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From Here to Eternity: Best Picture, 1953

fromheretoeternityposter.jpgThe 26th Annual Academy Award ceremony was dominated by From Here to Eternity, one of the most financially-successful and critically-acclaimed films of its decade. It received 13 nominations, the most of any film since 1939’s benchmark Gone With the Wind. They were: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Actress (Deborah Kerr), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Sound, and Best Costumes.

Best Picture competition included the light romantic comedy Roman Holiday, Cinemascope biblical epic The Robe, and iconic western Shane. The Best Actor Oscar went to William Holden for Stalag 17 (who reportedly felt that the award should have gone to Lancaster, I think Clift’s performance is equally deserving) and the Best Actress Award was given to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. Roman Holiday also took Best Costumes, while Best Music went to Lili leaving From Here to Eternity with the remaining 8 (also the most Oscars won since Gone With the Wind).

The film is based on a book of the same name by James Jones. The story was considered by many to be completely unfilmable because of its criticism of the military, which would need to support any serious production with hardware and so forth. As a result, the content of the novel was toned down (as much to pass the rigors of the Production Code as to appease the army), and the fates of some major characters reworked. The result, happily, doesn’t feel watered-down to anyone who hasn’t read the source material. Quite the contrary, even over 50 years later it still feels edgy and powerful.

The story follows a number of characters stationed at an army base in Hawaii in the weeks leading up to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. There’s Sergeant Warden (Lancaster), the ultra-efficient right-hand man to Captain Holmes who finds himself carrying on a torrid affair with Holmes’ neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Then there’s Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), a proud, stubborn bugler who transfers in from another base after his old commander gives an inferior bugler pride of place in the corps.

Prewitt, a former boxing champion who accidentally blinded a man in a fight, immediately faces pressure from Captain Holmes to join the base’s top-notch boxing team. If he cooperates, he stands to gain preferential treatment and rapid promotion, but his staunch refusal to fight gets him nothing but trouble and constant persecution from the other boxers (all of whom are non-commissioned officers). Finally there’s Frank Sinatra, in the role that single-handedly breathed life back into his dying career, as Private Maggio, whose hot temper and high spirits threaten to cost him everything unless he can keep them in check, especially when he begins a feud with Sergeant Judson (Ernest Borgnine), the sadistic warden of the stockade.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is perhaps one of the most frequently and poorly exploited American historical events in fiction, but From Here to Eternity handles it skillfully by not drawing undue attention to foreshadowing or becoming distracted by the excitement of larger forces coming into play. As evidenced by its five acting nominations, top-notch performances by a magnificent cast are this film’s strongest assets. The story has several subplots, but they interact with and flow into each other in a way that feels natural rather than compartmentalized. In fact, we become so drawn into the private struggles and triumphs of our heroes that we are almost as ignorant of the imminent disruption as they are when it arrives. They have no reason to think of it, so neither do we. What an ambitious undertaking, to attempt to recreate some the surprise and shock of the attack for an audience that is already extremely familiar with how events unfold (this film being released a mere 12 years later).

From Here to Eternity is full of great moments, and it delicately manages to avoid being either anti-military or jingoistic. It is a great story of human courage, passion, evil and folly set on the eve of an even greater tale of the same, and I grow more impressed with it during each subsequent viewing. This is landmark cinema, much-loved on its release, but with a somewhat lower profile today than similar successes such as Gone With the Wind. That’s a shame. It deserves recognition.

In my opinion, this was the right pick for Best Picture. Roman Holiday is cute, but formulaic. The Robe was, in many ways, a gimmick movie, blowing a large budget on lavish sets and costumes, rich technicolor (From Here to Eternity is in black and white), and the brand new wide-screen Cinemascope technology. Shane is a hallmark of its genre, and a lasting classic, but (with a slight prejudice against westerns) I feel From Here to Eternity still tops the list.

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~ by Jared on November 3, 2007.

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