By Paul-John Ramos (Yonkers, New York, USA)
A winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, From Here to Eternity is one of those films with a single image from its run time emblazoned on popular culture. Even if someone doesn’t recognize the tale from which it came, ‘that scene on the beach’ – the one in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr symbolically consummate their love affair – will still be recognized by him or her as one of the great romantic moments in screen history.
Unfortunately, not everyone who knows and admires this scene has bothered to view the story around it, which comes from an 860-page novel by James Jones that won the National Book Award in 1952. So great was Eternity’s immediate impact as a book that Hollywood, despite concerns over censorship and cooperation from the United States Army, adapted it to the screen within two years of its initial printing.
The film’s reception was equally as positive if not more so, with cinemagoers often waiting for a couple of hours to attend the next screening. Eternity grossed $30.5 million in its U.S. release, an incredibly large figure that would equate to $240 million today. 60 years later, the novel maintains its position as an outstanding piece of war literature that ranks with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and the film has never diminished in viewing quality or significance.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann (who had just finished High Noon and The Member of the Wedding) from a screenplay by Daniel Taradash (Picnic), From Here to Eternity is a fine example of how mid-twentieth century filmmakers managed to toe the line between industry moral codes and telling a story as originally intended. In 1953, tight restrictions on violence and sexuality forced them to walk a tightrope in dealing with mature content; the surprising end result, however, was often a subtle and highly effective story that would only allude to the heart of the matter and leave the rest to our imaginations.
There were naturally elements of Jones’s novel, such as homosexuality, acts of sadism, and overt criticism of the American armed forces, that couldn’t possibly reach the screen in full. But as it is, the film version of From Here to Eternity deals with sexuality (particularly the extramarital kind) and the cruelties of army life to a point of having made it scandalous on first release. While matters are superficially toned down to comply with the Hays Code – which set ridiculous standards like the three-second limit on kissing – anyone of age can read obvious meanings between the lines.
Fred Zinnemann, a social realist director known for his unpretentious style, hits all of the right notes in this black and white classic that will be discussed by moviegoers and historians for the foreseeable future. Running not quite two hours in length, Eternity is one of those films whose actors and crew elevate a driven but flawed screenplay into immortal status. Its cast, which includes the likes of Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Ernest Borgnine, is flawless; Zinnemann and his team’s management of the individual talents is a feat in itself, as employing so many accomplished personalities could very well have ended in discord and failure.
Eternity takes place in the months leading up to December 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked American stations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and prompted the U.S.’s entrance into World War II. We first see Private Robert Prewitt (Clift), a slim, taciturn man from the American South, reporting to his new company at the real-life Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, where he catches up with his friend Private Angelo Maggio (Sinatra), a kind-hearted fellow whose alcoholism often inflames his inner demons. Prewitt, a talented bugler, had been rejected for his old company’s first player role and requested a transfer (even demoting himself from corporal) out of pride and pure stubbornness.
Prewitt’s new company does not focus on music but on boxing. His lead officer, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober, North by Northwest), gets his satisfaction from training men in the ring and seeing them advance through army tournaments. Holmes has in fact learned that Prewitt is a former boxer who quit after causing an opponent to lose his eyesight. Prewitt no longer desires to box but Holmes is determined to get his way for the company’s success, even if it means officers hounding him during drills, making him run around a track countless times with an equipment sack on, or giving him the dirtiest chores possible, until he psychologically breaks.
It becomes clear that Prewitt is too ironclad in his self-respect to ever give into Holmes’s demand. Certain officers around him are sympathetic, including Sergeant Milton Warden, who offers the most nuanced performance in the cast by Burt Lancaster. Warden, a man of intense feeling that is hidden under a cold, military exterior, has come to detest his presiding officers and goes far enough as to begin an affair with Holmes’s wife Karen (Kerr), who has slept with numerous men in between her lonely hours at home. As foils, Prewitt hooks up with Alma Burke (Reed), a nightclub girl who would obviously be a prostitute in a more recent film, while Maggio keeps looking for the next bottle and crosses Sergeant Judson (Borgnine), the vicious stockade warden, in a bar fight that will lead to tragic results.
A surprising element of war films is their emphasis on action and consequence, when you would assume that chance – sheer randomness – would play a larger influence in the characters’ lives. By the time that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor occurs in Eternity, the characters have already barged forward with personal decisions for which they will be held accountable. The bombings and aerial dogfights merely serve as a figurative explosion of everything that has come before. During the battle, some characters will act heroically and others, due to mitigating circumstances, will be out of sight, out of mind; but their fates, by and large, will have long been determined.
