In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1953 winner From Here to Eternity. Is it better than Crash?
From Here to Eternity is about the big things that happen to us when we’re obsessed with our own lives. It’s a war movie, to a degree, but it’s mostly about how people can ignore a war. The entire film takes place in the few months just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much has been said about that time, but the most fascinating part of this movie is that it never comes up at all. People go about their lives and try to do their best in the military, but there are no foreboding scenes about “what might happen” or the upcoming events. It’s dramatic irony at its best: we know that none of these problems matter because all of these people are about to die, but they care because that’s what people do.
It would be possible for that to diminish the film, but it doesn’t. The performances are so tight that it’s easy to forget that the time and the setting mean that you already know everyone here is doomed. Whether you can look past that or not will determine how much you enjoy the film’s narrative, but you can’t ignore the greatness. It’s an enormous achievement, even if it’s not one that comes up on the list of “greats” as often as other Best Pictures.
Everyone is entangled, which helps to distract from the unstoppable reality of World War II. Private “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) joins up with the other enlisted men on Oahu and does not want to continue his famed boxing career. His superiors demand that he does, and the struggle of violence vs. non-violence is on. There’s a quiet symbolism here, and Clift’s character definitely speaks to an America that was strong enough to engage with anyone, but would rather not utilize that strength, if possible. When the company’s Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober) threatens an extreme punishment, his second-in-command Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster, who is outstanding even among so many great performances) offers that they should merely try to break his spirit rather than court-martial him.
Thus the stage is set. People continually try to push Prewitt into fighting, but he won’t strike back. The last time he boxed he blinded a man, and now he’s hung up his gloves for good. The metaphor might sound a little strong in this description, but it’s subtle in the film. Prewitt would rather endure a difficult life than use his strength to hurt a man, but he’s forced into action when his best friend Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar himself for what should feel like a weirder role than it does) is brutalized by a superior. Prewitt has to find a way to balance his principles with protecting his friend, and the twain shall never meet.
There are also two beautifully drawn love stories: Prewitt meets a working girl (Donna Reed, who also won an Oscar for her role) in a gentleman’s club and struggles to begin a relationship with her and Warden starts a full-on criminal affair with his superior’s wife (Deborah Kerr) that has its own issues. Both relationships are honest in a nontraditional way, and they have a sense of reality that a lot of movie romances don’t have. They also both are doomed by circumstance as much as by World War II, which plays again into the main idea here: the things you’re working so hard to control might be out of your hands.
Then, as in all war movies, the war comes. You know it’s coming, but no one else does, and neither you or the cast will be ready for it when it happens.
The Best Part: Sinatra’s sad, defeated Maggio is a powerful character, and he’s insanely likable because he’s Sinatra. Lancaster steals the show and his relationship with Deborah Kerr is the iconic part of the movie, but it’s such an odd sensation to watch Frank Sinatra in a movie about Pearl Harbor. Hard to pick between them.
The Worst Part: While it’s important for the narrative that Sinatra and Clift’s characters be ganged up on, some of their antagonists are a little one-note. Ernest Borgnine plays the particularly brutal head of the stockades, and I can’t say I’m a fan of his performance. He’s largely drawn as just “a bully” which seems too simple, based on the motivations around him.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s a top-10 film on this list of some of the greatest films of all time. It’s a powerful metaphor about strength vs. demonstrated power and war. It’s an amazing achievement featuring some of the greatest actors and actresses of its day. It cannot be recommended highly enough. Don’t see Crash. I was going to make a joke here about a bad scene in Crash, but I couldn’t decide between the extended fart joke subplot or the country music discussion. Pick neither. Watch From Here to Eternity.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.