is a worthy winner. It has several iconic moments that have become a part of our popular culture. It had an expertly woven story and top notch performances from some of the era’s greatest actors. A strong case could have been made for any of the other films that came out that year, and I would love to be able to see the voting results. Ultimately, however, only one film can win, and in my opinion From Here to Eternity was just as deserving as any of the other films from 1953.