Despite Daniel Taradash’s highly effective script, there are plenty of weaknesses that dot the film because of prevailing Hollywood conventions and the era’s stuffy censorship policies. For one, most of the characters are only two-dimensional. Only Warden, through a remarkable performance by Burt Lancaster, shows any kind of evolution while the others stay mostly to type. Even Prewitt, who is thoroughly fleshed out by Clift’s performance, shows little emotional change, though we are able to learn about his psyche in great detail. Alma, superbly played by Reed, discovers love in an unlikely place but is still driven by her wish to become a ‘proper’ woman, namely getting married to a man of status and buying her family a home. Karen and Maggio are lonely souls who seem to flap in the winds of change, mostly unable to get a grip on their own destinies.
Coincidences are relied upon too often for the sake of moving Eternity’s plot forward – Prewitt just happens, for example, to transfer into a company where his old friend Maggio is based without knowing it and Maggio just happens to escape from the stockade and correctly guess that Prewitt would be found at a nearby bar. Censorship also forced Taradash to transform the brothel where Alma works into a social club, even though it must have been laughably obvious to moviegoers at the time what should really be occurring there. A subtext of the homosexual connections between soldiers (a key feature of Jones’s novel) is faintly suggested but had absolutely no chance of reaching the surface if ever intended. These all combine to give Eternity a certain hokeyness, which is easy to say after a half-century of retrospection.
Knowing these limitations, the film’s ability to overcome storyline flaws and Hollywood moral codes becomes a fine achievement, something that could not have happened without exceptional vision by Taradash, Zinnemann, and the cast. By using an unobtrusive approach, Zinnemann gives the actors breathing room to convey underlying meanings in the script (Taradash includes just enough) through their brilliant screen personalities. As mentioned, Lancaster – incidentally, the only first-choice actor agreed upon by studio chief Harry Cohn and Zinnemann for one of the leads – gives his character a stunning amount of variation, pendulum-swinging between icy sergeant and man of compassion. Clift and Kerr, both cast against type, rank second to Lancaster but their performances are still of a very high capability.
Donna Reed, considering Eternity was made in 1953, projects a sexiness that would put even modern and far more immodest actresses to shame. Frank Sinatra, whose career had screeched to a halt by this time, portrays a two-sided character like Lancaster but in a more cartoonish fashion. His moments of humor light up the screen while his darkest hours, including his incarceration, are truly pathetic. The smaller roles make Eternity a game of ‘find the actor,’ taken up by names like Claude Akins, Harry Bellaver, and Superman star George Reeves.
After its box office success, the film was named Best Picture and individual Academy Awards were given to Zinnemann, Taradash, Sinatra (supporting actor), Reed (supporting actress), Burnett Guffey (black and white cinematography), John Livadary (sound), and William Lyon (film editing). While other war films’ popularity has faded with age, Eternity withstands time; it is regularly shown on television during national holidays in the U.S. and maintains a broad audience on home video and at revival screenings around the world. With its initial success, lasting historical significance, and famous cast, it is certain to hold classic status in upcoming decades.
From Here to Eternity is a film that often gets packaged into multi-title DVDs and boxed sets. If products like these are offered by labels other than Columbia, you might want to look into their quality and what you would actually be paying for. Not that the studio release is much better, however: a Columbia DVD of Eternity was issued in 2001, which contains several underwhelming extras.
The disc, featuring ‘that scene’ on its cover, offers Eternity with remastered audio and dubbing in French, Spanish, and Portuguese; subtitles are also available in seven languages. Extras include the theatrical trailer; filmographies of the main actors; a commentary track by Zinnemann’s son Tim and Alvin Sargent, who had a small role as a soldier gunned down in the initial Japanese attack; a brief featurette on the film’s production; and excerpts from a documentary on Fred Zinnemann.
This sounds like a lot, but please believe me when I say that it isn’t. The one standout is Tim Zinnemann and Alvin Sargent’s commentary. Tim Zinnemann is himself a producer and worked with Sargent, an accomplished screenwriter, on Straight Time (1978) with Dustin Hoffman. Zinnemann was a boy at the time of Eternity’s production but gives interesting recollections, including of his family friendship with Clift. He and Sargent combine their filmmaking knowledge to make the track highly engaging.
Unfortunately, Columbia skimped on the rest. The ‘featurette’ is just 2 ½ minutes, offering some generic voice-over with color footage from Fred Zinnemann’s home movies of the production – that’s it. The documentary excerpts of Zinnemann are his comments on getting the project underway and having to conduct business with Harry Cohn, one of the great studio despots. Sadly, very few members of the cast and crew are still alive (Zinnemann died in 1997 at age 89), so there cannot be a new retrospective truly worth seeing in 2016. But surely, Columbia has more material to give us than this. The film deserves home video treatment that is only promised to a few.
Rating: ★★★ out of 4