First things first… Great googly moogly! Burt Lancaster was a stud!
*ahem* Now, where was I? Oh, yes…
This film is a gritty and raw look at the lives of soldiers serving on the island of Oahu in 1941 and the women they love. The events of this story culminate with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The story begins when bugler and career soldier Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to the rifle company at Schofield Barracks. The company captain, Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober), knows that Prewitt is a talented boxer and wants him to join his regimental team with the hope that a winning boxing squad will secure his promotion. But Prewitt refuses, having stopped fighting over a year ago after he accidentally blinded his sparring partner.
But Holmes won’t take no for an answer and begins making life miserable for Prewitt, hoping that he will give in. The other non-commissioned officers (all part of Holmes boxing team) join in bullying, demeaning and punishing Prewitt every chance they get. And although Firsr Sgt. Warden (Lancaster) isn’t part of Holmes scheme, Prewitt’s only real friend is Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra).
Meanwhile, Warden begins an affair with Holmes’ neglected wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). It puts that famous “kiss on the beach as the waves crash” scene in a different light when you know it was adultery. As their relationship develops, Karen relates that Holmes has been unfaithful to her most of their marriage and because of his infidelity and drunkenness she miscarried resulting in her being unable to bear any more children. She wants him to apply to become an officer so she can divorce Holmes and marry him. Warden is reluctant but agrees to file the paperwork.
When not on base Prewitt and Maggio spend their leave at the New Congress Club, a gentlemen’s club where Prewitt meets and falls for Lorene (Donna Reed). But she’s hesitant to get involved with a private because she wants to marry a “proper” man with a “proper” job and live a “proper” life.
When December 7, 1941 arrives the bombing of Pearl Harbor is dramatic and striking. It’s shot with a stark intensity and isn’t just there for dramatic effect. It plays a key role in how the rest of the story unfolds.
The deftly-crafted script holds together from start to finish. The characters are complex and well developed. The novel by James Jones gets a lot of the credit for that. But the performances really bring it to life, especially Montgomery Clift.
Clift is the most remarkable actor in a best picture since Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola). Muni won the best actor Oscar while Clift lost to box office megastar William Holden for his work in Stalag 17.
Clift had a brief but remarkable Hollywood career. He made only 17 films over 18 years. Four would be nominated for best picture and Clift would receive 4 best actor nominations himself along the way. He never won which is unfortunate because in my opinion he was one of the greatest film actors I’ve ever seen. Like his contemporaries Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift was one of the original method actors who trained under Lee Strasberg.
From Here to Eternity was nominated for 13 Oscars and that night at the Pantages Theatre it would win eight. While the leads, Lancaster, Kerr and Clift went home empty-handed, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed did not.
It was the only time Donna Reed would ever be nominated for an Oscar. But her television legacy is secure with the success of her popular (and aptly-named) show, The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966).
Frank’s legacy as an American icon certainly is secure but I don’t think he gets the acting credit he deserves. Later in his career he was basically just playing a version of himself but before that he did some good work in films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Guys and Dolls (1955) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) a performance that earned him a Oscar nomination for best actor.
After two straight years of head-scratching best picture winners From Here to Eternity is a refreshing return to thoughtful and well-executed film making.