For those who tend to consider "Oscar bait" as a strictly contemporary term, it's not very hard to go back in Hollywood history and find serious, "prestige" pictures that would be their equivalent at the time. From Here to Eternity is a perfect example of early-1950s Oscar bait, with the added realisation that what passed for "prestige", adult filmmaking then was a lot more solid and less cynical than its contemporary equivalents. But the continued popularity of Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of James Jones' novel, and its undoubted importance in the Hollywood production of the time, shouldn't hide the fact that From Here to Eternity is no masterpiece.
In fact, it isn't one precisely because of its importance in 1953: Mr. Zinnemann's naturalistic, unobtrusive handling may push the boundaries of what was acceptable in classic Hollywood melodrama, but wasn't as innovative or intense as what other, younger directors, such as Elia Kazan, were doing at the time. And its cohabitation of "classic" and "modern" film acting styles - Montgomery Clift's brooding intensity and Burt Lancaster's all-American charm - suggests a "bridge" film between the past and the present, alluded to in the structuring of the script, alternating between Mr. Clift's "rebellious", individual integrity and Mr. Lancaster's rock-solid "company man". After all, From Here to Eternity opened in between A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and the same year as The Wild One - and while its then-shocking scene of Mr. Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing passionately in the Hawaiian waves helped push the boundaries of Hollywood screen sensuality, there's also a sense that Mr. Zinnemann never truly solves the underlying tension between past and future, between a more traditional drama of love and loneliness and a more novel character study of man lost in society.
Columbia wanted a first-rate prestige picture to justify its investment, the director fought to shoot it in black and white, pushing the limits of what a Hollywood studio would accept; yet, the parallel tracks of the film's two key plots are almost mirror images of the "struggle" between them. The secret affair between Ms. Kerr's disenchanted, barren officer's wife and Mr. Lancaster's lifer sergeant is the stuff of classic melodrama; the suffering of Mr. Clift's scarred soldier at the hands of his commanding officer's henchmen, an individual ready to lay his life for an ideal but unwilling to sacrifice his integrity for the glory of others, fits right into the general post-war disillusionment and anguish at a time when "they never had it so good", and is extended by proxy into Frank Sinatra's easy-going but unlucky buddy. Mr. Clift's haunted, intense performance seems to belong wholeheartedly to another film, especially since the film's tragic ending, as life in this Hawaiian barracks is finally changed for good with the Pearl Harbor bombardment that catapulted the US into WWII, suggests that this was not the time for individualism. Ten years later, as From Here to Eternity was produced and released, though, its time had come, and the film remains crystallised in between.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash, from the novel by James Jones, From Here to Eternity
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey (b&w)
Music: George Duning
Art director: Cary Odell
Editor: William Lyon
Producer: Buddy Adler (Columbia Pictures)
USA, 1953, 118 minutes
Screened: 4K digital restoration advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, June 7th 2013