Acclaimed and hugely popular when it was new, From Here to Eternity (1953), a compromised but still very adult adaptation of James Jones's novel set in Hawaii during the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, seems to have become a bit less famous than it was through the 1970s and early ‘80s, when it was frequently shown on commercial television and later first released to home video. In those venues I probably saw it five or six times but not at all in the last 20 years or so. Watching it again after so long I was quite surprised by how well it still holds up. It's one of those innately compelling films that, no matter how many times you've seen it, it's endlessly watchable.
Intelligently directed by Fred Zinnemann, the film features a startlingly good cast, notably Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster giving exceptionally fine performances, but also cast-against-type Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in the leading female roles, with scads of great character actors filling out the narrative, from Ernest Borgnine and Jack Warden at the beginning of their long careers and George Reeves near the end of his. And it was the famous comeback film of a certain down-on-his-luck crooner who used to work at MGM, Francis something or other.
Sony's Blu-ray is excellent. The movie was shot full-frame but released in August 1953, during the height of the widescreen revolution. As such the titles are blocked for widescreen and it was shown that way in at least some theaters back then. (The IMDb lists 1.85:1, Columbia's standard cropped widescreen ratio, but I vaguely recall trade papers noting a ratio much less extreme, perhaps as little as 1.5:1. Calling Bob Furmanek?) Regardless, the presentation here is the most appropriate 1.33:1 and features an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, possibly adapted from an original three-channel stereo mix. Extras are mostly ported over from earlier home video version, with one major exception.
"Thirty-year man" Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clifts), formerly a respected bugler at Fort Shafter, transfers to a lowly rifle outfit at Schofield Barracks on Oahu. Capt. Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), having pulled strings to get Prewitt, expects the young soldier to join the company's boxing team, Prewitt having also been a promising middleweight. But Prewitt respectfully if forcefully declines, having given up boxing after blinding a friend while sparring. Holmes, a lazy, self-involved officer interested only in furthering his career, orders his boxing team of glowering sergeants to put the screws on Prewitt until he breaks.
All of this is witnessed by Holmes's administrative First Sergeant, Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster), a model soldier who recognizes his boss's myriad weaknesses, and who pursues Holmes's unhappy but sexually promiscuous wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr).
Meanwhile, Prewitt finds an ally in Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), a carefree soldier who runs afoul of Staff Sergeant of the Guard James "Fatso" Judson (Ernest Borgnine), who sadistically tortures prisoners sent to his stockade. Angie and Prewitt visit the New Congress Club, a brothel in the novel changed to a much tamer gentleman's club for the movie. Prewitt becomes infatuated with Lorene (Donna Reed), one of the many hostesses, who's in the game only to earn enough money to buy a house for her mother and find a rich husband back in Oregon.
As the big boxing tournament approaches, Holmes dials up the pressure, but hothead Prewitt stands firm, eventually earning the admiration of the circumspect, judicious Warden.
Though From Here to Eternity is mainly remembered for its superficial elements: elicit romance on the cusp of war, it primarily explores the soul-killing price its characters are willing or not willing to pay to secure a little comfort, a compelling but uncommon theme in films of this type, certainly in early postwar movies about Army life. Warden puts up with an insufferable boss because he's comfortable where he is and despite Karen's urgings refuses to apply for a promotion (he hates officers) where he could actually do some good. She's in a loveless marriage yet unwilling to give up the security it provides. Lorene degrades herself only as an investment in her future. (Major Spoiler:) The only two characters unwilling to budge, unwilling to compromise their values don't make it to the end of the picture. (The film also has a lot of wonderfully ironic foreshadowing, such as having the boxing tournament scheduled for mid-December 1941, an event the audience realizes will never be held, making the importance Holmes attaches to it all the more meaningless.)
Watching it again I was also surprised to discover that it runs just under two hours. Probably I was remembering TV airings when the film would run in a two-and-a-half or even three-hour time slot, but seen straight through it's amazingly compact and to the point yet never feels rushed or its characters abbreviated.
Partly that's due to the subtlety of Lancaster's and Clift's characters and the actors' performances. Lancaster in his scenes without Kerr has very little dialogue yet expresses volumes with subtle facial gestures and minimal body language. Most of his growing admiration of Clift's character is expressed without words. Clift, meanwhile, is full of surprises, reacting to his unpardonable mistreatment, his growing feelings toward Lorene, etc. in ways that are unexpected but emotionally honest. His tensions, like Lancaster's character, are mostly internalized yet the audience always knows exactly what he's feeling.
Kerr and Reed are okay but less successful. Hollywood regarded Kerr as a prim and proper Englishwoman when in fact she apparently was a fairly bawdy Glaswegian. She manages such an authentic American accent that as a teenager, when I first got into movies and saw several of hers I wasn't sure what her nationality was. Presumably Reed's part was heavily rewritten to ensure a Production Code seal, so maybe it's not her fault that her character is the least convincingly real though by 1953 standards it's still pretty gutsy, and easy enough to read into what she's really supposed to be playing.
DVD Savant, remarking on the film's distillation of the novel, notes, "my parents, watching it on television once, thought they remembered a scene where Ernest Borgnine really did beat up on Sinatra. Maggio's delivery to the sadistic Sergeant Judson is so well staged that viewers have no trouble imagining visuals for the 'missing' book chapter." Me too, Glenn.
Sinatra's pride-swallowing lobbying for the role of Angelo paid huge long-term dividends, but his performance is really no more impressive than, say, Borgnine's or even Ober's, the longtime character actor (and then-husband of I Love Lucy's Vivian Vance) being impressively scurrilous. One almost instantly hates that bastard.
Sinatra's supposed casting at the, ahem, "request" of mobsters was one of several myths surrounding the film's production. Another, perpetuated as recently as the shamefully dishonest film Hollywoodland (2006), is that George Reeves, as Sgt. Maylon Stark, one of Karen's ex-lovers, originally had a much larger role, but that when preview audiences recognized TV's Superman nearly all his best scenes were lost to the cutting room floor. In fact all of the footage featuring Reeves is in the finished film, it's just a small but interesting part.
Video & Audio
The full-frame, black and white presentations of From Here to Eternity impresses. Detail is so good one notes Lancaster's and Kerr's freckles during their iconic if implied sex-on-the-beach scene. The added clarity also adds to the authenticity and appreciation for the filmed-on-location Hawaii scenes, particularly in seeing a Hawaii not far removed from what really existed in 1941. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is an even bigger surprise, the oomph of the audio really jarring when in the final act the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the surround of the explosions and gunfire really make that come alive. There are no less than eight audio options (English, Parisian French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Castilian and Latin American Spanish) and 24 subtitle options (adding Arabic, Mandarin, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish). My Japanese player required a firmware update and revealed hidden Japanese menu screens. The disc itself is region-free.
Supplements are mainly ported over from earlier home video incarnations and include an audio commentary featuring Tim Zinnemann (Fred's son) and actor Alvin Sargent, who has a small role; "The Making of From Here to Eternity, and a brief excerpt from "Fred Zinnemann: As I See It." What's new is a picture-in-picture supplement called "Eternal History." It's technically impressive but also one of those bells-and-whistles extras that might have been better reworked as a stand-alone featurette. It's not a favorite way of looking at material like this.
An excellent, adult drama duly given First Class treatment from Sony, From Here to Eternity is well served on Blu-ray and Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.