The 1950s were an odd time in filmmaking. World War II films were a cash cow for a while, but that was starting to fade. McCarthyism and blacklisting led to many of the most talented artists unable to make films. Cinematographers were starting to break through with color films and what one could do with that. My top film of the 1950s basically took on all of that and still comes out remarkably well – From Here to Eternity (1953, dir. Fred Zinnemann).
From Here to Eternity focuses on a military base in Hawaii in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor. The primary characters include Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), recently transferred to this outfit after some controversy largely because he is a middleweight boxer and this company needs one to win a competition. The only problem is Prewitt won’t box anymore after a previous bad experience in the ring. This leads the unit to “put the screws on” to convince him to change his mind. His only friend in the platoon is Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), who stands up for him repeatedly and introduces him to Lorene (Donna Reed) at a local escort club. The second in command of the company is First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who falls for his superior officer’s wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) and is eventually sympathetic to Prewitt.
To call From Here to Eternity a war movie not terribly accurate. It is a relationship movie that happens to take place on a military base. What the film manages to do – rather impressively – is to create a sense of danger without constantly reminding you the Japanese invasion is coming soon. Yes, there is a giant calendar over Sgt. Warden’s head during the many office scenes. But the film creates the danger in Warden and Karen trying to evade detection, in Prewitt taking whatever comes his way without fighting back, and in Maggio tangling with the wrong man. None of those situations involves war. It is a unique lens to film through and one that creates an unexpected world that delivers consistently.
The cast is uniformly great, but the standouts are Clift, Sinatra, and Reed – the latter two winning a pair of the film’s eight Oscars. For whatever reason, audiences of today do not regard Clift at the level he probably achieved and deserves. It could have something to do with his premature death at age 45, depriving him of a full career. This is without question his greatest performance – nuanced and subtle with occasional bursts of fiery passion – particularly of note when he performs a moving rendition of “Taps” on his bugle.
One of the greatest films of all time, From Here to Eternity stands the test of time – despite some fairly significant changes in acting style from the time it was shot. Possibly without knowing it, most people have likely viewed its most iconic scene either directly or more likely parodied. This is, of course, in reference to Warden and Karen’s lip-locked moment on the sandy beach with the waves crashing over their bodies. It is a fitting metaphor for the entire film – and indeed my personal response to it. The film crashes over you in an unrelenting way, but you just let it happen – knowing another wave is coming but choosing to live in the immediacy of the moment.
FUN FACT – The famous scene at the start of The Godfather where Vito Corleone threatens a Hollywood producer to cast his friend – singing actor Johnny Fontane – was allegedly based on Sinatra’s role in From Here to Eternity. While most people believe that to be an urban legend today, particularly due to Mario Puzo’s vociferous denial that Fontane was anything other than an original creation, the parallels are close enough to make it plausible at least.
Here are my top ten films from the 1950s. Not a lot of controversy regarding inclusion here as release date is a definite thing. Overall ranking is in parentheses.
- From Here to Eternity (3)
- Rear Window (4) By the slimmest of margins (0.2 points) this one is nudged out by Zinnemann’s classic. Hitchcock was a genius, and this is his best.
- Singin’ in the Rain (16)
- On the Waterfront (22)
- Some Like It Hot (23)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (27) How crazy is it that this amazing film is somehow the 6th best from this decade. VERY strong, top heavy decade for film.
- A Streetcar Named Desire (33)
- Giant (34) I will beat the drum a bit for this one. Maybe not too many people have seen it, but this sprawling epic is James Dean’s best performance and showcases Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor over several decades following the growth of Texas. It is a great showcase of the star era of filmmaking.
- North by Northwest (48)
- 12 Angry Men (51) If you can find it, there is a fantastic remake of 12 Angry Men updated to present day starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott. Watch them both.
Just Watch says that From Here to Eternity is currently streaming on Max (which is a treasure trove for old movies). It is available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.