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From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity
Columbia/Tristar Home Entertainment
1953 / B&W / 1:37 / 118m. / Street Date March 4, 2003 / $26.95
Starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober, Ernest Borgnine
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Art Direction Cary Odell
Film Editor William Lyon
Original Music George Duning
Writing credits Daniel Taradash from the novel by James Jones
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant has also reviewed the Superbit DVD of this title.

James Jones' drama of life for the Army on Oahu just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the best remembered postwar American movies. Columbia Pictures and Fred Zinnemann succeeded in bringing what was considered an unfilmable novel to the screen in a way that satisfied the toughest fans of the book; not since Gone with the Wind had a literary adaptation won such unanimous approval. From Here to Eternity had sex, violence, great acting, and an unkillable story about an event that every American alive considered central to his or her life.


Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to Schofield barracks, where the sports-minded C.O. Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) allows the non-coms to harrass him for refusing to step back into the boxing ring. Under wearying punishments and humiliations, Prewitt finds time to make friends with the amiable but foolish Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), another potential stockade bird who makes the mistake of getting on the wrong side of Sgt. of the Guard Judson (Ernest Borgnine). The tough but inwardly sympathetic First Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) manages to get Prewitt some passes into Honolulu, where he meets and falls in love with a 'hostess' at the New Congress Club, Lurene (Donna Reed). Prewitt's a hard case who just can't make things easy for himself, says Warden, even though Warden's foolishly pursuing an affair with his own commander's wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). As December 7 approaches, it's unclear who will still be in the service, or still be alive, to serve when the country goes to war.

From Here to Eternity not only gained the approval of the country at large, but had the endorsement of members of the armed forces who remembered how things were between the wars. The U.S. Army was still called the Jock Strap Army, because the depression had made willing recruits so numerous that the various corps could pick and choose their enlistees, and often did so on the basis of what would best fill out their interservice sports programs. Undersupplied and undertrained, and just marking time until the country needed them again, the enlisted men of even a beautiful outpost like Hawaii were treated like 5th-class citizens, unwelcome when on leave, and barely tolerated when on duty. Visit Hawaii now and you'll be astounded at how much of Oahu is set aside for military use. The colonial-concrete buildings and barracks seen in From Here to Eternity still stand, many purposely left pockmarked with battle damage as a reminder of the infamous attack.

For the Columbia Pictures, this is a monumental production. Using top talent, and mostly shot in Hawaii, the atmosphere of the beautiful islands comes through, even in black and white. A hot director thanks to High Noon, Zinnemann got his way on most of the creative decisions, especially the casting of Montgomery Clift, who is particularly brilliant as Prewitt, the hot bugler who doesn't know how to bend when he's being wronged. This might be the first Burt Lancaster role that isn't in a Burt Lancaster vehicle; he's truly good here, restrained from all of his action-movie histrionics, even though he does pop his characteristic grin every so often. Whether it was Zinnemann or not, somebody had the smart idea of casting two bonfide ladies to play the strumpet of an officer's wife, and the whore. Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed had reputations so elevated, the censors let them alone. The New Congress Club isn't much like it was portrayed in the book, but it's obviously no church social either.

This is of course the Frank Sinatra role that was said to be given him by mob pressure, probably a Hollywood myth. Joan Crawford supposedly had the Karen Holmes role sewn up, but blew it by making early demands and getting herself booted by a volatile Harry Cohn. She'd have been just the obvious sexpot who would have made the censors get picky with script.

The most amazing thing about From Here to Eternity is how darned efficient it is. In under two hours, you feel as if the entire scope of the book has been covered. Daniel Taradash's perfect adaptation knows just how to pace the scenes and what parts could be ellipsed: my parents, watching it on television once, thought they remembered a scene where Ernest Borgnine really did beat up on Sinatra. Maggio being brought before the sadistic Sergeant Judson is staged so well, it makes one picture the beating so clearly ...

Zinnemann just shows two lovers in the surf and is able to suggest hot sex in three cuts and an embrace, and yet get it by the censor. The knife fight in the alley is very realistic for the time, and also untouched by the blue scissor boys. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is sketched with just a few angles near the barracks, newsreels, and stock shots from John Ford's Navy films of WW2, which featured a few re-creations of the attack. Honolulu is represented by the clock tower by the main wharf, and the view of Diamond head from a walkway where you can still sit just where Lancaster did. How drunken and half-beaten soldiers are able to sneak from Honolulu to and from Schofield is something of a mystery, seeing as how they have to be 20 miles distant from one another.

Even though this was a 1953 film, the majority of the cast wasn't given screen billing. Memorable bits are covered by the likes of Claude Akins (one of the noncom boxers) Willis Bouchey & Carleton Young (colonels), George "Superman" Reeves (a sergeant friend of Warden), both Alvin and Jopeph Sargent, and the irrepressible Joan Shawlee (The Apartment) as a good-time girl. Somewhere in there as well is John Veitch, who later became the head of production at Columbia. A real veteran of Iwo Jima, we used to look at him in awe.

I'm not sure if there's a direct connection, but the conflict of personalities between Warden and Prewitt in this story is so much like those between the AWOL hero of The Thin Red Line and the sergeant played by Sean Penn, that I can't help but link the two stories, and the four characters together. Time to go search for some pocketbooks and find out what James Jones is really like in print...

Columbia/Tristar's DVD of From Here to Eternity looks fine, although I'm confused by the film's aspect ratio. 1953-55 were the years of AR confusion, what with formats breaking out left and right like cases of ... the measles. The best way to tell what aspect ratio was intended is to look at the opening credits, to see what shape the title text blocks follow. Here the main titles matte perfectly well on a 1:78 16:9 monitor, but when the show starts, it's definitely 1:37, no mistake. Fox cable television shows a CinemaScope promo filler that has a shot of a lobby display for From Here to Eternity that says 'now in widescreen' or something to that effect ... Savant is just guessing when he says that perhaps the titles were reshot for 1:66, and found their way back onto the flat feature later when transfer copies were made.

The transfer is just fine, clean, with particularly clear sound. Two little featurettes are included, that between them show the sexy beach scene about 4 times, which is three times too many. The bits of interview material with Zinnemann are welcome, but the two cuts are unsatisfying, relying on arbitrarily chosen clips.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
From Here to Eternity rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurettes
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 1, 2001

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