It's often said that the simplest stories are the best. This isn't true. The simple stories are easy to get right, but a complex ensemble piece with multiple protagonists and numerous subplots can be just as effective, although it's a lot harder to pull off successfully. From Here to Eternity stands in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives, Seven Samurai and The Godfather, of pictures with interwoven plots that have become classics thanks to strong screen writing, intelligent direction and powerful acting performances.
Part of the reason From Here to Eternity works is because it is very quick in establishing its characters and plot lines. It opens with a series of interlinking scenes, introducing us to Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, giving us clues about Clift's past and hinting at the future relationship between Lancaster and Kerr, all in the space of five minutes. Director Fred Zinnemann, with a confidence that is lacking in his earliest features, shoots these scenes with subtle technique to give them maximum storytelling effect. For example, he gives Clift's character a superb introduction, walking at a right angle to the marching column until he is brought right into close-up. Once the dialogue begins he uses sudden changes of angle to highlight certain lines, for example the close-up of Lancaster telling Kerr "I'd be happy to help", at which point the audience know exactly what is going to happen between those two characters. Donna Reed is of course introduced a little later, but to compensate she is given a very distinctive first shot, framed on her own immediately after some busy crowd shots.
But Zinnemann's direction isn't all pure functionalism. He makes sparing use of attention-grabbing stylisation when the moment demands it, such as the dolly-out through the rain-soaked window during Lancaster and Kerr's first kiss. And this stylisation even helps keep the narrative together, for example cutting from the roaring sea at the end of the famous beach scene to the smoke rising from Clift's cigarette. Throughout the various parallel plots there is a tone of melancholy and regret, and Zinnemann keeps this commonality with his consistency of style.
Of course, you get the same problem or at least the same feature in From Here to Eternity as you do in They Died with Their Boots on or Titanic, in that the audience, knowing their history, know what is going to happen at the end. The strength of the non-combat story lines is such that we forget when and where we are, and as such it is important that we are eased into the finale of the Pearl Harbour attack so it does not seem such a surreal break in tone. This is done with characteristic subtlety, with two objects placed noticeably yet not obtrusively into the frame to jog our memories. The first is a calendar showing December 6th on the wall beside Burt Lancaster, and the other a signpost reading "Pearl Harbour" after his final meeting with Kerr.
One of the biggest challenges for the makers of an ensemble piece is that you need a larger than normal pool of leading players, and yet you must ensure none of them will overshadow the others. This is another thing they got right in From Here to Eternity. Clift, Kerr and Lancaster are all competent performers without big egos, and they all give steady performances, even if they are far from career-bests. As to Sinatra, what's amazing is not the quality of his performance (it was always evident he could act) but that he was even allowed to play a dramatic, non-musical role. It just goes to show the increased flexibility of cinema in the 1950s, as well as the rising status of the musical genre. To give it some perspective, can you imagine Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby having done the same thing in the 30s? From Here to Eternity won 1953's Best Picture Oscar, and like all successful pictures was followed by a host of imitators. 1955's Battle Cry for example is another many-stranded story about soldiers at the start of World War Two, and even features a rather tepid knock-off of the famous beach scene. However, while Battle Cry has some nice moments, structurally it is an absolute mess, an example of how easy it is to do a botch job on a complex storyline. That's why From Here to Eternity is such a rarity, being an ensemble piece that really works.
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