In surveying the options in my mental vending machine for an appropriate beginning to this post, nothing in particular stood out to me other than to simply say I enjoyed this film. I didn’t love it. However, there is something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on, kind of like Olivia Williams’ allure in Rushmore. But despite not feeling over the moon for From Here to Eternity, it still managed to pull me in just enough to be entertained, which I know by saying that makes it seem as though the lyric in Smells like Teen Spirit is directly referencing me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t settle down to watch this film like some jaded, entitled teenager waiting to be entertained now. But to me, From Here to Eternity seemed like a product intended to be consumed primarily for its entertaining qualities. It’s a fairly soapy portrait of life in the army that plants seeds into some complex terrain, without waiting around for them to bloom. While the script certainly puts the spotlight on many grave and thorny subjects; but with a script stuffed full of multiple mini-narratives each demanding their own dramatic structure, the film simply doesn’t have the luxury of time to plunge too deeply into any one plot with memorable satisfaction. The irony in saying this is that I’m sure for its time, audiences considered From Here to Eternity’s treatment of topics like adultery, prostitution, corruption and murder to be edgy and fearlessly examined. To be of the opinion that the film doesn’t feel complete and thorough is perhaps a product of being raised on modern-day cinema where just about anything goes. Ultimately, I think what lifts the tide of From Here to Eternity are the all-around strong performances by everyone from the lead to the periphery players. Given their task of acting against such divided screen time, the cast felt like a band of overachievers, making the most of the moments they do have, even if it’s just a fleeting kiss on the beach.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also helmed other noteworthy films such as High Noon and A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity caused an instant sensation with audiences and critics alike. Even the Academy caught the fever, honoring the film with an amazing 13 nominations, eventually awarding it eight statuettes, including the one for Best Picture in 1953. As further evidence of the film’s roster of solid performances, From Here to Eternity compiled five acting nominations for its leads Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, with the latter two taking home the Golden Boys in the Supporting Actor categories. To date, the only other films to boast the achievement of garnering five acting nominations among its overall tally are Mrs. Miniver, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Peyton Place, Tom Jones, Bonnie and Clyde, Network and The Godfather, Part II.
Meanwhile, First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) initiates a clandestine and tense love affair with Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his boss Captain Holmes. The passion travels deep, but Warden also harbors a deep suspicion of Karen, upon hearing rumors of her past promiscuities. Confronting Karen on these rumors, Warden learns that Karen’s drive to cheat is fueled by bitterness toward her husband and his drunken actions that caused her to miscarriage years earlier, leaving her unable to have children. Wounded souls in their own way, both Warden and Karen struggle throughout the film to develop sincere trust and assurance in the stability of their relationship, ultimately picking it apart at the seams.
Finally, in a somewhat less central plotline, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) becomes Prewitt’s scrappy pal, a move born out of his disgust toward the mistreatment directed at Prewitt over his refusal to box. Unpredictable and hot-headed, Maggio becomes entangled with James Judson, the Sergeant of the Guard at the stockade, one night at a local watering hole over Judson’s piano playing. Their escalating conflict culminates with Judson basically beating Maggio to death during his stint in the stockade. In an act of revenge, Prewitt confronts Judson in an alleyway, fatally stabbing him.
As evinced from this plot summation, there is a lot going in From Here to Eternity. While I would say there is ranking of interest level amongst the various characters and plotlines, I wouldn’t go so far as to say none of them were compelling. When the film bounds from conflict to conflict, they each confidently grab the baton and sustain the film’s overall momentum. However, as mentioned earlier, to me each of these adventures never feel fully realized. For example, the affair between Karen and Warden could have sustained an entire film by itself. It’s an interesting situation fraught with competing emotions of anger, confusion and love, spiked with suspense generated by the danger that Karen is the wife of Warden’s vindictive and corrupt boss. Further heightening this risk to Warden is the fact that Karen is completely open with her husband, Captain Holmes, of the fact that she is having an affair, which serves to ignite the cuckold Captain’s demands to discover the identity of the mystery man.
However, due to the film’s obligation to spread the wealth of time and attention to the other characters and their conflicts, Karen and Warden’s affair only hints at its potential for dramatic fireworks. It basically assembles the explosives, sets up the fuse and retreats from ever sparking it. Captain Holmes’ jealousy and wounded pride never voyage beyond the shallow, ultimately blunting the situation of its natural edge. Even the ultimate resolution to the whole affair felt unbelievable and contrived for the sake of narrative convenience. After much discussion, Karen and Warden decide the only way they can be together is for Warden to become an officer so that he can return to the mainland, paving the way for the two of them to marry. But Warden can’t bring himself to apply for officer status, given his dislike for officers and intense anxiety at the potential for becoming what he disdains, a move that effectively cleaves the two apart. I couldn’t buy into this line of reasoning because if Warden really disliked officers that much, then how is he able to serve them in an administrative capacity without any hesitation? Furthermore, the impression given is that Warden holds his contempt towards officers on moral grounds. But for someone who has no problem entering into a morally treacherous affair with his boss’ wife, it becomes overly difficult to loan moral credibility to Warden on the issue concerning his stance on becoming an officer. Given the luxury of more time, I think the film could’ve have explored and resolved Karen and Warden’s affair with a more effective alternative, as opposed to the tenuous option that played out.
Despite these faults, I will say the iconic scene of Karen and Warden on the beach in concentrated embrace as the surf brushes up over them discharges an undeniable passion. It’s interesting that this scene should be so effective, given that it is literally only a few seconds in length. At the time, it was apparently highly controversial. Censorship officials insisted that Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster not touch each other in certain ways, and Kerr had to wear a short skirt over her bathing suit. In the final iteration of the scene, the censorship office found objection with the element of water rushing up over them during their embrace, citing that it was too erotic. Obviously these objections didn’t prove to be too intense, as the surf remained intact in the finished product. However, I have no idea how Burt Lancaster's haircut made it past any censorship boards. It looks like they cut his hair with a weed eater and then combed it with a chicken bone before letting him go on set.
Favorite Line: During one of their tense conversations, Karen and Warden have a brief exchange that, although somewhat cheesy, is the finest of the film.
Warden: I’ve never been so miserable in my life as I have since I met you.
Karen: Neither have I.
Warden: I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
Karen: Neither would I.