Some motion pictures are born great, others achieve greatness over time, but only the truly exceptional have had it both ways. Rapturously received from the moment it was released in 1953, "From Here to Eternity" remains, half a century later, a singular cinematic experience, one of the landmarks of American film.
Based on a James Jones novel so adult it was thought unfilmable at the time, "Eternity's" story of Army life in Honolulu's Scofield Barracks just before Pearl Harbor transferred so well to the screen -- complete with the scandalous Burt Lancaster-Deborah Kerr surfside love scene -- that it became Columbia's highest-grossing movie. "Eternity" was even more successful with the motion picture academy. The film had a whopping 13 Oscar nominations, including five acting nods, and it won in eight categories, including best picture, director for Fred Zinnemann, screenplay for Daniel Taradash, cinematography, editing and sound.
Mindful of this legacy, Columbia has gone back to original elements and done a splendid restoration of the production's tight 118 minutes. The print showing at the Nuart in West Los Angeles for the next week is so sharp and crisp, it couldn't have looked any better the day it was released.
But its pristine look is only part of "Eternity's" overpowering cumulative impact. Equally important are the impeccable acting and a multifaceted story that places complicated people in involving, adult situations.
In its willingness to show individuals trapped by their own natures as well as by circumstance, "Eternity" was unafraid of being melancholy or even downbeat in tone. Sparely written by Taradash and directed by Zinnemann with admirable dispassion, this is one of the few Hollywood films that can be both emotional and unsentimental, a combination that is as rare today -- albeit for different reasons -- as it was in the 1950s.
Though "Eternity" is rife with conflict, it's especially telling that what in many ways is the heart of this film is not a struggle. Rather it's the simple contrast between two classic styles of masculinity, competing icons of male behavior represented by Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, both at the height of their power.
Clift's Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt is the soul of sensitive, individualistic virility, someone who believes "A man who doesn't go his own way, he's nothing." Prewitt's an exceptional bugler who asked to be transferred to a different unit because he felt disrespected by his superiors. A former boxer who's sworn off the ring, Prewitt gets pressured by his fight-mad new company commander to put on the gloves one more time.
Lancaster's 1st Sgt. Milton Warden, familiarly known as "Top," is the man who really runs Prewitt's new unit for his absentee captain. If Clift represents introspection, Lancaster is all physicality and action, a model of take-charge, outwardly directed virility who is as hard as he is fair. While he has no choice but to cooperate with the captain's schemes to break Prewitt and make him box, he doesn't have to like them.
In addition to being participants in this central drama, both Warden and Prewitt have complicated romantic lives. "Top" becomes powerfully attracted to his captain's complex wife, Karen (Kerr), a woman with a reputation for "back street loving" -- one of the film's few dated phrases -- while the bugler falls for Lorene (Donna Reed), a sultry dance hall girl whose "two steps above the pavement" occupation is elevated two steps higher than it was in the novel.
Though both ended up nominated for an Oscar, neither Kerr nor Reed was the first choice for her part. The British actress was considered too ladylike for the film's passionate love scenes (shot on the eastern end of Oahu and famously parodied by Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca), but Joan Crawford declined and Kerr got the role.
Similarly, Reed, who'd been Jimmy Stewart's fresh-faced wife in "It's a Wonderful Life," was thought too wholesome for the bad-girl part, but, helped by a knockout Jean Louis black dress that helped get him a best costume design nomination, she was convincing enough to be the winner in the best supporting actress category.
The film's other key plot line was responsible for an even more celebrated Oscar. The role of Pvt. Angelo Maggio, locked in uneven combat with Ernest Borgnine's sadistic Sgt. Fatso Judson, was originally intended for Eli Wallach, but he dropped out. Frank Sinatra's singing career was at a low ebb, and except for wife Ava Gardner, he was no one's first choice for the part that spectacularly revived his professional life, won him a surprisingly deserved Oscar and likely provided the spark for the fictional horse's head scenario in "The Godfather."
Perhaps fittingly, though both Lancaster and Clift were nominated, their votes likely canceled each other out, and the best acting Oscar went to William Holden in "Stalag 17."
Men, the movies are forever telling us, have to do what men have to do, but rarely have the different choices they have about how to do it been as feelingly illuminated as they are here.
'From Here to Eternity'
Where: Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.
When: Today, Monday through Thursday, 4, 7 and 9:50 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1, 4, 7 and 9:50 p.m.
Contact: (310) 281-8223
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes