Tonight: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed and Ernest Borgnine star in the Oscar-winning five-star classic From Here to Eternity.
Director Fred Zinnemann brought the hugely popular James Jones novel to the screen for Columbia Pictures.
It was a powerful, unforgettable portrait of pre-World War II Pearl Harbor—the servicemen and their women—and the destiny that awaited them all.
Jones wrote his novel (his first) from personal experience. He had served in the Army in Hawaii prior to the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands.
The Army, however, wasn’t happy with Jones’ fierce indictment of life at Schofield Barracks and refused to cooperate unless major concessions were made.
One of the chief complaints concerned the captain in the story. In the book, he gets away with everything, actually being promoted to major. The Pentagon didn’t see the irony in this reality.
In the film, the captain is cashiered for his cruelty and malfeasance. As a result of this compromise, the film is shot in the actual locations described in the book, with the Army’s permission.
Columbia bought the screen rights to the novel on March 4, 1951 for $82,000. Jones autographed a copy of his book to Harry Cohn, the controversial head of Columbia, “From one asshole to another.”
It was Daniel Taradash, a graduate of Harvard Law School who began his career by co-writing the screenplay for Golden Boy in 1939, who Cohn hired to translate the 861-page, controversial novel into a film that wouldn’t only pass muster with the military, but acceptance from the Production Code as well. For the novel was filled with obscenity, brutality—and a good deal more.
For his trouble, Taradash was given 2½ percent of the profits.
It was Taradash who lobbied for Zinnemann to direct. Zinnemann had just finished directing High Noon.
Most of Zinnemann’s battles weren’t with the censors or the military. They were with Cohn.
The powerful cast was assembled almost by accident.
An early Columbia press release had announced that Broderick Crawford, Glenn Ford and John Derek would star in the picture—all Columbia contract players.
Cohn wanted John Derek or Aldo Ray to play Prewitt; Zinnemann wanted Montgomery Clift.
Cohn objected, saying that the actor was too temperamental. Zinnemann replied that, without Clift, he wouldn’t make the picture. “You can’t give me ultimatums,” Cohn roared.
“I’m not giving you ultimatums,” Zinnemann replied. “I want to make a good picture, and I don’t see how I can make this picture without Monty Clift.”
Clift got the part. Cohn hired him for $150,000.
Burt Lancaster’s role of the top sergeant was originally supposed to go to Edmond O’Brien. Lancaster was hired instead, from producer Hal Wallis (who had him under contract) for $120,000.
For the female lead, Cohn wanted Joan Crawford. Everyone else was against Cohn’s choice, and a dispute over wardrobe prompted her to withdraw from the picture. An agent suggested the very proper British actress Deborah Kerr for the role of the officer’s wife who sleeps with enlisted men. Since Kerr was best known for playing nuns and similar prudish parts, Cohn was flabbergasted at the suggestion and shouted at the agent: “Why you stupid son-of-a-bitch, get out of her!”
That Freudian slip made a good story, but when Zinnemann heard it, he reasoned that casting Kerr in the role against type might not be such a bad idea. He knew that the adulterous relationship with Lancaster would be more acceptable if it was played by someone as refined as Kerr.
The second female lead was also cast against type. Sweet Donna Reed—James Stewart’s girlfriend in It’s a Wonderful Life—got the part of the prostitute.
Zinnemann had wanted Julie Harris, but Cohn wanted Reed because she was under contract to Columbia.
Clift liked the role of Prewitt and Prewitt’s philosophy: “A man’s gotta go his own way or he’s nothin’.”
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and what Clift did throughout the production was drink. In the “drunk” scene with Lancaster, Clift was actually intoxicated. His drinking was so serious that it became a matter of real concern.
It was Sinatra who befriended Clift and helped him through the tough times, but they also went on benders together. Despite the drinking, Clift gave a stunning performance that prompted an Oscar nomination—his third.
When he didn’t win, he was devastated. He started on a downward spiral from which he never fully recovered.
He refused top roles in On The Waterfront (1954) and East Of Eden (1955); he didn’t make another American film until Raintree County (1957).
While that film was in production, Clift had a near fatal accident while driving home from Elizabeth Taylor’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Badly disfigured, he still managed to give powerful performances in The Misfits (1961) and Freud (1962).
He died in 1966—at the age of 45.
The irony in this tragedy is the opposite impact that From Here to Eternity had on Sinatra’s career. Almost out of the business, his singing career and his marriage to Ava Gardner in shambles, deeply in debt and dropped by his own agency (MCA), Sinatra personally wrote to Cohn pleading to play the part of Maggio. It was unlike any part he had ever played before, but he was convinced he would be perfect in the role.
Zinnemann wanted Eli Wallach, but when Wallach decided to do a Broadway play with Elia Kazan, Sinatra got a chance to do a screen test.
Sinatra had been in Africa with Ava, where she had been making Mogambo with Clark Gable. Ava gave Sinatra the money to fly to L.A. for the test—or as some say, to get him out of the way.
She got pregnant during the making of Mogambo and flew to London for an abortion. Some suggest that Gable, not Sinatra, caused the unwanted pregnancy.
Sinatra told Harry Cohn he would play the part of Maggio for nothing, and he did. He got $8,000 for the role that would win him an Oscar and a whole new career. So it didn’t take a horse’s head in his bed from the mob to convince Cohn to give Sinatra the part.
Everyone connected to From Here To Eternity was nominated for an Academy Award. Both Clift and Lancaster were nominated for Best Actor. Kerr was nominated for Best Actress. Reed and Sinatra were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor.
The film was nominated for 13 Oscars—and won 8 of them—including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Recording and Film Editing.
From Here to Eternity also earned $19 million in its initial release, generating a profit of more than $12 million—a return of more than 500 percent on its investment.
So now—from 1953—From Here to Eternity.