Year of Release: 1953 Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Philip Ober, and Ernest Borgnine.
All three of Fred Zinnemann’s most famous movies contain protagonists who have one characteristic in common. They all take pains to cultivate a well-formed conscience, and then follow that conscience regardless of how inconvenient it becomes. My favorite film, Zinnemann’s 1966 A Man for All Seasons, tells the story of Thomas More who follows his conscience over his king. In High Noon, Gary Cooper’s Will Kane does what he knows is right despite opposition from all of his friends and neighbors. And in From Here to Eternity, young Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) faces similar opposition when he insists on following his conscience.
This conflict begins as soon as Prewitt is reassigned to a new military base after requesting transfer. The leader of that base, Captain Holmes, (Philip Ober) wants Prewitt, who is a renowned boxer, to fight on his boxing team so his regiment can win the annual tournament this year. However, Prewitt has quit boxing ever since a horrible accident occurred in a fight a year ago. In hopes of breaking Prewitt’s resolve, Holmes has his subordinate officers make Prewitt’s life a living hell.
The viewer will quickly realize that the anguish over the boxing tournament is futile. The military base is located in Hawaii; the year is 1941; and the tournament is schedule for December 15th. It is a foregone conclusion that the tournament will not be held.
Other endeavors are more meaningful, but they are also acted upon without any sense of urgency, and therefore they do not attain fruition. The looming threat of war does not register with the soldiers or with any of the civilians. The characters are enjoying cavalier lives in Hawaii, picking petty but nasty fights over boxing or other disagreements, chasing after women, and spending much of their leisure time intoxicated.
The foreknowledge of the viewer helps him to appreciate the looming destruction, which makes most of the characters’ choices seem trivial. Or, if a character has made a good decision, procrastination undermines it. From Here to Eternity asks the viewer to consider what is most important in life. And how does one determine what is most important in life? By following a well-formed conscience.
Not only does From Here to Eternity present a characters who follows a well-formed consciences, it also shows characters who follow poorly-formed consciences. Prewitt has two convictions, both of which he tries to follow resolutely. He will not box, and he will remain loyal to the army. However, like most men, Prewitt does have a breaking point. His greatest trouble occurs when he disregards his conscience to follow his conflicted emotions. Prewitt’s good friend Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is hotheaded enough to believe that he truly is standing up for some noble cause when he accosts the sadistic stockade sergeant (Ernest Borgnine) and when he abandons his guard duty. These actions accomplish nothing and cause more tragedy than Maggio imagined.
Simultaneously with Prewitt’s struggles, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster), the second-in-command at the military base, is struggling with his own problems. He has fallen deeply in love with the neglected wife (Deborah Kerr) of his superior, Captain Holmes. Warden is sick of assisting Holmes in Holmes’ ruthless behavior. However, Warden does not wish to be disobedient to his commanding officer, nor does he wish to abandon his position and his duties to the army. Warden’s actual decision is kept hidden with suspense until the final crisis hits.
When the final crisis hits, all the characters are caught unprepared. The disaster raises the question of what is most important in life, suggesting that one should reflect on the choices he would make if he knew of an imminent crisis. The disaster also forces consequences upon the characters for their actions and choices.
Every character is held accountable for his or her choices. A character who wants a “normal” life squanders the one chance she has for happiness. Another character’s desire for prestige is his undoing. Maggio’s impulsiveness leads to much trouble for him and others. When Prewitt ignores his principles, he endangers himself.
Zinnemann structured the film incredibly. Early scenes cleverly foreshadow later ones. When Warden first enters Holmes’ office, a picture of Holmes’ wife stands on the opposite side of the room, balancing the shot with Warden. As Warden makes important plans for the next day, the camera slowly pans across the room to catch the date of December 6th on a calendar. Zinnemann skillfully draws terrific performances from the entire cast. All the actors convincingly portray heartbreak, passion, and resolution. Their interactions are engaging and believable.
From Here to Eternity won a well-deserved eight Oscars in 1954, and it remains as timeless and as well-crafted today as it was then.
Content Advisory: Scenes of fighting including boxing and a knife-fight, a sympathetic portrayal of adultery, and much drinking. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A