USA / Columbia / 118 minutes / 1953 filmed in black and white
Writer: Daniel Taradash from the novel by James Jones / Music: George Duning / Cinematography: Burnett Guffey / Producer: Buddy Adier / Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, Mickey Shaughnessy, Philip Ober
From Here to Eternity is, in essence, the story of three men – Prewitt, Maggio and Warden, with Prewitt as the pivotal figure. Each man has a code of honour, defined by Prewitt for all of them as “a man who don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’!” Prewitt, an excellent boxer, comes under pressure when he refuses to join his company’s boxing team because he once blinded a man in the ring. Maggio hates injustice and brings about his own downfall because he refuses to keep his mouth shut. Warden’s principles revolve around his love of the army and his determination not to become that most hated of men, an officer. The film follows their respective fates as they attempt to live up to their self-imposed codes of conduct. By the end, only Warden, able to adapt his credo to circumstances rather than be destroyed by them, is left alive.
Casting was critical. Burt Lancaster finally played the sergeant; Montgomery Clift won the part of Prewitt, and when it came to the choice of an actress to portray Karen Holmes, the officer’s wife who sleeps with enlisted men, Joan Crawford was cast, but soon quit due to her unhappiness with her screen wardrobe. Deborah Kerr, then seen as the archetypal demure English rose, was selected. Donna Reed, too, playing the part of a prostitute, found her career revitalized by the film.
The most difficult decision, however, was casting an actor to play Maggio, the vulnerable Italian-American who would rather die than allow himself to be broken by the brutalities of imprisonment in an army jail. Frank Sinatra, having read the novel, saw himself as Maggio and, with his career as actor and singer almost defunct, desperately needed the role.
The performances elicited by Fred Zinneman were exemplary. Lancaster, Kerr and Clift received Academy Award nominations and the love scene on the beach between Lancaster and Kerr (cruelly parodied in Airplane!) became one of the cinema’s best known sequences. Clift, clearly bringing his own inner torment over his homosexuality to bear his portrayal, was magnificent although, strangely, he did not receive an Academy Award nomination.
The book was also adapted into a six part TV mini-series in 1979.