Saturday, June 18, 2011



After the disastrous choice of THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH the previous year, the Academy righted itself by awarding Fred Zinnemann's well made and well acted military drama FROM HERE TO ETERNITY the best picture of 1953; it was also an enormous box office hit.  It's hard to believe now, but for some time the idea of making a movie out of James Jones's novel was considered impossible.
The novel was published in 1951, and it was a big best seller.  But it was also so laced with profanity, sex and violence that many people in Hollywood thought that Columbia studio head Harry Cohn was crazy for buying the rights.  But he continued, hiring first Jones himself to adapt his own novel, and then replacing him with veteran screenwriter Daniel Taradash, who created a script that could pass muster with the production code: obviously, the profanity was thrown out, the violence became more implied than shown, a brothel became a nightclub (and the prostitutes became "hostesses"), and the overall sexual tone of the novel was toned down (although this film is about as sexy as a Hollywood movie could be at that time!).  Finally, so that a less negative light was thrown on the military, a corrupt officer is court marshaled in the film, when in the book he is promoted.  While Taradash's Oscar winning script occasionally lapses into soap opera territory, (especially in its depiction of an adulterous affair)and maybe has one character too many  give a speech outlining their back story, it is still intelligent and well written, and shows that adult material could be made under the production code in the right way.   Along with writing the script, Taradash also convinced Cohn to hire Zinnemann to direct.
The casting, which lead to more than one fight between Zinnemann and the studio (he threatened to leave the film unless Montgomery Clift was given the role of Robert E Lee Prewitt),  is just right in every part, from main players Clift, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (cast against type in a sexy role) to supporting actors Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra, who's career was at a low point, lobbied hard for the role of Angelo Maggio, and may have even offered to pay for it!  It nearly went to Eli Wallach, but he chose to do a role on Broadway instead.  In Mario Puzo's 1969 novel THE GODFATHER(and in the 1972 movie of that novel) Puzo clearly implied that Sinatra was given the role because he had friends in the Mafia who pressured the studio, but these rumors have never been proven.  In any event,  Sinatra would turn out to be perfect for the part, playing a character that seemed written for him (that is, a boozy womanizer with a good nature but a hot temper) and the film's success, and the Oscar he won for best supporting actor, made him a star again.

Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra

The film's story takes place on a military base in Hawaii in 1941, and it focuses mainly on two men, Sergeant Milton Warden (Lancaster) and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift).  Prewitt, who is new to the company, is a bugle player and former top flight boxer who gave up boxing after he blinded a friend while sparring.  His new commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes(Philip Ober), wants him to box for the company, and when he refuses, Holmes orders his men to break Prewitt by targeting him for the worst kinds of physical labor, but he still refuses.  Meanwhile, Warden begins to have an illicit affair with the wife of Holmes(Kerr).  All of these problems are swept to the wayside when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor (which Zinnemann shows in a striking mix of new footage and actual war footage).
The most famous scene in the movie is, of course, when Kerr and Lancaster make love on the beach while waves literally crash around them, and, after decades of far more graphic sex scenes, it still seems hot and passionate today.  I think this partly is because of it's context (here is a Sergeant who is risking everything to have an affair with his commanding officer's wife!) and partly because of the excellent chemistry between the two leads: when they first meet in an earlier scene, the sexual tension between them is almost palpable even without them touching.  It should also be noted how unusual the Deborah Kerr character is; here is a woman who has had more than one affair, but who nonetheless is likable and sympathetic, as it clear that she is reacting to her husband's own drunken infidelities.

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr

Although the beach scene  may be what the film is best remembered for, I think its strongest element is Clift's performance; along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift would come to define "cool" acting in the 1950's.  Like those two often did, Clift here plays someone who is tough but tender, frequently silent and brooding, and who is capable of quick sudden acts of violence when necessary.  Clift reportedly took the role very seriously, learning how to play the bugle and box (although, some what inevitably, his bugle playing would be dubbed over, and a body double was often used for him during his fight scene), and his intensity raises the entire movie.  He believably plays a character who can, at one moment play a tearful reverie for his dead friend Maggio, and then in the next hunt down the man responsible for Maggio's death and get into a knife fight with him. 
Other strong points for the film is Zinnemann's decision to shoot it in stark black and white (cinematographer Burnett Guffey won an Oscar for his excellent use of light and shadow), and to make it on location at the Shofield Barracks in Hawaii.  Most importantly, Zinnemann keeps the story believable,  moves it along briskly, and effectively shows how the entire world changed for these characters after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  All in all, I think this film earns its status as a classic.


Obviously, I consider this a worthy movie, and although other fine films like SHANE, ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE BIG HEAT came out that year, I think this is the clear winner for that year.