From Here to Eternity (1953): Zinnemann’s Star-Driven, Most Acclaimed Film

James Jones’s “From Here to Eternity,” a book about the public and private lives in an Army base, was a best-seller before Fred Zinnemann adapted it to the big screen in a mature, poignant, well-acted drama.
The film’s title derives from a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem “Gentlemen-Rankers,” about soldiers of the British Empire who had “lost their way” and were “damned from here to eternity”.
Daniel Taradash’s fine screenplay contains half a dozen sharply etched characterizations, including Burt Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden, an efficient but human officer; Clift’s Prewitt, an inner-directed man, guided by his own code of ethics; Frank Sinatra’s Maggio, the cocky but honest Italian-American soldier; Deborah Kerr’s Karen Holmes, the frustrated adulterous wife married to a weakling (Philip Ober), and Donna Reed’s Alma, a dance-hall hostess.
oth63xisudgZinnemann’s restrained direction was excellent, bringing to the surface the film’s issues, which, as the critic Pauline Kael observed, represented new attitudes on the American screen that touched a social nerve. “From Here to Eternity” is honest in treating career problems, personal frustrations, and most important of all, sexuality.  The erotically-charged beach scene with Lancaster and Kerr was highly daring and innovative at the time and is still interesting to watch; like other iconic images, it has been imitated and parodied to death.
Set in Hawaii prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the novel captures the essence of military life in all its complexity and detail, centering on the conflict between individualism, embodied by Montgomery Clift’s Private Prewitt, and rigid institutional authority, represented by the Army. Prewitt refuses to fight for the unit’s team despite promises for rewards and then pressures from his officer, having once blinded a man in the ring. A stubborn yet decent soldier, he admires the Army, but is unwillingly to compromise his notion that “if a man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin,'” which sums up the film’s message as well as director’s Zinnemann’s favorite cinematic theme.
p_14605.jpgIn 1953, “From Here to Eternity” was nominated for Best Picture along with two historical features, “Julius Caesar” and “The Robe,” George Stevens’s classic Western “Shane,” and William Wyler’s elegant comedy “Roman Holiday,” which made a star out of Audrey Hepburn.
Nominated for thirteen awards, the movie won eight, the largest number of awards for a film since “Gone with the Wind.” “The industry which voted the honors now merits an appreciative nod,” wrote the N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther with enthusiasm, having convinced his colleagues earlier to honor the film, director Zinnemann and actor Lancaster with the New York Film Critic Awards.
p_14607.jpgThe casting and acting by each member of the cast was perfect, partly due to the fact that Zinnemann rehearsed the entire film with props, an uncommon practice in Hollywood which gave the actors a sense of continuity. All five players were nominated, with Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift canceling each other out as Best Actors (the winner was William Holden for Billy Wilder’s prison drama, “Stalag 17”), but the film honored its two Supporting Actors, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed.

Detailed Plot

In the summer of 1941, bugler and career soldier Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to a rifle company at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu.

From_Here_to_Eternity_4_sinatraSeeking promotion, Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober) has heard he is a talented middleweight boxer and wants Prewitt, a middleweight boxer, to join his regimental boxing team. Prewitt refuses, having blinded his partner and close friend. Holmes is adamant, but so is Prewitt.

Holmes orders First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) to prepare court-martial papers after Sergeant Galovitch (John Dennis) first insults Prewitt, then gives an unreasonable order which Prewitt refuses to obey. Warden, however, suggests to get Prewitt to fight by doubling up on punishment; the other officers are part of the conspiracy. Prewitt is supported only by his friend, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra).

From_Here_to_Eternity_3_sinatraWarden begins an affair with Holmes’ neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), knowing that the penalty for their affair is prison sentence. Sergeant Maylon Stark (George Reeves) has told Warden about Karen’s previous affairs at Fort Bliss, including one with him. As their relationship develops, Warden tests Karen’s sincerity. Karen relates that Holmes has been unfaithful to, and that she had a miscarriage when Holmes returned home from a date drunk and unable to call a doctor, resulting in her being unable to bear children.

