“This outfit they can give back to General Custer.”
James Jones’s 1951 novel of military life in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor — “From Here to Eternity” — has been filmed twice. The most recent version is a 1979 six-hour television mini-series starring such luminaries as William Devane, Steve Railsback and Roy Thinnes. The reasons for making this version, as for so many more-recent remakes, probably included such considerations as the more liberal climate of the times that would allow a more realistic presentation of Jones’s fairly raw story and the usual assumption that newer is always better. Unfortunately for the producers, they were trying to remake one of the true classics of American film, so failure was virtually guaranteed.
What they were up against was Columbia’s 1953 production From Here to Eternity, which, considering the strictures of the day, was a brilliantly adapted and acted version of Jones’s novel. Shot on location in Hawaii over a 41-day period and costing $2 million, the film went on to gross $18 million (tenth highest of the 1950s) and won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), and Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed).
After a lengthy waiting period, Columbia has now finally made From Here to Eternity available on DVD in a fairly pleasing edition.
Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt finds himself assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Part of the reason for his reassignment to this particular base is the expectation of his new commander (Captain Holmes) that Prewitt will box for his new outfit. Prewitt, however, refuses to cooperate as he has given up boxing after almost killing an opponent in the ring. Prewitt soon finds himself subjected to extra duty and punishment for imagined offenses in an effort to get him to change his mind. Angelo Maggio, one of the soldiers in his new outfit, befriends him.
While Captain Holmes is the nominal head of the Barracks, Sergeant Milton Warden handles the actual running of the outfit. He views Holmes with disdain and when Holmes’s wife comes to the base one day looking for her husband, Warden makes his interest in her plain. Soon thereafter, he visits her at her home and they arrange to meet again later at the beach.
Meanwhile, on a pass to town, Prewitt meets Lorene who is a prostitute at a local brothel and the two fall in love. Maggio makes an enemy of Fatso Judson, sergeant of the stockade, and Warden breaks up a fight between the two. Judson, however, vows that Maggio will suffer if he ever ends up in the stockade.
One night soon thereafter, Maggio deserts his post while on guard duty, is caught, and sentenced to the stockade. There, Judson treats him brutally until one night he manages to escape, but dies as a result of the injuries inflicted by Judson. Prewitt takes revenge on Judson, but is injured himself and makes his way to Lorene’s apartment.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor precipitates events that resolve the relationships between Lorene and Prewitt, and Karen and Warden.
Given the time of the book’s appearance — 1951, a film version of “From Here to Eternity” was considered almost impossible due to the moral issues and aspects of prostitution and adultery that it contained. When Columbia Pictures decided to proceed anyway, it faced two difficulties — placating the Breen Office (the major film censorship authority of the day) and obtaining the cooperation of the U.S. Army given the book’s rather unsympathetic portrait of that organization. Actually, dealing with the Breen Office wasn’t that difficult. Many things would have to go, but Hollywood was by this time well versed in how to make changes that seemed to be in the spirit of what the Breen Office wanted, but actually were quite transparent as to what was really meant. Thus, having a script that had Prewitt and Maggio visit a dance club instead of a brothel satisfied Breen, but everyone watching the film knew it was a brothel and Lorene was no simple escort girl, but plainly meant to be a prostitute. Dealing with the Army also proved not to be quite the hurdle expected for the Army knew the film would be made one way or the other. It might as well be with its cooperation in which case it would have some say. The arrangement in the end seemed to satisfy both sides. Columbia got the authenticity of having real army locations while the Army was able to prevent a major hit to its public image. For example, Fatso’s brutality is made out to be a personal thing rather than indicative of conditions in army stockades in general. Captain Holmes is forced to resign from the army in the film, while the book had him being promoted instead.
From Here to Eternity appeared mid-way through roughly a nine-year period during which director Fred Zinnemann explored, through his films, a number of themes relevant to American society in the middle of the twentieth century. Most of the films during this period had a contemporary setting, but several reached into other eras to make a point pertinent to more modern times. The idea of being true to one’s own conscience, for example, was at the core of both the western High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity. Two of his later films — A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Julia (1977) — would mine similar ground, also to good effect.
