A landmark film. One of the great hits of the 1950s, with an all star cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine. One of the things that makes the film legendary is that it contains some of the best screen moments of that astonishing cast: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing on the beach, Sinatra’s Maggio dying in Prewitt’s arms; Prewitt on the trumpet playing through tears at Maggio’s funeral, Fatso’s sadism, more evil for being so unaware and perfectly embodied by Borgnine. With the the exception of Donna Reed — whose TV super-stardom in The Donna Reed Show superseded the meanings her persona accrued here — these are roles the cast would continued to be remembered for even up to now.
There are many legends that accrue to the film: how Joan Crawford dropped out over a silly dispute regarding her wardrobe; what Frank Sinatra had to do to get this role: Did he make an offer that couldn’t be refused? Was there a horse’s head under Harry Cohn’s sheets. However he got the role, what he did with it became one of show-business’ legendary come-backs. His work remains terrific.
The shot on the beach, which you can see below, marked an era. It was considered shocking partly because Deborah Kerr is on top, and remains amongst the sexiest embraces ever filmed.
The film is tightly directed: every shot counts; and it remains emotionally affecting, partly through always siding with the underdog (Di Maggio, Prewitt, the prostitutes and adulteresses of this world), partly through evoking the depths of unhappiness that love can bring, such as in the beautiful scene below.
The film also offers more spectacular pleasures, again unusual in that it focusses on male bodies in various states of undress, such as Burt Lancaster below:
and Burt Lancaster in motion is always a joy to watch, like everybody’s idealistic embodiment of G.I Joe, at least if that were any longer a possibility:
David Greven, commenting on the initial posting of this piece, argues that, ´There are many things to recommend this movie, but for me it has always been about Clift primarily and his absolute and utter integrity as an actor. Sinatra lends fine support and is indeed probably better than any other time, but Clift is the mesmeric centre of this film´.
And perhaps it´s true that he deserves more attention here. In her review of the film, Pauline Kael writes, ”Montgomery Clift´s bony, irregularly handsome Prewitt is a hardhead, a limited man with a one-track mind, who´s intensely appealing; Clift has the control to charm –almost to seduce — an audience without ever stepping outside his inflexible, none–too-smart character’. She sees the conflict between (Prewitt´s) status and his determination to have his rights (as) the mainspring of the action, and later argues that Prewitt´s fate gets ‘buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift´s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster. It was almost as if the public wanted to forget Prewitt´s troublesome presence’ (5001 Nights At The Movies, p. 204).
One could, however, see this in a different way, as David Thompson perceptively does in his review of the film. It´s not that Prewitt´s fate gets buried, it´s that ‘this complicated romantic story is so wonderfully aimed at December 7, 1941. The sudden collapse of urgent personal stories in the name of war is what is most impressive about this picture, and most true to the mood of 1941. In a world war, millions of ordinary people put their lives on hold. In turn, the quality that a nation brings to its war is exemplified in part by the stubbornness of Prewitt and Maggio and the expertise of Sergeant Warden in getting things done. …Definitive popular cinema, (p.314, Have You Seen….)
Clift is divine in From Here To Eternity, with some unforgettable moments. He´s beautiful and affecting in everything he does, and the trumpet scene is gorgeous and moving, And Prewitt is indeed the mainspring of the action, his inability to bend is what sparks everything. But Lancaster is undoubtedly the centre of the film narratively, structurally, and he too has two unforgettable moments, both which I´ve included here. The love scene on the beach (obviously) but also the moment in the car with Kerr where they talk of the unhappiness their love brings them, which is just lovely. There´s also a thing about film acting, about embodying, rather than traditional notions of acting, the way his body is used, when he bends down to kiss Kerr say, or when he breaks the bottle to take on Fatso, that are superb and under-appreciated.
Everyone agrees Clift is great in this, a legendary performance. There are now several books about Clift and he is widely considered one of America´s greatest actors. Elisabetta Girelli, for example ,sees From Here to Eternity as a film that ‘crowns the peak stage of Clift´s stardom’ (loc 1851 Kindle, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star) and offers a fascinating queer reading of the film based on Clift´s performance and the film´s uses of his presence. If indeed the praise for Lancaster and Sinatra upon the film´s first release buried Clift´s achievements, this is certainly no longer the case. Indeed, I find that critics and scholars (though not audiences) find it harder to appreciate what Lancaster brings, which to me is just as great albeit in a different way. He always embodied and always performed for an audience, and as his career developed he learned to also *act* a character: all of those things are entwined but each is also a distinctive aspect of what a screen actor brings to film drama. And one of the things that distinguishes this film from so many others is how marvellous all of the leads are, each in a different way, as, for example, the way Kerr looks as she says she´s never felt that way before. Superb.
The film also succeeds in dramatising a solution to real contradictions. The army is horrible throughout; sadistic, petty, punitive; until Pearl Harbour, where everyone heeds the call to arms, even at the cost of their lives. It’s a lovely film that well evokes passion, sadness, various kinds of love, including depths of non-sexual feeling men can really have for each other. It’s a rare film in that every kind of coupling is defeated, most of our heroes die, love is impossible. But of course everything important alters once war begins: everything changes then, and thus perhaps now has a renewed resonance.
The set-piece of the bombing of Pearl Harbour remains spectacular. The scenes leading up to it, with Zinnemann cleverly putting characters in front of dates (the 6th) or names (Pearl Harbour) subtly lead up to that moment. It’s a film where rhythm and pacing have been carefully through through. Everything’s measured, including the explosions: here, it works.
It’s a beautiful adaptation of James Jones, probably much better than the book deserves, and miles above the TV mini-series with Natalie Wood and William Devane.
The film won the award for Best Film and Zinnemann, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Oscars. Burt Reynolds won the New York Film Critics’ award. One of the great hits of the era, with the shot of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach embracing through the tide one of the most famous in the history of cinema.