This big best‑seller‑type movie (from James Jones’s novel) about life and love on a US Army base scooped an armload of Oscars in 1953. Director Fred Zinneman stages a few scenes so well that they are still imitated or parodied and, if the ‘adult’ themes ‑ blunted by a censorship requirement that the army not be offended by a depiction of military sloppiness, hypocrisy, homosexuality or brutality ‑ are less daring than they once were, it has more than enough iconic moments to make it endlessly rewatchable.
The power, fervency and soapy compulsion survives in Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 Oscar-winner From Here To Eternity. The scene is an American military base in Hawaii in the months and weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor – and the film’s inspired idea is tacitly to bring into parallel the vast, looming historical forces with this social and sexual pressure-cooker that’s about to blow.
The catastrophe of the bombing itself is a brilliant and spectacular set-piece, far superior to anything Michael Bay managed with his 2001 dumbfest. The base is almost like an American version of Kenyan Happy Valley with its horny, expatriate Brits. Burt Lancaster is the tough sergeant enjoying a blistering affair with a beautiful and highly-strung woman, played by Deborah Kerr, the wife of his incompetent commanding officer.
This film is a reminder that their famous kiss in the surf, with Burt having rather uncomfortably to strain his head up into the clinch, actually only lasts a second – despite being frozen, immortalised, on the poster and in a thousand spoofs. It isn’t long before they’re running back to the dunes and he’s on top.
The ocean spray dissolves into Montgomery Clift’s cigarette smoke. He’s a tense enlisted man; like Kerr, he has an awful secret; like Lancaster, he thinks promotion could be the way out. I have to say that Clift’s plot is far less compelling than Lancaster’s and something of the zip goes when Frank Sinatra disappears from the action, sent to the stockade. But what a punch this movie packs.