Montgomery Clift was always one of my favorite actors. He was one of the leaders of the 50’s transformation of what it meant to be a leading man, alongside Brando and Dean. They possessed completely different acting styles – and equally genius – of projecting a sense of fragility that simply no one had done before, to the point of being truly revolutionary.
Synopsis: In Hawaii in 1941, a private is cruelly punished for not boxing on his unit’s team, while his captain’s wife and second-in-command are falling in love. (IMDB)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Deborah Kerr
Writer: Daniel Tadarash
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Rating: PG (Canada)
Running Time: 118mins
The best performance of Clift’s career was here, in this sensational film that managed to stand the test of time. The strength of his character, Prewitt – military, boxer, stubborn as hell – merged exceptionally well with Clift’s acting style. Prewitt was anything but a sub-John Wayne, so common in those days. Unfortunately, the mixed up wrong Oscars for the right actors in the mid-50’s ended up leaving Clift empty-handed, one of the biggest mistakes of the Academy. But From Here to Eternity still took home 8 Oscars, all deserved.
The story is juicy: based on the deemed unadaptable novel of the same name penned by James Jones, is set in Hawaii in 1941, in the days before Pearl Harbor’s attack by the Japanese. Prewitt transfers to a military company in Oahu but refuses to join the regiment’s boxing team, infuriating its Captain. Prewitt stopped fighting after blinding his friend a year before and is still shaken by his actions. He becomes close friends with Maggio (Frank Sinatra), a hot-tempered Private who introduces him to Lorene (Donna Reed), a prostitute working at the gentlemen’s club they both attend. Prewitt and Lorene fall hardly in love with each other. After Maggio is arrested and badly tortured by the Staff Sergeant in charge (Ernest Borgnine), tragedy strikes them all. Meanwhile, first sergeant Warden (Lancaster) starts a passionate affair with Karen (Kerr), the Captain’s wife. Karen has had many affairs before but she falls for Warden. They start making plans for their future together. But everything falls apart when tragedy strikes and the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, shaking all their lives.
Although it was a 50’s film and certain elements were not permitted (like actually making it clear that Lorene is a prostitute), From Here to Eternity has a no-nonsense approach to the material. It isn’t stylized at all and there is a neorealism feel in it all. Of course, it’s still a Hollywood neorealism feel, far apart from the original Italian neorealism, but it is refreshing to see a Hollywood movie investing in it. Even the famous beach kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr is almost anticlimactic in its simplicity. But for sure, it gives the movie a lot of strength because of it. Those characters feel real, living and breathing before us.
Watching the film once more, what stands out is the brilliant work of all the cast, which is especially interesting since they were mostly cast against type; Kerr was usually cast as the clean an proper wife and to play the adulterous Karen was not something expected of her; the same happened to Reed, who was always in sweet and earnest roles. Lancaster was never given such strong and layered material before and Sinatra was pretty much washed out at the time and he campaigned hard for the role and Clift was not built like a boxer at all. They all ended up delivering one of the best performances of their careers.
It’s impressive to notice the electricity between Lancaster and Kerr (who were romantically involved during the shooting) which must have been shocking at the time since the desire the characters feel for each other are quite palpable. Sinatra imbues Maggio’s journey into hell with sadness and Reed is quietly touching as the prostitute, without resorting to any melodramatic artifices that could easily be used to make her character more sympathetic.Borgnine, in a few scenes, is perfectly creepy and Fatso. And they all worked well with each other, in any combination.
But Clift is the real standout here; he threw himself into the character, and his dedication forced the other actors to give their all to the performances. Lancaster and Sinatra were really intimidated by his craft and there are accounts that Lancaster was even shaking when they did their first scene together. Even Zinnemann acknowledged Clift’s part in making the entire cast up their games.
Zinnemann was really proud of the film and felt it was one of the highlights of his career. And he couldn’t be more right.
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