From Here to Eternity (1953)

Kerr and Lancaster
Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr

'From Here to Eternity' is a dramatic movie made in 1953, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Borgnine. The movie deals with the lives of soldiers stationed on an U.S. army base in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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It was originally known as 'Cohn's Folly' due to the supposedly 'unfilmable' nature of the original book but Columbia chief Harry Cohn was not put off making a movie out of James Jones' epic novel which was bought for the movies for a very cheap $82,000. The task of condensing the lengthy novel, of almost 900 pages was given to Daniel Taradash, an excellent screen writer with a good track record.

Cohn's judgement was vindicated on Academy Awards night when his movie tied with 'Gone With the Wind' with eight Oscar wins, including Best Picture, Best Writing and Best Director as well as supporting awards to Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed. When the movie opened in New York in August, 1953 it received rave reviews from the critics and became the second highest grossing film of 1953 and one of the ten highest-grossing films of the decade.

Notwithstanding the famously iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling and smooching in the Hawaiian surf, Fred Zinnemann's version of James Jones's best seller is a somewhat modified affair. Although the language, the sex, and the violence were considerably toned down to appease the censors, the focus on adultery, prostitution, corruption, and sadistic bullying ensured that 'From Here to Eternity' was welcomed as an unusually adult.

With the passing of time, the film's sensationalist elements have come to feel less daring, and it's the vivid performances of its starry cast that now stick in the memory. Lancster is the principled but pragmatic sergeant Warden. Montgomery Clift is Prewitt, the bugler new to the barracks (whose conscientious refusal to box for his platoon's team provokes prejudicial treatment by the officers), and Frank Sinatra, well cast as his friend Maggio, picked on by obnoxious stockade sergeant Fatso (a memorable Ernest Borgnine).

Inevitably, perhaps, in this deeply 'masculine' study of rugged courage and individual honor in conflict with the conformist expectations of the community at large, the actresses fare less well. Eenglish rose Kerr is just slightly self-conscious as a sultry American adulteress, and Donna Reed plays a dancehall whore passed off as a 'hostess'.

Zinnemann probably wasn't quite right to direct such fare. A rather meticulous crafsman who progressed from modest but reasonably efficient fillers to rather self-consciously 'significant' films, he was here at what would prove a turning point in his career. The Oscars meant he could go on to more conspicuous 'quality' films, but this movie might have benefited from a less cautiously 'realistic' touch. After all, it's really a melodrama, and a touch of lurid expressionism would not have gone amiss. That said, the film is good on the dynamics of bullying, on officers conveniently turning a blind eye to misdemeanours, and on the prejudices that infect any closed group. Plus he did get terrific performances out of his legendary cast of actors. And after that roll in the surf barracks life would never seem the same again.

Main Cast

Burt Lancaster ... Sgt. Milton Warden
Montgomery Clift ... Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt
Deborah Kerr ... Karen Holmes
Donna Reed ... Alma 'Lorene' Burke
Frank Sinatra ... Pvt. Angelo Maggio
Philip Ober ... Capt. Dana Holmes
Mickey Shaughnessy ... Cpl. Leva
Harry Bellaver ... Pvt. Mazzioli
Ernest Borgnine ... Sgt. 'Fatso' Judson
Jack Warden ... Cpl. Buckley
John Dennis ... Sgt. Ike Galovitch
Merle Travis ... Sal Anderson
Tim Ryan ... Sgt. Pete Karelsen
Arthur Keegan ... Treadwell
Barbara Morrison ... Mrs. Kipfer


Director ... Fred Zinnemann
Producer ... Buddy Adler
Written by James Jones (novel)
Screenplay ... Daniel Taradash
Music ... George Duning
Cinematography ... Burnett Guffey
Editor ... William A. Lyon
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date ... August 5, 1953
Running time 118 min

Academy Awards

8 Wins:
Best Picture ... Columbia Pictures
Best Director ... Fred Zinnemann
Best Supporting Actor ... Frank Sinatra
Best Supporting Actress ... Donna Reed
Cinematography ... Burnett Guffey
Film Editing ... William Lyon
Sound Recording ... John P. Livadary, Columbia Sound Director
Writing (Screenplay) ... Daniel Taradesh
5 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Montgomery Clift
Best Actor ... Burt Lancaster
Best Actress ... Deborah Kerr
Costume Design ... Jean Louis
Music (Scoring of a Dramatic Picture) ... Morris Stoloff, George Duning