Prewitt and Maggio spend their liberty at the New Congress Club, a trashy place where Prewitt falls for Lorene (Donna Reed). She wants to marry a “proper” man with a “proper” job and live a “proper” life. Maggio and Staff Sergeant James R. Judson (Ernest Borgnine) nearly come to blows at the club over Judson’s loud piano playing, which interferes with Maggio’s dancing.

From_Here_to_Eternity_1_sinatraJudson provokes Maggio by taking the photo of his sister and kissing it. When Maggio smashes a barstool over Judson’s head, Judson pulls a switchblade, but Warden intervenes. Warden breaks a beer bottle to make a makeshift weapon, causing Judson to back down. Judson warns Maggio that he will end up in the stockade, where Judson is the Sergeant of the Guard.

Karen tells Warden that if he became an officer, she could divorce Holmes and marry him. Warden gives Prewitt a weekend pass to see Lorene. Maggio then walks in drunk, having deserted his post. The military police arrest Maggio, and he is sentenced to six months in the stockade where Judson is waiting.

From_Here_to_Eternity_Donna_Reed_4Sergeant Galovitch picks a fight with Prewitt, and the reluctant man resorts to only body blows. His fighting spirit re-emerges, and Prewitt comes close to knocking Galovitch out before Holmes stops the fight.  Holmes lets him off the hook and disperses the crowd, but the incident is witnessed by the base commander, who orders an investigation. Holmes’ motives are revealed, and the base commander orders a court-martial. When Holmes begs for an alternative, an aide suggests that Holmes resign his commission. Holmes’ replacement, Captain Ross (John Bryant), reprimands the others involved and has the boxing team’s framed photos removed. He demotes Galovitch to private and puts him in charge of the latrine.

Maggio escapes the stockade and dies in Prewitt’s arms after telling of Judson’s abuse. Prewitt tracks Judson down and kills him with the same switchblade Judson pulled on Maggio earlier. Injured seriously, Prewitt goes into hiding at Lorene’s house.

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and Prewitt tries to rejoin his company but is shot dead by a patrol. Warden notes the irony that the boxing tournament has been canceled because of the attack.

p_14610.jpgKaren finds out that Warden did not apply for officer training, she realizes they have no future, and she returns to the mainland with her husband. Lorene and Karen meet on the ship. Lorene tells Karen that her fiancé was a bomber pilot heroically killed during the attack, and Karen recognizes Prewitt’s name, but says nothing.

Oscar Nominations:
Picture, produced by Buddy Adler
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash
Actor: Burt Lancaster
Actor: Montgomery Clift
Actress: Deborah Kerr
Supporting Actor: Frank Sinatra
Supporting Actress: Donna Reed
Cinematography (b/w): Burnett Guffey
Costume Design (b/w): Jean Louis
Film Editing: William Lyon
Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Moris Stoloff and George Dunning
Sound Recording: John P. Livadary
Oscar Awards: 8
Supporting Actor
Supporting Actress


Oscar Context

In 1953, “From Here to Eternity” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with two historical dramas, “Julius Caesar” and “The Robe,” a romantic comedy “Roman Holiday,” and a Western, “Shane.”

Each of the five nominees received at least one Oscar, and “Roman Holiday,” 3, including one for Motion Picture Story, Ian McLellan Hunter, who served as a front for blacklisted Dalton Trumbo; Trumbo got his award in 1992.


Burt Lancaster as First Sergeant Milton Warden

Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt

Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes

Donna Reed as Alma “Lorene” Burke

Frank Sinatra as Private Angelo Maggio

Philip Ober as Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes

Mickey Shaughnessy as Corporal Leva

Harry Bellaver as Private First Class Mazzioli

Ernest Borgnine as Staff Sergeant James R. “Fatso”

Judson Jack Warden as Corporal Buckley

John Dennis as Sergeant Ike Galovitch

Merle Travis as Private Sal Anderson

Tim Ryan as Sergeant Pete Karelsen
Arthur Keegan as Treadwell

Barbara Morrison as Mrs. Kipfer

George Reeves as Sergeant Maylon Stark

Claude Akins as Sergeant ‘Baldy’ Dhom

Alvin Sargent as Nair

Joseph Sargent as soldier

Robert J. Wilke as Sergeant Henderson

Carleton Young as Colonel Ayres