Fifty Years Later, an All-star Service Drama Still Makes Waves


Celebrating its golden anniversary (and the 62nd coming of Pearl Harbor Day) with an excellent restoration, From Here to Eternity ponders the way of the American warrior. This quintessential service drama, set on an Oahu army base in late 1941, is an example of something that ended with The Godfather. The movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann from James Jones’s once sensational novel, is the transformation of a sprawling Dreiser-tradition bestseller, into all-star, character-rich Oscar-bait.

Contemporary audiences may not see why, even in its toned-down simplification of the novel, From Here to Eternity was the most daring movie of 1953, but it remains an acting bonanza—including Frank Sinatra’s notably focused comeback turn as the volatile Private Maggio and the cast-against-type perfs by Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. Burt Lancaster anchors the movie with his tough first sergeant; Montgomery Clift soars as the tragic company misfit Private Prewitt. The moment in which Prewitt blows a few bebop riffs on the bugle is a fanfare for himself. Nearly everyone gets a drunk scene and the adulterous Kerr-Lancaster clinch in the surf was the Eisenhower-era high-water mark of Hollywood sexual passion. (It’s fascinating that had Columbia boss Harry Cohn gotten his way and Zinnemann some of his druthers, the movie would have had completely other principals; this Bizarro World Eternity substitutes Aldo Ray for Clift, Edmond O’Brien for Lancaster, Joan Crawford for Kerr, Julie Harris for Reed, and most world-historically, Eli Wallach for Sinatra.)

Almost a disaster film, From Here to Eternity juggles a large cast, multiple romances, and a sense of impending doom all the way to the big Pearl Harbor blowout. It’s a bit anticlimactic after the catharsis of Prewitt’s impromptu prizefight, but it does ensure that the movie will provide nearly every emotion.

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