In this landmark film, passion and tragedy collide on a military base as a fateful day in December 1941 draws near. Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is a soldier and former boxer being manipulated by his superior and peers. His friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) tries to help him but has his own troubles. Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Deborahh Kerr) tread on dangerous ground as lovers in an illicit affair. Each of their lives will be changed when their stories culminate in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Big novels often morphed into big movies during Hollywood's heyday, and 'From Here to Eternity' was one of the biggest of its time. Though initially dubbed "Cohn's folly" after Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn paid a tidy sum for what many considered to be a too-hot-to-handle property, this all-star adaptation of James Jones' bestselling opus about life on a Hawaiian army base in the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor proved all the doubters wrong when it became a critical and popular sensation upon its release in the summer of 1953. Seamlessly combining grit, brawn, romance, and a climactic aerial assault, 'From Here to Eternity' dazzled audiences and won a whopping eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), and Best Screenplay (Daniel Taradash). The film also helped usher in a new era of adult-themed motion pictures that pushed the boundaries of censorship, challenged the sanctity of American institutions (in this case, the U.S. Army), and realistically depicted complex human relationships. Sure, the script severely waters down the novel's raciness, crudity, and violence, yet it maintains the tough-minded tone and core thematic elements that make the story so involving. And maybe that's why this bona fide classic continues to impress and move us six decades after it first stormed onto the screen.
Forget Michael Bay's bloated epic about the attack that finally sucked America into World War II; though 'From Here to Eternity' concentrates on character, values, ideals, injustices, and interpersonal couplings instead of detailing the history and impact of the monumental event, Zinnemann's film paints a far more accurate portrait of life and duty in the days leading up to December 7, 1941 than Bay's by-the-numbers blockbuster treatment. Jones was stationed near Pearl Harbor and experienced the attack firsthand, which lends his novel a rare authenticity, and Taradash's script - along with extensive location shooting in Hawaii - deftly reflects the realism that pervades his prose. Zinnemann's understated style also suits the material well, shrinking the tale's broad scope to an intimate level, thus enhancing emotional resonance. Prior to 'From Here to Eternity,' military dramas and soap operas were mutually exclusive, but the supremely talented Zinnemann manages to blend the two into a cohesive whole, giving the movie universal appeal and coining a style that would be endlessly copied, but rarely equaled.
And then there's that classic beach scene. Who knew a single shot of the Hawaiian surf cascading over the interlocked bodies of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster (see cover art above) would test the tolerance of the censors and immediately become one of the most iconic images in all of cinema history? Though the sequence instantly identifies the film and cements its romantic status, it doesn't define it. The theme of a lone wolf standing up against the establishment and sticking to his beliefs at great physical and emotional cost is what truly distinguishes 'From Here to Eternity,' and the message gains even more power when viewed in the context of the time, when the country was still gripped by the McCarthy witch hunts, and criticisms of any government entity were tantamount to treason.
That lone wolf is the newly demoted Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a transfer from the esteemed Bugle Corps, who's assigned to serve at Schofield Barracks under the arrogant, unscrupulous Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober). Obsessed with the championship interegimental boxing team he coaches, Holmes pulled some strings to snag Prewitt, whose reputation as a top-class middleweight preceded him. Yet Prewitt refuses to join the team for personal reasons (which become clear later), much to the chagrin of his commanding officer, who authorizes the company's sergeants to give the recalcitrant private "the treatment," a punitive going-over that includes bullying, extra duty, and other forms of abuse. Prewitt, however, refuses to buckle under the constant strain. "A man don't go his own way, he's nothin'" is a line Prewitt lives by, and it applies to other characters as well, most notably Prew's best buddy, Angelo Maggio (Sinatra), whose cocky, street-wise attitude and disregard for authority get him more trouble than he bargains for, and Captain Holmes' right-hand man, Staff Sergeant Milton Warden (Lancaster), who enters into a passionate and risky affair with Holmes' neglected and bitter wife, Karen (Kerr). Prew also finds love and comfort in the arms of Lorene (Reed), a stuck-up "hostess" with a heart of gold in a USO-type social club - in the book, she's a prostitute in a whorehouse - who longs to leave her tawdry existence behind and become "proper."
Despite the story's anti-military slant, the movie was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Army, which only demanded a couple of script changes before endorsing the project. Zinnemann and Taradash reluctantly agreed to the alterations, and the army seal of approval goes a long way toward validating the on-screen action. After years of shamelessly laudatory propaganda films produced during World War II, it's refreshing to see such a warts-and-all portrait of a military body, which is depicted here as a mini totalitarian state where absolute power corrupts absolutely and integrity is only valued under optimal circumstances.
Zinnemann wisely adopts a straightforward cinematic style, allowing the story to tell itself, and concentrates instead on the actors, all of whom assert themselves admirably. All five principals earned Oscar nominations (that's quite a feat!), and it's a shame Clift didn't win for his stoic yet sensitive portrait of the hard-headed Prewitt. An actor with the same blistering intensity and broad range as Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift is a magnetic presence who gets under the skin of his characters, exposing their heart and soul in a measured, understated manner. His work here ranks among his best, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else as Private Prewitt.
