The Best Picture winner of 1953, From Here to Eternity, could have been a major failure. Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra were not known for dramas. Director Fred Zinnemann had to consolidate an 800-plus-page novel into two hours, and there were many unsavory topics in James Jones’s book to work around: adultery, STDs, homosexuality. The novel was massively successful the way James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific was a few years before; Michener’s was a lushly written account of war folk waiting on their remote islands for something to happen.
As a movie, From Here to Eternity embodies that same waiting feeling. This time it’s Hawaii, and they’re waiting for the war to begin. As early as 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, audiences and Oscar embraced movies that dared to cut against the grain of American patriotism. That film and Michener’s novel (and Broadway musical adaptation South Pacific) did not speak out against the armed forces, though. This time, Zinnemann was determined to keep James Jones’s critical viewpoint in the movie. He fought to shoot in black-and-white in a year when the first widescreen movie, The Robe, opened in vivid Cinemascope. He fought for Montgomery Clift, one of the dawning class of Method actors exploding on Hollywood. And he fought against censorship demands of the day.
The final result: From Here to Eternity is damning toward the Army, and slyly progressive in its depictions of male and female sexuality. We remember the movie best for Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s highly erotic affair. Their classic clinch in the sand is just one shot of a scene that lets both Lancaster and Kerr take pleasure from being sexual. Their dialogue has the wit of a Cary Grant comedy, and it lets Kerr acknowledge that, yes, she’s had many lovers, and she’s not ashamed:
Karen: Nobody ever kissed me the way you do.
Sgt. Warden: Nobody?
Karen: No, nobody.
Sgt. Warden: Not even one? Out of all the men you’ve been kissed by?
Karen: Now that’d take some figuring. How many men do you think there’ve been?
Sgt. Warden: I wouldn’t know. Can’t you give me a rough estimate?
Karen: Not without an adding machine. Do you have the adding machine with you?
Sgt. Warden: I forgot to bring it.
To add to the eroticism, the camera lingers over Lancaster’s barely clad, very fit body. Sgt. Warden is almost too good to be true—a gentle, joking lover with a beefcake build. But he suddenly becomes uncomfortable talking about Karen’s love life, realizing he’s having an affair with a woman who’s had other affairs. Karen handles his little masculine crisis with a bold retort: she lost a child, unable to get proper medical care in time, and she can’t have any more. Kerr is unflinching as she relays this. This is not a story she tells out of pity. We all have our baggage, Karen suggests, putting Sgt. Warden in his place for shaming her. Understanding how he can love Karen is a war he’ll fight with himself over the movie, and it’s a sticking point he can’t entirely overcome.
All five of our leads are, in their own way, outcasts. The movie feels empathy for all of them: they are trapped on this brash, restless island, damned to their fates. Sgt. Warden’s softer side comes out as he starts helping Montgomery Clift’s Prewitt, going against the commanding officer’s authority. Frank Sinatra’s good-time-going Maggio is bullied (and later, far worse) mainly because he’s Italian. Then there’s Donna Reed’s club girl. She’s not allowed to be a real prostitute, and her character feels incomplete compared to the others. Reed won an Oscar for her portrayal regardless, which I’d attribute to the frequent Oscar push for good-girl actresses toughening up for a role. But Reed does seem to understand the shallowness of her character’s square 1950s sensibilities. She’s only working in Hawaii to make money to take back to the States. Though her job forces her to cater to men, she knows she’s more independent here in Hawaii, before she returns to her mother and the country club and meets a respectable, ordinary man:
“Then I’ll meet the proper man with the proper position, to make a proper wife, and can run a proper home and raise proper children. And I’ll be happy because when you’re proper you’re safe!”
Finally, there’s Prewitt. The movie subtextually hints at Montgomery Clift’s gayness from start to finish. He’s a fish out of water in his new company, and his tenure consists of the other boys—mostly homogenous army hotheads—bullying him because he won’t join their boxing team. He’s described as cocky, but we don’t see that side. Clift is softer than the other men, sparsely emotive—and the camera seems to linger on his physical beauty.
At the club, he prefers the quieter company of Donna Reed’s hostess to the more ostentatious girls dancing on the floor. “Don’t tell me the princess is your style,” one girl says, which feels like a coded suggestion he’s not very hetero. He and Reed lack physical intimacy. Even in their scene in the parlor, when Donna Reed slips her earring back on, it’s suggested she pleasured him without receiving anything in return. “You don’t like weakness, do you?” she says to Prewitt. “No, I don’t like weakness, but I like to drink!” Prewitt responds, in a line that must have hit close to home for the actor. There’s something unknowable about Clift. Whether he is, he doesn’t seem to belong.
Why It Won
From Here to Eternity was the second highest-grossing movie of 1953. The major event of the year was The Robe, the sweeping Ancient Roman melodrama in stunning Cinemascope. The Robe represents all the things Zinnemann avoided in his movie: a lavish spectacle that’s uninvolving and overwrought. The central premise—what about the Roman soldiers present at Jesus’s crucifixion?—could have been interesting, and it started a slew of Roman toga costume dramas (many featuring Christ) that led up to Ben-Hur.
Zinnemann’s movie wasn’t as gimmicky or as shallow as The Robe. Among an excellent group of Best Picture nominees—rounded out by Shane, Roman Holiday, and Julius Caesar—it was the only movie that seemed to subvert its genre expectations. Shane started a new era for the Western, and now it feels like the template for every Western that followed. Director George Stevens was inspired by his own war experiences to give the shooting more realism. Alan Ladd’s gentle gun-slinging hero was a politer, more intelligent variant on John Wayne—like a hybrid of the personalities of Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River.
Roman Holiday feels like the original romantic comedy. Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted at the time and forced to forego his credit on the picture, wrote a screenplay that let Gregory Peck sweep Audrey Hepburn around Rome for a day. Hepburn and her pixie cut became a sensation. Then Julius Caesar was a handsome translation of the play that revolves around the competing performances—and acting styles—of James Mason and Shakespearean neophyte Marlon Brando. Both men could be unpredictable, mercurial actors, and the movie allows them to sink their teeth into Shakespeare with relish. Mason does impressively with the language, as does John Gielgud—the movie’s resident classical actor—and, again, Deborah Kerr. It’s another toga picture like The Robe, but it’s legitimate.
Surveying the rest of 1953, From Here to Eternity stands out among its peers. It was a transitional year where anything goes, and many of the movies we still watch were bright and colorful, musical, purely entertaining: The Band Wagon, How to Marry a Millionaire, Kiss Me Kate in 3-D, Mogambo, Calamity Jane. There were some lesser black-and-white dramas (Titanic) and a good dose of noir (the excellent Pickup on South Street, Niagara, Hitchcock’s underrated I Confess).
Best of class is the Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell charmer Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks. This scene alone deserves an Oscar… for costumes: