Saturday, October 5, 2013

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Sony Home Entertainment

In 1980, 4-time Oscar-winning director Fred Zinnemann sat down with a ‘young’ Hollywood Turk to begin negotiations on the last movie project he would helm – 1982’s Five Days, One Summer. When the skeptical executive openly confessed to knowing nothing about Zinnemann’s career, then rather insensitively requested a list of his accomplishments, Zinnemann merely smiled, sat back and replied, “Sure…you first!” Zinnemann could afford to be glib. By then he was one of the most respected craftsman in the industry with an impressive body of work: High Noon (1952), The Nun’s Story (1959) and A Man For All Seasons (1966) among his very best. Most of Zinnemann’s movies, particularly those from his mid to late career – even his one and only musical (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! 1955) – are imbued with the same principles; chiefly to illuminate the darkness that haunts us from within. His characters are plagued by self-doubt, self-pity, anti-social angst, conflicted loyalties and complex romantic alliances.
Character-driven, occasionally wordy, generally articulate and always entertaining, Zinnemann’s storytelling prowess is telescopically focused on getting to the heart of his characters. Plot is, of course, substantial to the dramatic arc, but the story is forward-propelled by the emotional content of the people who populate these narrative landscapes. Today, Zinnemann’s approach tends to teeter on the verge of being preachy, although it never quite crosses this line - perhaps because his actors do more emoting than talking to get their points across; Zinnemann finding ways for his characters to reveal themselves through subtler nuances and moments of silence. And Zinnemann is unapologetic about the obscurer side to humanity that most of us keep hidden from the public. Yet, Zinnemann’s movies do not revel in humanity at its ugliest (which is a popular form of expression in cinema today).
Rather, he explores the truer metal of character through inner turmoil – the quality of an individual in constant flux – but with a fervent desire to explore the better part of that moral compass and social conscience in a very honest, and at times, sobering portrait.  Zinnemann’s movies endure today primarily because they just seem to be happening for real – the artifice, high key lit cinematography, and lavishly appointed production design simultaneously at odds yet complimenting the director’s no-nonsense approach to critiquing the human condition. There’s genuineness to Zinnemann’s best movies that cannot be manufactured and never seems strained or wanting for something astute and revealing to say.  
For its sobering depiction of army life, it’s even grittier view of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and particularly, for its frank, though arguably never titillating glimmers of salacious sex and brutality, From Here To Eternity (1953) stands head and shoulders above most any vintage war-themed melodrama. Today, it remains a powerful indictment of conflict – both from within and without – the more lurid moments in James Jones original novel (including the inference that one of its principle players, Maggio had been a gay hustler) tempered, though never blunting the impact of the story. From Here To Eternity is just one of those movies blessed with a stellar cast of screen archetypes – their cardboard cutouts immeasurably fleshed out by some truly inspired performances from Burt Lancaster - as stern but ever-moral First Sergeant Milton Warden, Deborah Kerr’s sultry and seductive Karen Holmes, Frank Sinatra’s ill-fated Maggio, Montgomery Clift’s introverted pacifist Robert E. Lee Prewitt and Ernest Borgnine’s thuggish Staff Sergeant James R. ‘Fatso’ Judson. 
Director Fred Zinnemann exhibited a penchant for telling darker stories about the human condition almost from the beginning of his career, stripping away the masks people wear to cope with the realities surrounding them. Again, Zinnemann might have been cribbing from his own wellspring; his silent anguish at losing both parents to the Nazi holocaust, and his having suffered numerous creative setbacks early in his career; such hardships better informing his cinematic outlook and perspective, and, most definitely dictating the kinds of movie’s he would have preferred to make. From Here To Eternity’s realism is unquestioningly heightened by its theater of war backdrop and the audience’s post-war knowledge of events about to unfold that the characters in the story have no way of knowing and therefore cannot prepare for themselves. From Here to Eternity is also the first of the post-war ‘war’ movies to directly address the cataclysmic confrontation at Pearl Harbor that kick-started America’s involvement in the European conflict. And Zinnemann never shies away from giving us the tragedy full scale, and yet without the gratuitousness present-day Hollywood so loves to wallow in. The last third of From Here To Eternity is largely unvarnished: Hollywood’s usually ‘glamorized’ depictions of heroism brought back into stark focus with chaos factored in, reflected, amplified and finally, whipped into a frenzy by the psychology of each character; their isolated thoughts and reasoning forced to partake in this percolating ensemble moment on which world history will pivot.   
