Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: From Here to Eternity (1953)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!  We're headed back to the repressed early 50s once again, for a look at director Fred Zinnemann's second of three Best Picture nominees, From Here to Eternity...

Based on the James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity is considered a romantic war film, centered around a Private named Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) stationed in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Prewitt gets transferred to a post on Oahu because the commanding officer Captain Holmes wants to add him to his boxing team, in the hopes that a strong showing will get Holmes noticed for a promotion.  Only problem is Prewitt has vowed never to box again after accidentally blinding a fellow soldier during a sparring session.  Holmes orders a series of cruel hazing rituals over several months, and Prewitt quietly endures it all.  Meanwhile Prewitt becomes close friends with fellow soldier Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra in an award-winning performance) and begins an odd romance with a social club girl (changed from a prostitute in the novel, due to Hays Code restrictions) named Lorene (Donna Reed), and the two try to decide if his military career will ever line up with her ambition to save up money and move back home to Oregon.  In a side plot, the base's Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) has a torrid affair with Captain Holmes's wife Karen (Hence the iconic image of Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach).  These numerous melodramatic threads intersect until the Pearl Harbor attack takes place in the film's climax.
In some ways the story reminded me of a prep school novel, with Prewitt suffering through the various forms of peer pressure and Maggio running afoul of a fellow soldier who turns out to be the stockade Sergeant (which of course pays off later in the movie).  The story beats struck me as often running parallel to stories like The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, and films like Dead Poets Society.  In terms of the romantic elements I think the Lancaster-Kerr romance works better than the Clift-Reed one, I found myself rooting for the former more than the latter.  With Lancaster and Kerr you get the sense they really get caught up in each other, while the Clift and Reed characters seem more like they're just looking for a sense of belonging and will take the first option that presents itself.  Maybe that's the point.

Overall I found the film engaging.  The performances are all strong, particularly Clift as the hard-headed Prewitt and Sinatra as the free-spirited Maggio (Sinatra gets multiple chances to show off his prodigious ability to play drunk).  Donna Reed's performance is effective in an exaggerated kind of way - her big scene involves revealing to Prewitt her plan to move back home and get a respectable job and a respectable house and a respectable husband - but doesn't reach the heights of her turn as Mary Bailey.  Burt Lancaster is the gruff but likable career soldier who tries to steer Prewitt in the right direction despite Prewitt's compulsion to always take the path of most resistance.  Deborah Kerr's character is initially presented as an icy man-eater but we learn early on why her marriage is such an unhappy one and why she seeks solace in Lancaster's arms.  There are some relatable arcs in this movie to be sure.

I wouldn't call the film an all-time classic, but it's a fine bit of 1950s melodrama with a very appealing ensemble cast, set against historical events.  It almost certainly influenced more recent movies like Titanic, Atonement, and of course Pearl Harbor.

I give From Here to Eternity *** out of ****.

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