From Here to Eternity (Blu-ray Review)7 Oct, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed.
The cast list you see above represents one of the ultimate historical examples of white-heat star power, and these five principals earned merited Oscar nominations (with wins for Sinatra and Reed) before we even get to the fact that the story’s standout heavy is played by Ernest Borgnine (with a hall-of-fame eyesore haircut). Released when I had just turned 6, this is the first movie I can recall that everyone was talking about — the same way that everyone had talked about James Jones’s 1951 novel, which you could find either a hardback or paperback copy of in every home (including my parents’) that had been affected by World War II — particularly by then current or former because this is a story about the disdain of grunts toward officers. Everyone said that Hollywood censors would render the book unfilmable, and when I finally got around to tackling it (a welcome project that dominated my summer between eighth and ninth grade), the sex alone made me understand why.
Daniel Taradash’s script remains a model of how to telescope a sprawling literary source (and no less of a grabber for that) into a two-hour movie as well effectively flipping the bird to those same censors. It also points up how Fred Zinnemann’s cool directorial style could sometimes play off, with overwhelming effectiveness, dynamic material — which here includes doomed love affairs, a sadistic stockade beating, switchblade encounters and, finally, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historically, Eternity is remembered for having the performance of Montgomery Clift’s career (this is arguable, but not too) and for saving Frank Sinatra’s career when it was on the skids (though when you listen today to at least the best of his so-called has-been Columbia recordings of the early ’50s, your response can only be, “Oh, really?”). Truth is — that is, if you consider that for all his psychological harmony with the role, Clift was no natural to play a boxer — the only one of the five leads not cast against type was Burt Lancaster. With Deborah Kerr cast as the bed-hopping wife (with a cause) of a commanding officer plus Donna Reed as a glorified prostitute, the whole thing could have blown up in Zinnemann’s face — and that of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn. One thing I’ve always wondered: With Sinatra in debt to just about everyone, what was his attitude here about doing the multiple takes he was later famous for hating?
Eternity got the Oscar for Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography (14 years before taking the color award for Bonnie and Clyde, a full career right there between the two). The Blu-ray has significant grain but doesn’t overdo it and is especially effective here in some of the close-ups — as with, to name one example, one of Deborah Kerr during one of the dialogue portions amid the world-famous love scene in the surf. As a rule, I don’t think Blu-ray improves black-and-white over DVD as much as it improves color (though from what I’ve seen so far of Warner’s new rendering of King Vidor’s The Big Parade, I may be ready to contradict myself). But as with A Letter to Three Wives, the rewards are subtle, and I suspect this is a reason I’ve had more of a mellowed-out experience with both films this time around than I have in a long time.
The extras here include a super-nifty new picture-in-picture feature in which on-the-ball younger historians like Alan K. Rode, Kim Morgan and more guide us through the entire production. There’s also a carried-over making-of featurette that’s hardly full-scale — though both it and a vintage short on Zinnemann include the late director’s home movies, which offer amazing shots of the now familiar locations, actors and costumes in unfamiliar color. The mono sound quality is strong for its era (one of eight Oscars went to it), and I’m always jolted by the brilliance of the superbly edited Pearl Harbor attack sequence, which is so much more powerful than anything in Michael Bay’s eponymous feature — in part because there seems to be more at dramatic stake than merely providing fodder for a Panavision video game. Call Bay the anti-Zinnemann, a thought with which I can doubly concur, having just caught up with Pain & Gain this past week.