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Powerful cast, story keep ‘Eternity’ from showing age

Brian Doxtader | Monday, October 9, 2006

“From Here to Eternity” is one of the classic American films, a rich and dark portrayal of military men in pre-Pearl Harbor World War II. It remains a tragic, well-told story, aided by its memorable cast and high production values, though its impact has dimmed slightly in the 50 years after its release.

The film’s story chronicles Sergeant Milt Warden (Burt Lancaster), an officer stationed in Hawaii, who begins an affair with Karen (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his commanding officer, in the days before Pearl Harbor. Among the other people he encounters are Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Cliff), Maggio (Frank Sinatra) and stockade sergeant Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

“From Here to Eternity” is a character study more than anything, as each of the characters struggles against his inner demons and the upper echelons of the military. None of the men seem to anticipate the approaching storm (how could they?) and they continue their day-to-day lives as if they’ll never end.

Yet the main actors – Cliff, Sinatra and Lancaster – imbue their characters with a self-awareness that emphasizes their frustration, even as the war creeps closer.

In its time, “From Here to Eternity” was a hotly anticipated film, and everything about its production is superior, from Daniel Taradash’s script to Frank Zinneman’s direction. Zinneman is smart enough to let his story tell itself, especially since the film featured a dazzling all-star cast, which dominates the picture.

Many of them – most notably Donna Reed as a lonely prostitute and popular singer Frank Sinatra as the tragic Maggio – are definitely cast against type.Both Reed and Sinatra were honored with Academy Award nominations that year, and Sinatra won for his performance.

Cliff gives one of the finest performances of his career, and Borgnine’s wicked portrayal of Judson is a dominating performance.

The gritty black-and-white cinematography has a “cinema verité” feel to it at times, which is appropriate for the film’s tone.

Though it might seem staged and unrealistic by today’s standards (“Saving Private Ryan” it is not), in its time the film was hailed for its realism and unflinching portrayal of the dark side of human nature.

“From Here to Eternity” helped increase realism in film and also helped bend the production codes of the time. There are some frank discussions about life, love and war, and Zinneman and his cast handle them admirably.

The most famous scene, of course, is the beach scene, in which entwined lovers Kerr and Lancaster kiss while waves crash over them.

A cliché now, its depiction of blissful romance in the face of surmounting odds (even as the violence of World War II steadily approaches) remains a cinematic icon.

“From Here to Eternity” was a huge winner at the Oscars, taking home eight statuettes, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also named as one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time, coming in at No. 52, which is a testament to its enduring nature. Though very much of its time, the picture is still an enjoyable and at times wrenching glimpse inside the men who fought and died in the Greatest Generation.

“From Here to Eternity” will be screened on Saturday, Oct. 22 in the Browning Cinema of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of the PAC Classic 100.