The all-time greatest director that your kids have never heard of is Fred Zinnemann.
Zinnemann was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1907. He had the good sense to move to the United States in 1929 to try to make it in the movie business. The rest of his family, including his parents, stayed back in Europe and were annihilated.
Like other Jewish immigrant filmmakers (Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Roman Polanski), personal horror seemed to spur them on to new artistic heights.
Fred Zinnemann directed “High Noon”: an intense, unique Western. And he made “A Man for All Seasons,” the greatest costume drama in cinema history. Both films are about a brave man of conscience who chooses to risk his life rather than compromise his beliefs.
“From Here to Eternity” explores the same topic. Montgomery Clift is amazing as Pvt Pruitt: a career military man who just got transferred to an army base in Hawaii.
Things are looking good for Pruitt. He is a renowned middleweight boxer and the Lieutenant in command of his new company is obsessed with boxing. The problem is: Pruitt won’t fight anymore. He has retired from the ring. And that’s final.
The Lieutenant thinks he can make Pruitt give in and fight. He orders Pruitt to do extra running, extra KP duty, and anything else he can think of to make life miserable.
It doesn’t work. Not just because Pvt Pruitt has made his decision final. But also because he loves being a soldier.
“From Here to Eternity” is an insightful military movie. Most films about the army show us basic training and always from the perspective of guys who don’t particularly want to be there.
But what about the millions of men who choose to spend the best years of their lives in uniform? Montgomery Clift shows us what makes a man like that tick.
When his superiors ride him and treat him unfairly, he does not wince and he does not complain. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he is happy to do the extra work.
That’s a career soldier for you. When ordered to do something unpleasant, you yell “yes, sir” and act like you eagerly want to do it. And after a while, you half convince yourself that you do.
I can’t overemphasize how impressed I am with Montgomery Clift’s performance. It reminded me of what James Dean could have become if he had not died so young. Clift is tough and manly, but wounded and soulful. I don’t think there was a better actor in the 1950s.
In addition to being a fantastic army movie, “From Here to Eternity” is a first-rate soap opera.
Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are believable as a doomed couple having a steamy illicit affair. They show us how a secret romance is completely addictive but guaranteed to make you miserable.
How the heck do you balance a serious military analysis and an emotional soap opera in one coherent movie? I have no idea. But Fred Zinnemann pulled it off. He was one of greatest directors of all time.