I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture and sharing my views. While I've been trying to watch them in order, I hit a snag when I tried to rent the 1949 winner, All the King's Men. Blockbuster, which has previously had a stellar accuracy record, mistakenly sent me the wrong movie three times: the 2006 remake starring Sean Penn, placed in a 1949 sleeve! So while I wait for the used copy I purchased on Amazon.com to arrive, I watched the 1953 winner, From Here to Eternity.
The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann, based on the novel by James Jones and starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed. This film contains one of the all-time greatest love scenes.
The other Best Picture contenders that year were Julius Caesar, The Robe, Roman Holiday and Shane.
The movie is set in 1941 at an Army base in Hawaii, right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It follows several members of a unit. Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is a recent transfer, a promising boxer who refuses to join the unit's boxing team due to an unfortunate accident in the ring. He is befriended by Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), who has a rebellious streak and is therefore often assigned to the same thankless duties as Prewitt, under continual punishment in order to bully him into joining the boxing team.
Maggio introduces Prewitt to a gentleman's club, where he meets Lorene (Donna Reed) and falls in love. She is saving up money to return to the states and live a respectable life.
Meanwhile, the company sergeant, Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), begins a steamy affair with the captain's wife, played by Deborah Kerr. I'm sure you've seen the famous love scene of them kissing in the surf. In fact, a still from that scene is emblazoned on the scene.
Deborah Kerr was cast against type: previously, she'd played reserved "good girls." In the same way, Donna Reed was cast against type, playing a world-weary escort rather than her typically cheerful girl-next-door role. In the novel, she was a member of a brothel, but the change was made to suit censors, along with toning down profanity and the brutality in a stockade scene.
In fact, if the studio had had its way, the cast would have been very different. The head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, wanted Joan Crawford for the captain's wife and Aldo Ray for the role of Prewitt. He felt that Montgomery Clift didn't look enough like a soldier and wasn't physically right to play a boxer. But the director refused to make the movie without him. Frank Sinatra was considered box office poison, since his recent movies had failed, but he turned out to bring the right mix of bravado and likeability to the role of Maggio.
In fact, if Cohn had his way, the film would have also featured Edmond O'Brien in the Burt Lancaster role, Julie Harris as Lorene and Eli Wallach as Maggio.
Unlike some previous Best Picture winners set during World War II, this film is much less gritty, concentrating primarily on interpersonal relationships, rather than on the realities of war. Most of the interiors are clearly shot in a studio, but plenty of exteriors show Hawaiian landscapes. The lighting is so flat that the interiors look more like a TV show than a film. Set design clearly didn't win this movie the Oscar. Rather, the script and the acting did.
This film avoids many of the overblown monologues that prevailed in previous winners set in World War II. This may be, in part, because this film was not designed to drum up support for the war. Instead, it is a story about several interconnected people, which happens to be set on an Army base.
Even though the dialogue is more naturalistic, lesser actors would not have done it justice. For example, when Donna Reed, as Lorene, talks about her desire to have a respectable life, the steeliness and the repressed pain in her eyes turn those lines into a confession of all the unspoken hurt and shame Lorene carries.
The film uses a pared-down soundtrack, often refusing to go for the big, dramatic swells that typically accompany dramatic moments. Through this restraint, Zinnemann lends those scenes greater impact: the viewer is forced to focus on the action, on the actors' expressions as they cope.
By the time the inevitable attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, the viewer has all but forgotten that it was coming, having gotten involved in the story. That is what separates this movie from Michael Bay's explosion-heavy 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, which also follows a romance on a military base just before the attack. While special effects are entertaining, they are no substitute for a good script and skillful acting.
You can't bomb your way to a Best Picture nom.