From Here To Eternity is also notable for its resurrection of Frank Sinatra’s sagging post-MGM career. Sinatra, who had begun his meteoric rise as the swing band crooner, worshipped by the bobbysoxer set; who parlayed this fame into a brief, but very lucrative movie career as the beloved skinny sidekick to Gene Kelly’s beefy all-American, was in a very bad way by 1950. His foray into a weekly television variety show had been a disaster; his longstanding alliances with Columbia Records and MCA canceled shortly thereafter. Many forget that Sinatra attempted suicide after nearly a two year absence from recording and movie-making. In both cases, the hiatus was imposed rather than self-inflicted; Sinatra’s vocal chords hemorrhaging on stage at the Copacabana in 1950; his MGM contract lapsing that same year. Although Sinatra would return to MGM for several memorable screen outings, including The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956) he did so as an ‘independent’ on a picture-by-picture basis, rather than as an MGM contract player.
The wheel had turned in other ways too. Sinatra was older now and in the intervening years other, younger ‘heartthrobs’ had risen through the ranks to eclipse his popularity with the teenage set. Sinatra’s career throughout the 1940s had, in fact, greatly benefited from his being classified 4-F for a perforated eardrum – thus avoiding military conscription - the decade ironically spent as everybody’s favorite sailor who couldn’t get a date if his life depended on it in movies like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On The Town (1949). But Sinatra’s notoriety for carousing and womanizing, coupled with swirling rumors he was mobbed up to his teeth had given him a black eye in the movies – by 1953 already beginning to experience their first signs of inevitable sad decline. As such, Sinatra may have seen From Here To Eternity as something of an apology for being unable to serve his country at war. 
Zinnemann was adamantly opposed to Sinatra’s involvement at first; believing the public’s expectations would be to hear him sing at least one song in the movie – a notion Zinnemann refused to entertain. In fact, Eli Wallach had been set for the part, despite Sinatra’s frequent attempts to make his interests known, before bowing out to a Broadway commitment. As such, Columbia boss, Harry Cohn convinced Sinatra to ‘test’ for the role; the sequence where Sinatra improvises dice from a pair of olives ultimately becoming part of the finished film and convincing Zinnemann that perhaps his snap judgment of Sinatra’s talents had been hasty.  Sinatra was known for his occasionally volatile temperament – particularly when he had little respect for his directors.
But as production began, Zinnemann found himself playing ring master of a different kind when co-stars Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster allowed their on-screen affair to spill over into their private lives. Each star was married at the time. Kerr’s career had been made playing variations on the demure English rose; often cast as a symbol of purity and respectability. From Here to Eternity represented a departure for the actress, who smolders with feisty resolve.  As for Sinatra – he willingly fell into line and gave, arguably, the performance of his career – a mesmerizing compendium of despondent jollity, immensely touching and poetically vibrant. Viewing From Here to Eternity today one is, in fact, dumbstruck by how shockingly good Sinatra is. He completely wins us over, conquering the bias as merely being a singer pretending to be an actor; our under-estimation of his talent immediately put to shame and to rest.
Our story begins in 1941 with the arrival of bugler/private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) at Fort Shafter. Prewitt is an odd duck. He gave up his corporal’s stripes to be just another rifleman at Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian isle of Oahu. However, Prewitt’s reputation as a talented middleweight pugilist has preceded him. Captain Dana ‘Dynamite’ Holmes (Philip Ober) aggressively pursues Prewitt to join their regimental boxing team. But even the enticement of a promotion to corporal - or even sergeant – isn’t enough to convince Prewitt to step in line. He’s quit the ring after a fight left his sparring partner Dixie Wells blinded. Holmes, competitive to a fault, is wholly unsympathetic to Prewitt – what, with a trophy at stake – and sets about making army life hell for his new recruit to break his resolve. But Prewitt’s spirit is not so easily bent.
An insidious plot gets underway when Holmes orders First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster) to prepare court martial papers for Prewitt; this after Sergeant Ike Galovitch (John Dennis), under Holmes orders, attempts to get Prewitt to perform a task which he refuses. Prewitt will not bend to Galovitch, nor will he apologize for his actions. To spare Prewitt his discharge Warden convinces Holmes to double up on his company punishment instead. While virtually all of the other non-commissioned officers passively partake in this conspiracy, Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) befriends and sticks up for Prewitt.
