Think of a great romantic drama set in Hawaii in 1941 that culminates in the Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet. No, wait; you're thinking of the wrong movie. I'm not talking about the mediocre "Pearl Harbor." I'm talking about the superb, 1953 Academy Award-winning "From Here to Eternity."
Thanks to a taut script and a letter-perfect cast, "From Here to Eternity" is simply one of the best romantic dramas ever made. And don't just take my word for it. The movie won eight Oscars, appears on the American Film Institute's Best 100 Films list, and makes the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 films, meaning that quite a few people within the movie industry love it and quite a few members of the general public love it as well. Now, I only bring this up because if you weren't already familiar with the film and you had only my word for its worth, you might not believe that an old black-and-white, non-widescreen, monaural film could stand up so well to today's more glamorous whiz-bang productions. Well, it not only stands up, it knocks over most of its present-day competitors.
OK, admittedly not everyone is going to warm to this picture. In fact, it may be more of a guy's idea of a romantic film than a woman's. Based on the best-selling novel by James Jones, "From Here to Eternity," the book, was an uncompromising look at men dedicated to duty over love. It was thought, in fact, that the novel could never be filmed because of its sex and profanity, not in the early fifties, at least. And the same thing applied to Jones's 1962 companion novel, "The Thin Red Line," in the early sixties. But Columbia's Harry Cohn bought the screen rights to "Eternity," in any case, and hired screenwriter Daniel Taradash to clean the story up. Jones wasn't too happy with the sanitized result, but the American public loved it.
Then Cohn brought in Fred Zinnemann to direct, a filmmaker hot off the hit Western, "High Noon." Next, they brought in the actors: Burt Lancaster, everybody's choice; Montgomery Clift, a controversial choice that Cohn at first wouldn't go for until Zinnemann said he wouldn't do the film without him (Cohn wanted Aldo Ray); Deborah Kerr; Donna Reed; Frank Sinatra; and Ernest Borgnine. Each would turn in a stellar performance that stands up to the closest scrutiny today.
The plot deals with two interrelated love stories, neither of which makes its male participant appear very mature. The first character we meet is Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift), a stubborn hard case who loves the army just about more than anything in the world. He's a bugler and boxer, but the boxing he gave up when he hurt an opponent in the ring. When Prewitt refuses to join his new company's boxing team, they give him the "treatment," harsh lessons to coerce him to fight. While all this is going on, he falls in love with a local dance hall "hostess" (OK, prostitute), Lorene (Reed), who is trying to earn enough money to go back to her small town in Oregon and become "safe" by marrying a proper gentleman. Prewitt is none too smart, but with Clift in the role audiences find him irresistibly appropriate. Maybe it's because he's so noble and so determined to do what he believes is right in his heart, whether it's refusing to box or loving a tart.
The second male lead is 1st Sgt. Milt Warden (Lancaster), described by one of his friends as "the best soldier I ever saw." Lancaster is old-fashioned movie-star handsome, with old-fashioned movie-star screen presence. He practically runs the company for its weak-kneed, womanizing commander, Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober). That's when Warden meets Holmes's neglected, promiscuous wife, Karen (Kerr), and they begin an affair of their own. You've all seen the famous beach scene, with Lancaster and Kerr embracing on the sand as the waves crash over them. Pretty racy in its day and still a good romantic setting. But you're liable to find Warden a bit of a hypocrite when he gets jealously mad at Karen for her past indiscretions with other servicemen. I mean, he clearly knew about her past going into the relationship, so his show of petulance seems misplaced, to say the least.
The intertwining subplot is no less absorbing than those of Prewitt and Warden. It involves Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Sinatra), another hard head, in a conflict with "Fatso" Judson (Borgnine), the quietly brutal Sgt. of the Guard at the base stockade. Sinatra had to practically beg for the part at a rock-bottom price because by the early fifties his career was in a slump. After winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he never had to look back. If you're familiar with "The Godfather," you remember a similar incident involving a crooner and a film role. I doubt that Sinatra had to resort to horse's heads in producer's beds, but he apparently did everything else he could to land the part.
The movie is basically a romance, but the script never lets it get soggy or sentimental (except, perhaps, in the closing scene). It's a pleasure to watch Warden manipulating the Captain and showing his machismo: "OK, Fatso, if it's killing you want, come on!" It's good to see Kerr and Reed playing "bad" girls for a change. It's reassuring to see Prewitt fighting the "treatment," never giving in, never allowing his opponents the satisfaction of his quitting. It's even fun to watch Sinatra having a high old time goading the bully Borgnine. What's more, the supporting cast includes a bevy of fine players: Jack Warden, George Reeves (television's Superman), Claude Akins, Mickey Shaughnessy, Joan Shawlee, Harry Bellaver. Writing, acting, and direction all make this an absorbing piece of filmmaking.
Columbia TriStar's DVD transfer is good but maybe not perfect. There is no indication that this is a restored print, but rather it appears to be a good archival print. The picture quality is a little grainy, with occasional white age flecks in evidence. The black-and-white contrasts are mostly excellent, and definition is adequate.
As for audio, well, it's Dolby Digital monaural, meaning it projects a good, clear, natural midrange, which is about all the soundtrack has to offer.
As for special features, there is one that stands out. It's an audio commentary with Tim Zinnemann, the late director's son, and Alvin Sargent, who worked with Zinnemann on the movie. They provide a wealth of inside information, making this a commentary you'll definitely want to listen to. Next, there are two brief featurettes, about nine minutes of excerpts from "Fred Zinnemann: As I See It," a series of Zinnemann's home movies on the set of "Eternity," as well as interviews, and about a two-minute piece called "The Making of From Here To Eternity." Then, there are filmographies, a booklet insert of production notes, twenty-eight scene selections, and three theatrical trailers, one for "Eternity" and ones for "The Guns of Navarone" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai," besides. These studios are getting pretty savvy about trailers, advertising their other products at home now just as they do in the motion-picture house. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are offered as spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai as subtitles.
The year 1953 saw Hollywood desperately begin trying to lure audiences away from their newfangled television sets by offering up spectacular widescreen color productions. Columbia took a gamble on "From Here To Eternity" by making it the old-fashioned way, in black-and-white and standard screen. The result was that it became one of the highest-grossing films of the decade. What's more, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Reed), Best Screenplay (Taradash), Best Black & White Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), Best Film Editing (William Lyon), and Best Sound (John P. Livadary). Furthermore, it was nominated for two Best Actor awards (Clift and Lancaster), plus Best Actress (Kerr), Best Costume Design (Jean Louis), and Best Music (Morris Stoloff and George Duning). It's still a hard picture to resist.