Lancaster plays the macho Warden well, and generates plenty of heat with Kerr, who at the time was cast against type as the adulterous Karen. Hers is a passionate performance, filled with spirit and heartbreak, and it forever changed the course of her career, instantly shattering her patrician good girl image and allowing her to graduate to more dimensional and challenging roles. Contrary to myth (perpetuated by author Mario Puzo in 'The Godfather'), Sinatra did not win the part of Maggio because the mob placed a severed horse head in Harry Cohn's bed. The actor-singer, who had hit rock bottom professionally, lobbied incessantly for the role and offered to do it for nothing. After a screen test he financed himself, Sinatra got the job and was paid a paltry $8,000 for his services, but his resulting success (and subsequent Oscar) completely revitalized his career, which never went south again.
A (relatively) young Ernest Borgnine makes a notable impression as "Fatso" Judson, the sadistic stockade sergeant who harbors a grudge against Maggio, and Jack Warden, Claude Akins (in his film debut), and TV's original Superman, George Reeves, also appear in small parts. But aside from Clift, the most riveting presence in 'From Here to Eternity' is, surprisingly, Donna Reed, who sheds her perfect wife persona, spawned from the holiday classic 'It's a Wonderful Life,' and sinks her teeth into the pouty, haughty, yet deceptively vulnerable Lorene. Devoid of histrionics and affectation, Reed's nuanced portrayal is about as real and raw as they come, and certainly deserving of the Oscar it received.
Though there's not much war in 'From Here to Eternity,' Zinnemann's film stands as one of the great war films, for it depicts not only the attack on Pearl Harbor, but also - more importantly - the battle of the human spirit to maintain its integrity, follow its duty, and fight for its beliefs. Crashing waves notwithstanding, this is a substantive movie that earns its stripes, as well as its rarefied standing in Hollywood history.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'From Here to Eternity' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve. Five full-color, glossy, 4-1/2"-x-5-3/4" lobby card reproductions are tucked inside the case on one side, and the BD-50 dual-layer disc resides on the other side. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fans of 'From Here to Eternity' have waited patiently for its Blu-ray release, and will certainly want to ditch their previous DVDs once they take a gander at this high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. The biggest difference between this high-def rendering and the Superbit DVD is the pristine nature of the source material, which has been scrubbed clean. Gone are the multitudes of nicks and marks that littered the previous print, leaving a clear, vibrant image that sports excellent gray scale variance and a natural grain structure that enhances the film's realism. Black levels are rich and inky (just look at Lorene's lush gown in her opening scene), with only a hint of crush occasionally creeping into the frame's darkest recesses, and bright whites balance nicely against the neutral grays. Day-for-night sequences look especially well defined, and patterns, such as Karen's striped shirt and the checkerboard table cloth in her bungalow, remain rock solid and resist shimmering.
Gritty, naturalistic photography has always lent 'From Here to Eternity' a harsh, cold look, but clarity is still excellent, even in the rougher-looking exterior scenes. The detail in the Hawaiian shirts worn by the soldiers is striking, and close-ups are marvelously crisp, highlighting the male actors' rugged facial features and female leads' creamy complexions. Clift's double in the fight scene with Sergeant Galovitch is even easier to identify now, and the raindrops that douse Lancaster early in the film are sharp and distinct.
It's possible a bit of DNR has been applied to isolated shots, but if so, it's been done in such a judicious manner it's almost imperceptible, and no digital hiccups disrupt the film's smooth presentation. Without question, 'From Here to Eternity' looks better here than in any other home video incarnation, so an upgrade is essential for fans.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track also ups the ante aurally, providing superior sound, especially during the climactic aerial attack. Though only minimal surround activity could be detected early in the film, mostly in the ambient effect category, the assault sequence kicks the mix into high gear, with speeding planes soaring overhead and across the soundscape, lending certain shots a thrilling immediacy. The hefty rumble of bombs shakes the room, and rapid machine gun fire also gives the subwoofer a nice workout. Yet as much as the showy sounds shine, so, too, do the subtle nuances. The driving tropical rain, the sound of weeds being yanked out of the grass, even the hairbrush coursing through Kerr's blond locks all possess a distinct texture that adds essential atmosphere to various scenes.
The music, which runs the gamut from romantic, string-laden love themes and the lazy drawl of the folksy "Reenlistment Blues" to Fatso's sloppy piano tinkling and Prewitt's organic bugling in the bar, flaunts a high degree of fidelity and tonal depth, and thanks to a wide dynamic scale, distortion is never an issue. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and any age-related imperfections, such as pops, crackles, and hiss, have been meticulously erased. 'From Here to Eternity' may be 60 years old, but this crystal clear, well-modulated track often makes it sound much younger, and helps this classic motion picture relate to contemporary audiences.
All the extras from the 2001 DVD have been ported over to this release. It's not exactly a bounty, but some of the material is worthwhile.
With its multi-layered story, provocative themes, and stellar performances, 'From Here to Eternity' stands as one of Hollywood's most absorbing and finely textured productions. This Best Picture winner uses Pearl Harbor as a stunning backdrop for a tale that brims with emotion, vitality, and a rugged individualism that sets it apart from other movies of the period. Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, and Donna Reed all perfectly embody their roles and file nuanced portrayals that remain solid and strong six decades after the film's premiere. Though it took Sony far too long to release this Oscar-winning classic on Blu-ray, the top-notch presentation is worth the wait, with excellent video and audio transfers, a brand-new picture-in-picture track, and five collectible lobby card reproductions sweetening the pot. 'From Here to Eternity' may be best known for its iconic beach scene, but the crashing waves can't drown the film's spirit or the potent messages it transmits. Diehard movie buffs will surely want to add this first-class drama to their collections, and those who haven't yet experienced it are in for a treat. Highly recommended.