It has been suggested that in terms of actors, Zinnemann was “Hollywood’s greatest democrat” for he was able to draw excellent work from all members of his casts regardless of their acting styles and backgrounds. From Here to Eternity is a fine case in point. Montgomery Clift (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt) was a Method actor; Burt Lancaster (Sergeant Warden) was a mixture of athleticism (à la Errol Flynn) and toughness (such as Bogart and Cagney); Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes) was a British stage actress; Frank Sinatra (Angelo Maggio) was a musical performer with no dramatic experience to speak of; and Donna Reed (Lorene) was a polished product of the studio system. All contribute substantially to making From Here to Eternity a prime example of film-making at its best and they do so by working from their individual strengths. Yes, the large differences in their approaches to the material as driven by their acting backgrounds is quite evident in the film, but the differences are never divisive. The actors’ work fits together seamlessly and that must be entirely attributed to Zinnemann’s command over and presentation of the material.
While all the actors’ work is worthy of in-depth discussion and some has been made much of (the fact that Sinatra, for example, had his career resurrected by doing the film after agreeing to a screen test for which he paid himself — and no, he didn’t get the role because a horse’s head was placed in Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s bed), I’d like to single out Donna Reed’s efforts. It’s true that she was recognized by the Academy for her role, but retrospective evaluations of the film often overlook her contribution. She certainly was not Zinnemann’s choice for the part of Lorene, but Cohn insisted. On the surface, she didn’t seem right; her image was too wholesome to expect to be able to accept her as a club hostess (or prostitute), which is why presumably Zinnemann was not keen on her to start. But the proof was in the pudding, and Reed made it look effortless. She was completely believable as an alluring club hostess with a cynical side that shows her to be a gold-digger simply trying to accumulate enough to go back to the mainland where she can pursue her destiny to marry rich and live happily ever after. Her other side, that of the loving girlfriend (which she becomes as she and Prewitt fall in love), was easy to project as it played to her past film experience. Her most effective scene is the film’s last one in which she and Karen meet on board a ship returning to the mainland. There’s something deeply disturbing about her fiction of Prewitt being a bomber pilot killed in the first Japanese strike and one can almost believe from the look on Reed’s face that mentally, she’s close to being over the edge. Overall, her work is a finely layered performance that Reed never quite managed to approach again.
Given the length of time (it seems like several years) that’s passed since we first heard mention that From Here to Eternity would be released on DVD, one would have expected that Columbia would have been able to coax an absolutely outstanding transfer out of the existing elements. This is not an outstanding transfer, but it is very nice and one presumes that Columbia has done the best that is possible. The black and white film is correctly presented full frame in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, not anamorphically enhanced as stated on the packaging. Although visited by nicks and speckles from time to time, the image is clear with generally deep blacks and clean whites. While a fair amount of grain is present, shadow detail is very good. Edge enhancement is non-existent.
The audio is the original mono track and has been nicely reproduced. There’s nothing stunning, as one might expect, but the dialogue is clear with no age-related artifacts and the action scenes in the film’s final reel sound quite effective. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese versions of the mono track are included as are Columbia’s usual extensive selection of subtitles.
Given the wait for this film and given the film’s excellence, I found the supplements a little thin. There is an audio commentary by Fred Zinnemann’s son, Tim Zinnemann, and Alvin Sergeant, an actor with a small part in the film. The talk is fairly interesting although neither speaker is greatly animated. The focus is more on production and casting details than actual analysis of Zinnemann’s shooting decisions, as one might expect given the speakers’ backgrounds. There’s a short featurette on the making of the film, but it’s a studio puff piece that’s over before you know it and really gives you little information that you’re not already aware of. A short excerpt from a documentary called “Fred Zinnemann: As I See It” has some interesting comments from Zinnemann himself, but it too is brief. It would have been a good decision for Columbia to have included the whole documentary instead of the fragmented bits that were chosen. Selected filmographies for the cast and filmmakers, the film’s original theatrical trailer plus trailers for two other Columbia war films, and two pages of production notes on the insert pamphlet round out the disc.
From Here to Eternity was one of the top films of the 1950s and it stands up completely, almost 50 years after its first release. Key to its success is a marvelous screenplay and excellent ensemble acting, all orchestrated to perfection by director Fred Zinnemann. The disc transfer is not perfection, but it is quite nice and given the time Columbia has apparently devoted to it, I give the company the benefit of the doubt that it has coaxed the best possible result out of the elements it had to work with. On the other hand, given the time it took, we have a right to expect a better effort on such an important film’s supplementary material.
The court finds the defendant not guilty, for all eternity. Case dismissed.