Warden is, in fact too busy igniting the embers of an affair with Holmes’ neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) to care about Prewitt’s treatment; their passionate pas deux on a beach ending with Karen’s declaration that “she never knew love could be like this.” All evidence to the contrary, after Sergeant Maylon Stark (George Reeves) informs Warden that Karen was well known at Fort Bliss for her casual carrying on with many men including him. Warden’s emotions run deep. Although he cannot bring himself to confess as much, he has fallen madly in love with Karen. He’s also concerned for more obvious reasons. Discovery of their affair could land him a twenty-year sentence inside Leavenworth. But Karen seems to have had a change of heart. She confides her own, as well as her husband’s, infidelities to Warden; her sob story of a miscarriage after learning of Holmes’ first affair resulting in her being unable to bear any more children, resonates a stirring mutual empathy.
This thread of willful self-destructiveness in casual sexual liaisons runs throughout From Here to Eternity; magnified by Prewitt and Maggio liberty spent at the New Congress, a gentlemen's watering hole (nee whorehouse) where Prewitt meets and falls for the saucy prostitute, Lorene (Donna Reed). It seems that Lorene’s enterprising escapades are predicated on a more heartfelt altruism; to earn enough money to buy her mother a house. She was a good girl – once – dumped by a wealthy beau in Seattle and scorned to the point of revenge for a while. But Lorene is genuinely attracted to Prewitt and not so far gone down the rabbit hole of her chosen profession to still believe that love might be possible. It’s a tough sell, but Lorene is willing to take a chance. Prewitt confides the reason he refuses to box for his company; because he blinded Dixie Wells in the ring. Meanwhile Maggio encounters Staff Sergeant of the guard at the stockade, James R. Judson (Ernest Borgnine), the two nearly coming to blows over Judson’s piano playing before Prewitt intervenes. Judson is a sadist and a brute; exploiting his authority to pummel prisoners.
Later, when Judson sees Maggio holding a photograph of his sister he hits upon the idea of goading Maggio into a fight by making vulgar overtures. Maggio responds by smashing a bar stool over Judson’s head and Judson pulls a switchblade on him, intent on finishing the job with relish. But Warden, who has been sitting in a corner, intervenes at the last possible moment, callously telling Judson that a murder would just ‘create two weeks of needless paperwork’ for him. Judson pretends to withdraw, then advances on Warden; the brawl averted only after Warden uses a jagged broken beer bottle as a weapon, glibly replying, “Killers, huh! I'd trade the pair of you for a good Camp Fire girl.” Judson again threatens Maggio.
From Here To Eternity’s narrative linchpin is undeniably its flawed ro/bro-mances; Karen’s passionate, yet repeatedly thwarted desire to marry Warden; Prewitt’s loner, who discovers more solace than satisfaction from his army camaraderie, though arguably even more so than in the arms of Lorene; Warden’s admiration for Prewitt’s staunch defiance of Holmes (of course, exaggerated by his own contempt for Holmes’ neglect of Karen), Lorene’s genuine affection for Prewitt (and this after she has effectively sworn off all men), and finally, Maggio’s deep regards for Prewitt (tempered from its originally hinted homo-erotic connotations in the novel) that cause a lapse in judgment and thus directly contributes to his own death.  Interestingly, the dramatic arc of Jones’ novel is more concerned with the culmination of activity leading up to the ill-fated attack on Pearl Harbor. In tweaking the story to focus more centrally on its characters’ problematic relationships, screenwriter Daniel Taradash fills the movie’s run time with a superior melodrama that manages to capture the essence and the flavor of the book while working more efficiently within the constraints of the traditional Hollywood narrative.
As their love affair progresses Karen attempts to convince Warden he should become an officer. As one, she could openly divorce Holmes to marry Warden without any fear of reprisals. But Warden is hardly keen on the notion, not because he doesn’t love Karen, but rather because his glimpse into the lives of his superiors has not been a particularly flattering one. In the meantime, Prewitt is given a weekend pass to pursue Lorene. He finds her at the club, and later takes her to a nearby bar for a drink, regaling her with his pride and joy – a bugle mouthpiece he used to play Taps at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day. The coziness of this penultimate ‘cute meet’ is interrupted by Maggio who, joyously drunk, has gone A-wall and deserted his post. Lorene and Prewitt decide to help Maggio get back to his post. But it’s too late. Military Police arrive to apprehend Maggio, who is sentenced to six months in the stockade. It’s the chance Judson has been waiting for.  
A crisis arises after Sergeant Galovitch picks a fight with Prewitt while on yard detail. Prewitt refuses to fight Galovitch, but then elects to teach him a lesson. While the rest of the men gather to witness the spectacle; Holmes quietly observes the fight from a distance. Prewitt pummels Galovitch – the inevitable knockout thwarted after Holmes interrupts the fight. Galovitch attempts to blame Prewitt for starting the fight. Holmes is all too eager to reprimand Prewitt again until one of the soldiers points the finger of blame at Galovitch. Holmes elects to let Galovitch off the hook. But the entire incident is witnessed by the base commander who unearths the truth about Holmes and orders him to resign his commission for the good of the service.  The next day Holmes' replacement, Captain G.R. Ross (John Bryant) reproofs the men involved, demoting Galovitch to private and placing him in charge of the latrine. He has all of their framed boxing photos and trophies removed, openly declaring that “from now on no man's going to earn his stripes by boxing.”
