From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)


Fred Zinnemann’s muted chronicle of Pearl Harbor in the days before the December 1941 attack was made in 1953 and recalls The Best Years of Our Lives -— despite holding the opposite scenario —- without the depth. It isn’t hard to see why it received so many accolades. What’s most striking about it is its sense of naturalism, which at times is as sobering and magically poignant as what would be witnessed in some of Hal Ashby’s best work twenty years later.

Nevertheless, I can’t see the film as anything close to great cinema. With the exception of two short sequences — one on a beach and one involving a cigarette — Zinnemann’s visuals are unimpressive and uninvolving. If one makes the case that the film -— since it doesn’t have a linear story and covers the progress of several different characters —- is intended to be realism and not drama, I’m still stricken by what seems like the interest of the cast in the material and the lack thereof in the director. Someone could have done something outstanding with this; meanwhile, Zinnemann wastes creative energy on tangents, like those involving Ernest Borgnine as a cantankerous, anti-Semitic piano player, that seem futile.

Performances (especially that of Donna Reed as a skeptical prostitute) do make the film worth seeing. Montgomery Clift is believable as the nice-guy former boxer whose will for nonviolence is routinely tested until he ultimately breaks in hardly the most obvious fashion. Frank Sinatra is excellent as the smart but impressionable and ill-fated Angelo Maggio. Aside from Reed, the performance of the picture is that of Deborah Kerr, whose frustrated military wife is heartbreakingly convincing (and surprisingly carnal). Unfortunately, the pivotal role of Warden goes to the boorish Burt Lancaster, who never seems to discover what exactly he wants to do with the part and plays it annoyingly straight. He’s a romantic male lead in a film that doesn’t need one, and given how much more interesting Clift and Sinatra are, it’s an annoyance how much screen time Lancaster gets.

For such a sprawling film, From Here to Eternity is thankfully (relatively) brief (118 minutes). But it’s such a missed opportunity in so many ways. The script is about as good as they come for a film like this. With just a slightly greater amount of attention focused on making this a movie instead of an adaptation —- in other words, with a director better suited to the material —- this might have been worthy of its reputation. (And as much as I love Kerr in the Karen Holmes role, Joan Fontaine was approached for it, and that would have really been something.) Too often, there is a feeling (unfortunately true) that the story we are watching unfold has been diluted, to the extent that we want more, and we can’t have it.

People who loved the film in 1953 were probably praising it on grounds of how it reminded them of a soap opera novel they enjoyed. The film is a slick, pleasing, bold-strokes entertainment, but it has been wildly overrated. That said, the closing scenes of the Pearl Harbor attack have aged extremely well, as well as the tense moments that lead to them, cleverly signaled by offhand shots of calendars that recall Zinnemman’s focus on clocks in High Noon, and one thing’s for sure: they’re better than anything Michael Bay could produce given unlimited time and resources.

[Originally posted elsewhere in 2006, with slight modifications.]

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