James Jones’ acclaimed, best-selling war novel From Here to Eternity became one of Hollywood’s most anticipated films in the 1950s. Set in 1941, the film follows the men and women at Schofield Army Barracks in Honolulu. Newly assigned to base, boxer and bugler Robert “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) butts heads with Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) by refusing to represent the company in a boxing competition. Prew’s friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) has his own contretemps with sadistic stockade Sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) starts seeing the captain’s lonely wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who has a reputation for affairs, while Prew begins falling in love with social club hostess Lorene (Donna Reed). Unbeknownst to anyone, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor looms in the distance.
Many considered the book unfilmable, because it presented a negative view of the U.S. Military, whose cooperation was necessary to make any war movie. The book also had a homosexual subplot that would never get past censors, so it was naturally dropped from Daniel Taradash’s film script. Finally, the military would not like to have it widely known that soldiers frequented prostitutes (Lorene’s profession in the book), so the brothel became a social club and Lorene a hostess. Reed’s performance, though, makes it very clear what kind of business she was in. James Jones hated the movie version of his book for the way it sanitized the sex, downplayed the military privilege and softened the violence. Audiences, however, didn’t mind and made it one of the most successful films of the decade.
Even with many justifiably famous scenes, the film succeeds entirely because of its perfect casting. Lancaster had only made lightweight pictures before, and this film turned him into a manly superstar. Clift gives one of the best film performances of the decade, and Kerr utterly shattered her lady-like image as the unabashedly sexual Karen. Like Kerr, Reed played against type as the delusional Lorene and gives the best performance of her career. Borgnine is a huge presence, literally and figuratively, dominating every scene he is in. Finally, director Fred Zinneman cast Frank Sinatra against all prevailing wisdom in Hollywood (his career had stalled), and the film reignited Sinatra’s career and established him as a first-rate actor.
Initially reluctant to make the film, Zinneman felt that anything that cast any doubt over such institutions as the Army, the Navy or the FBI was just asking for trouble in the 1950s climate of McCarthyism. While it seems tamer today than other war movies that have followed it, From Here to Eternity represented a new kind of frankness in popular dramatic films. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, it won 8 Oscars for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Supporting Actress (Reed), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Black-and-White Cinematography, Sound, and Film Editing. Also nominated but not winning the awards were Lancaster and Clift (both nominated as Best Actor), Kerr (Actress), Music and B & W Costumes.
- by Jonathan Lewis
(OTHER NOMINEES: Julius Caesar / The Robe / Roman Holiday / Shane)