"From Here to Eternity" is sometimes classified as a war film but the attack on Pearl Harbor only occupies the last few minutes; for most of its length it is (like, say, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" or "An Officer and a Gentleman") a film about life in the Armed Forces during peacetime. It charts the complex relationships between six main characters, Captain Dana Holmes and his beautiful wife Karen, Sergeant Milton Warden, Private Robert Prewitt, his girlfriend Alma, and Prewitt's closest friend, Private Angelo Maggio.
There are a number of interconnected sub-plots. Perhaps the most important concerns Prewitt's relations with his commanding officer, Captain Holmes. Holmes is a boxing fanatic, who believes that his promotion prospects will be improved if he can put together a successful team to compete in the Army boxing championships. He has therefore had Prewitt, whom he knows to be a talented middleweight boxer, drafted into his unit. Prewitt, however, refuses to join the boxing team, having given up the sport after an accident in which a sparring partner was blinded, so Holmes attempts to force him to do so by beginning a campaign of persecution against him.
In another sub-plot Karen, whose marriage to a hard-drinking, unfaithful husband has become no more than a sham, becomes embroiled in an adulterous affair with Sergeant Warden. (The scene on the beach between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster was considered scandalously daring by the standards of the early fifties). The other plot lines concern Maggio's battles against authority, especially a brutal sergeant named Fatso Judson, and the growing romance between Prewitt and Alma. (Contrary to what some reviewers have stated, Alma is not a prostitute; she may have been one in James Jones's novel, but in the film she became a nightclub hostess to appease the Hays Office).
In many ways the film gives a negative picture of military life, although less so than the original book. A strict system of discipline may be necessary to make the Army an effective fighting force, but it also has the unwanted side-effect of allowing bullies like Holmes and Judson to abuse their authority. Holmes attempts to force Prewitt to join the boxing squad by imposing a series of unjust punishments and onerous duties on him; most of the NCOs are happy to go along with him, and even those like Warden who disagree with Holmes's actions see no alternative but to comply.
This was the Big Picture of 1953; it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, against a very strong field which also included "Roman Holiday", "Julius Caesar" and "Shane", and Best Director for Fred Zinnemann. Five of the cast were nominated and two of them, Donna Reed (Alma) and Frank Sinatra (Maggio) won. This was the film that made Sinatra a big star as an actor as well as a singer. He plays Maggio as likable and easygoing, in contrast to his more intense friend Prewitt, but also a man with reserves of both moral and physical courage; he is not afraid to stand up to Judson, who is much larger than he is. (Ernest Borgnine is very good as the thuggish Judson).
I must say that I agree with the Academy's decision to award "Best Actress" to Audrey Hepburn ahead of Kerr; Kerr is good here, but Audrey is absolutely brilliant in "Roman Holiday", as she normally was. American audiences might have been surprised to see Kerr, normally one of the cinema's good girls, playing an adulterous wife, although British ones might have remembered her as the mercenary Sally in "Love on the Dole". She does, however, make Karen a fairly sympathetic character; she is not, contrary to what the film critic of "Variety" thought, a nymphomaniac, even though it is made clear that Warden is not her first extra-marital lover. She is driven not by sexual lust but by a need for love that cannot be satisfied by her husband, who cruelly neglects and mistreats her.
I have never seen "Stalag 17", so cannot say if William Holden deserved "Best Actor" ahead of Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster (or, for that matter, Brando in "Julius Caesar"). Both, however, are excellent, especially that intelligent, sensitive actor Clift as Prewitt, a young man with firmly-held principles, who will not allow himself to be dissuaded from doing what he believes to be right. Despite his mistreatment by Holmes, he never considers leaving the Army, an institution which has previously treated him well and has become like a family to him. (The depiction of military life is not entirely negative; the Army may allow unpleasant sadists a chance to vent their spleen, but it also provides young men with a sense of belonging and self-respect).
Lancaster's Warden is another man for whom the Army has become his whole life. Although he outwardly seems a strong character, he is inwardly weak. He is compromised by his affair with Karen (a crime under military law), and lacks the strength to stand up to Holmes. He loves the Army life but despises its officer class; when he gets the chance to become an officer himself he fails to take it, even though he knows that such a promotion offers him the best chance of a life together with Karen.
Some Big Pictures from the past have not aged well, but "From Here to Eternity" is not among them. What makes it such an outstanding film is the strength of its acting and characterisation and the power of a good story well told. It is the sort of film they don't make any more, and the cinema is the poorer for it. One of the best films of the fifties. 9/10.