That evening Maggio manages a daring escape from the stockade, dying in Prewitt’s arms after regaling him with the heinous torture he has endured at Judson’s hand. Bitter and angry, Prewitt plays Taps for Maggio, then accosts Judson with the same switchblade Judson drew on Maggio in the Officer’s Club. In the ensuing struggle, Prewitt murders Judson, but not before sustaining a serious wound to the stomach. Prewitt skulks off to Lorene’s apartment where she gingerly tends his wounds. But when the Japanese attack, Prewitt struggles to return to base camp under the cover of night. He is shot dead by a sentry and Warden, identifying the body with bittersweet emotion, declares “He was a good soldier. He loved the army more that any soldier I ever knew.”
With Holmes’ resignation Karen is required to return to the mainland. Discovering that Warden has failed to apply for his officer’s status, Karen bitterly accepts that their affair has run its course. As fate would have it Karen and Lorene meet aboard a ship bound for the United States, Karen tossing a pair of leis into the water and explaining that if they float to shore the legend says they will return someday.” But Lorene declares she will never return to Pearl Harbor and then tells Karen of Prewitt’s fate, saying “He was awarded the Silver Star. They sent it to his mother. She wrote me. She wanted me to have it. They are very fine people, Southern people. He was named after a general. Robert E. Lee Prewitt.” Karen, recognizing the name from her conversations with Warden, makes a half-hearted attempt to comfort Lorene as she holds his treasured bugle’s mouthpiece in her hands.
Nominated for a staggering 12 Academy Awards (and winning 8) From Here To Eternity is a landmark achievement, perhaps the opus magnum of all the early post-war ‘war’ pictures; beautifully crafted, expertly played and exquisitely told with a mostly unvarnished view of the conflict and the lives it impacted. Burnett Guffey’s Oscar-winning B&W cinematography creates a strangely oppressive landscape from the lush Hawaiian backdrops. There’s really not much to say about the performances except universally they are perfection. Zinnemann never forgets that he is telling a very adult story with sincerely adult themes; his characters maneuvered through the pitfalls and pleasures of their all too human endeavors - some destined for greatness, but most doomed to come to not. From Here To Eternity just feels real, unapologetic and making no excuses or moral judgment calls on the behavior of its participants, but rather simply allowing their foibles and follies to play out as a frank, no-nonsense part of their genetic makeup.
A pluperfect movie deserves an equally stunning transfer, and From Here To Eternity receives exactly that from Sony Home Entertainment: an immaculate presentation, with pitch perfect tonality, exceptional clarity, deep velvety blacks, crisp whites and moderately heavy grain reproduction. Clarity is startling. We get minute detail in hair and fabric, even granules of sand and blades of grass. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence in virtually every frame. There are a few very brief instances of over-processing but their impact to the overall presentation is negligible at best.  The DTS-HD 5.1 lossless soundtrack subtly enhances the original mono mix with unexpected and superb spatial separation between dialogue and effects.  
Now, for the bad news. The extra features are disappointing to say the least. We get the same old audio commentary from the DVD. Someone at Sony needs to reassess what they mean by including the virtually non-existent and, frankly embarrassing, nine minute gloss-over as a ‘making of’. This inconsequential fluff piece cannot even be called a featurette. It’s awful. I also have a gripe about the new picture-in-picture option. I was able to get the picture part alright, but had no audio to accompany it. After going through six discs at my local retailer we discovered together that none of them seemed to play this option correctly. Just how widespread this glitch is remains open for discussion, but I certainly hope Sony gets a clue and corrects it before any more copies are shipped out! Bottom line: From Here To Eternity is a masterpiece. While I sincerely support the quality of Sony’s efforts on this transfer, I have to say I was extremely disappointed by their overall lack of extra features – especially for such a titanic Oscar winner! Recommended, with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


1 comment:

David M. said...

Try switching the audio output on your Blu-Ray player from "Bitstream" to "PCM" (different players name these options differently, but it's the digital audio output through your HDMI cable). I only do this occasionally myself because I don't have much use for Picture-in-Picture features. I barely have time to watch the movies the regular way. Anyhow, I hope this helps!