Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Eight


#28 — From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
Any film from the first part of the nineteen-fifties is going to seem tame when measured against the norms at play some sixty years later, so its advisable to remember that the beach make-out scene in From Here to Eternity became iconic, at least in part, due to its raciness. The various censorious powers-that-been offered a fleet of suggestions as to how to make the moment palatable, from having the two lip-locked lovers demurely stand up to slapping a nice, thick bathrobe across Burt Lancaster’s bank vault torso. There was also the serious suggestion that the scene was entirely unworkable and should be excised altogether. Director Fred Zinnemann conceded to plenty of other changes from the somewhat salacious source material, a 1951 bestseller of the same name by James Jones, in order to quell the worries of the self-appointed protectors of the fragile collective psyche of the nation. He stuck by the beach scene, though, maybe recognizing its potential as a defining image, maybe simply because it was one of the clearest ways to convey the tragic passion of the story. Regardless of why, he was correct to fight that fight. The veiled heat of that scene says a lot about the whole of the film.

Set at a Hawaiian military base in 1941, in the months leading up to the day that a batch of Japanese Zeroes cast into infamy, From Here to Eternity is sharply about the deglamorized toil of serving in the armed forces. Built with an episodic structure, the film gets at the loneliness and ache that comes with the constant insecurity of putting on a uniform when a nation is on the brink of global war, exemplified by the illicit romance between Lancaster’s first sergeant and the neglected military wife played by Deborah Kerr. That’s one of many little rebellions depicted in film, along with the refusal of a freshly transferred private (Montgomery Clift) refusing to participate in the base’s boxing team and the overall miscreant leanings of Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). In the deliberately raggedy, episodic storytelling of the film (Daniel Taradash is the credited screenwriter), many of these characters are ultimately killing time, trying to wait out their misery through different means. They don’t know precisely what greater problems are looming, but they have a clear sense that safety is an illusion. One of the feats of the film is the way Zinnemann manages to make the specific foreknowledge the audience holds and the more elusive dread felt by the characters such kindred, even identical, sensations.

Zinnemann balances the whole of From Here to Eternity expertly, especially as he shifts back and forth between storylines. He shows a similar, and perhaps even more valuable, ability to handle sometimes divergent tones, especially in the performances. Clift is at the height of his exploratory Method intensity, which is answered by Lancaster’s masculine ease and snappish authority. Frank Sinatra resides somewhere between the two, yammering excitedly at times but also content to slump into crooner cool. There are similar counterweights in the main actress roles, with the added friction that comes from casting against type, with both Kerr and Oscar-winner Donna Reed gently but decisively adding complexity and sexual boldness to their similar images of upright gentility. The diversity in acting approaches gives the film an welcome verisimilitude by aping the unpredictable dynamics of a community. When the bleakest turn of events comes, as it must, Zinnemann earns the melodrama because of the way he’s collaborated to make the people enduring it surprisingly real.

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