'From Here to Eternity': Pearl Harbor-Set Classic Much Too Timid

Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity
Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity
From Here to EternityDeborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster make love (top); Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra do a little (sorta) lovemaking of their own later on in the film (bottom).

Fred Zinnemann's 1953 Academy Award-winning drama From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra, will be screened by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wednesday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The presentation will feature the premiere of a new digital restoration, as well as an onstage discussion with Ernest Borgnine, who has a supporting role in the film.

Adapted by Daniel Taradash from James Jones' bestselling novel about intricate relationships at a Hawaii military base shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity was a major critical and box office hit upon its release. Joan Crawford had been cast as the female lead, but reportedly withdrew from the project following disagreements over her costumes. Although Crawford would have been great as the adulterous army wife, Deborah Kerr is flawless in the role. In fact, Kerr, somewhat cast against type, and Donna Reed, totally cast against type as the most stylish sex worker this side of Tonga, are the two best things about From Here to Eternity.

I remember watching From Here to Eternity right after Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, made two years earlier. I was surprised at how one movie could have dated so badly, while the other felt as fresh and as powerful as when it first came out in 1951. For unlike A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialogue, the relationships, and much of the acting in From Here to Eternity feels both calculated and disconcertingly old-fashioned.

Ernest Borgnine in From Here to Eternity

I'm sure that everyone involved in the film was bent on creating “adult entertainment” of the finest kind; the problem, however, is that apart from Kerr's and Reed's performances, Ernest Borgnine's sadistic sergeant (above), and Burnett Guffey's naturalistic cinematography, all that effort is too painfully obvious on screen. Even Montgomery Clift, who could be a highly effective actor, creates a mannered, superficial rebel-turned-conventional hero-soldier. (His drunken scene with Burt Lancaster is an embarrassment to watch.) Had From Here to Eternity placed its focus on the female characters – and to hell with all the military guys – it would have been a masterpiece. Too bad that didn't happen.

Now, would I ever tell anyone not to bother with From Here to Eternity? Much to the contrary. This pre-World War II melodrama is the kind of movie that every person interested in film or film history should watch at least once. And considering that the Academy will be presenting a restored print, it's quite possible that Burnett Guffey's already impressive black-and-white cinematography will look better than ever before. Or at least better than in the last four decades or so, when all those Hawaiian grey hues began losing some of their shades and contrasts. Additionally, the film offers Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed in top form – and Burt Lancaster does look good in swim trunks. In other words, From Here to Eternity is not to be missed.

The new digital restoration by Sony Pictures was made from the only original elements still in existence, the fine-grain master positive, which was scanned at 4K to create a new 35mm negative, and features a digitally restored original soundtrack.

Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity won Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture (Buddy Adler, producer), Directing (Fred Zinnemann), Actor in a Supporting Role (Frank Sinatra), Actress in a Supporting Role (Donna Reed, above, with groovy Montgomery Clift), Writing - Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), Black-and-White Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), Film Editing (William Lyon), and Sound Recording (Columbia Studio Sound Department, John P. Livandary, sound director).

The film also earned Oscar nominations for Actor (Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster), Actress (Deborah Kerr), Black-and-White Costume Design (Jean Louis), and Music - Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Morris Stoloff, George Duning).

By the way, Deborah Kerr lost the best actress Oscar to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Three days later, Kerr lost another show-biz match to Hepburn, who won a Tony for Ondine. (Kerr had been in the running for Tea and Sympathy.)

Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity

And I'm assuming everyone knows this story, but just in case: the whiny actor in The Godfather who gets a much-coveted film role after a Hollywood mogul gets his favorite horse's head in bed is – a creative representation of – Frank Sinatra making his comeback in From Here to Eternity. For a mere $8,000, Sinatra (above, playing soldier with Montgomery Clift) replaced original choice Eli Wallach.

For more information, call (310) 247-3600 or visit www.oscars.org.

From Here to Eternity images: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library.

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4 Comments to 'From Here to Eternity': Pearl Harbor-Set Classic Much Too Timid

  1. Andre

    Many thanks for your comments, Karen. Much appreciated.

  2. Karen Churn

    Andre, again, I'm a day late and a dollar short in reading your reviews. Being a Deborah Kerr fan, I recently purchased this film. I'd seen it before, but this time I really wanted to pay attention to all of the details. It is now one that I've watched three times in the last few months. I agree with you on the female performances. They were outstanding. It was refreshing to see both, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed, cast against type. I think that Fred Zinnemann was a genius with that decision. Not being a Joan Crawford fan, I think that this film would have been completely different had she played Karen. She was the queen of bad girls and, in this case, I think that she just would have been too old for the part. That late, great teddy bear Ernest Borgnine's “Fatso” gave me the chills every time he was on screen. He was absolutely menacing. I'm not really a Monty Clift fan either, however, there is one scene where he plays “Taps” in honor of Maggio that absolutely kills me EVERY time. I'd heard someplace that he actually learned to play in order for it to be authentic. I liked Burt Lancaster in this role. Holy cow! He rocked that military uniform! Everyone talks about the bathing suit, but , for me, it was the uniform that did me in.
    All in all, it is a great movie. I had a thing for “Streetcar” for years and watched it, again, recently. I have to admit that it didn't give me the same thrill as it did when I was a teen/young adult. I saw Ann-Margret play “Blanche” in the television version and I felt that her potrayal was beautifully nuanced and more heartbreaking than the lovely Miss Leigh's. I'm just sayin'. We all think that we can be serious critics sitting at home in our pajamas.
    Thank, again, for great writing on my all-time-favorite person in motion picture. I feel that we are so lucky have such easy access and can enjoy at our leisure the golden age of cinema.

  3. Graceann Macleod

    I have exactly the opposite reaction regarding Eternity and Streetcar. I find Streetcar absolutely unbearable, while From Here to Eternity is one that I return to again and again. Vive le difference :-)

  4. Edward

    Couldn't disagree with you more.
    From Here to Eternity is a GREAT movie. ALL the performances are GREAT, not just the women.
    I agree that the cinematography is GREAT just like EVERYTHING ELSE in this movie.
    From here to Eternity is one of the BEST MOVIES of Hollywood's Golden Age.
    One of the VERY BEST. It deserved EVERY Oscar it won. It should have won more Oscars, for Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift and for Deborah Kerr, too.