Considering how many great movies he directed, Fred Zinnemann is seriously underappreciated. He won best director for High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons—but you don't hear him mentioned in the same breath as other luminaries like Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stephen Spielberg. It's hard to understand why.
Zinnemann apparently liked to make movies about lone individuals taking stands. Prewitt clearly does this in From Here to Eternity, standing up to "The Treatment" when Captain Holmes tries to force him into the boxing tournament. It's pretty similar to High Noon, in which Gary Cooper's small-town sheriff has to defend his town from bad guys—even though the townspeople are total wusses and won't lift a finger to help him.
Also, Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons tackles the true story of Sir Thomas More, who refused to support King Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church. More was executed for high treason.
In directing this movie, Zinnemann balances the personal, human drama with a greater view of history. We get to see a detailed, carefully crafted depiction of the American soldiers' lives in Hawaii: their love affairs, their bar fights, their musical pastimes, and their small-scale struggles.
But at the end of the movie, we get to see these personal problems weighed against a massive, international crisis—the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted America's entry into World War II. Zinnemann actually used footage that was filmed by the famous director John Ford during World War II—parts of it are really from the field of fight, but the footage mostly consists of extremely realistic reconstructions created by Ford.
So a good portion of Zinnemann's skill lies in showing these small-scale moments—like the famous kiss-on-the-beach between Warden and Mrs. Holmes—and the larger-scale moments, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, and putting them together. It gives the movie a feel that's both epic and human… and pretty sexy, in a sand-in-the-swimsuit kind of way.
James Jones wrote the book on which From Here to Eternity is based, and so should get a pretty significant amount of credit. Of course, Jones' book ran over 800 pages—so kudos to screenwriter Daniel Taradash for shaping it into a well-made movie with a running time of under 120 minutes. (His script ended up earning Taradash an Oscar.)
Jones' book is still considered one of the greatest American novels about World War II—perhaps the greatest. So, even though it's a doorstop, you should check it out.
Oh, and Jones and Taradash were both World War II veterans. Like his own characters, Jones was stationed on Oahu before the war and was present for the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. He later fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal, in addition to working as a foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War (though that was quite awhile after From Here to Eternity came out).
So, the book emerged straight out of his experience of army life—it's chock-full of true facts.
War is important in Jones' other books, though none of them achieved the same success as From Here to Eternity. However, The Thin Red Line (1962) was made into a 1998 movie directed by acclaimed art-house auteur Terence Malick.
Also, Jones' book originally had way more adult content than in the movie. The "hostesses" who work at The New Congress Club are actually prostitutes, and Karen Holmes has a miscarriage because her adulterous husband gives her gonorrhea. Yikes.
Taradash was skilled at adaptations, later adapting the screenplay for Picnic (1955), based on a hit play by William Inge. He also wrote the scripts for Hawaii (1966), adapted from a James Michener book, and Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) adapted from a Broadway play by John van Druten.
Initially, the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, had a lot of ideas for casting From Here to Eternity—and most of them didn't work out. He wanted Humphrey Bogart to play Warden and Joan Crawford to play Karen Holmes. Neither happened—Crawford was nixed after she insisted on being filmed by her own cameraman. Lancaster and Deborah Kerr took the roles, respectively, with Kerr playing against type, since she typically played English duchesses and things like that.
Cohn wanted Aldo Ray to play Prewitt, since he was cheaper than Clift (who was what today might be called buzz-worthy—the young superstar of the moment). But the director, Zinnemann, threatened to resign, and managed to ensure Clift got the role. (Source) .
Also, Cohn and Zinnemann originally wanted Eli Wallach (the guy who played "The Ugly" in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to play Maggio—but Wallach turned down the role to do a Broadway play instead.
The role ended up going to Frank Sinatra, who was down on his luck and badly in need of a break. The Godfather (the book and the movie) later implied that Sinatra got the part by having mafia associates put a severed horse head in Cohn's bed to scare him. However, this simply isn't true (even though it's such a good story). Sinatra probably got the role due to his then-wife Ava Gardner's connections. (Source)
Another producer was Buddy Adler, who went on to produce other classic melodramas like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). Interestingly, like From Here to Eternity, both are love stories set in far-flung locations: the former in Hong Kong during China's Communist Revolution, and the latter on a South Pacific Island during WWII.
Also, as with Warden's love for Karen Holmes, both films deal with love that wouldn't be officially approved by society: the main character in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing has an affair with a half-Chinese nurse, earning the condemnation of conventional Hong Kong, while the main character in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison falls in love—with a nun. (Nothing happens, though).
Burnett Guffey won an Academy Award for his cinematography on this movie (he also won one for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967). Guffey filmed a lot of film noirs, and he seems to have brought his aptitude for that shadowy style to certain scenes—like when the soldiers are on the town at night and when Prewitt has his knife fight with Judson.
From Here to Eternity doesn't really linger on the natural beauty of Hawaii, though. Instead, it explores the close-quarters social world of military life on the island.
One of Guffey's most important contributions has to be the movie's most famous scene—the kiss on the beach, where Sgt. Warden and Karen Holmes roll around in the sand, snogging, as a wave crashes over them. It wasn't described this way in the screenplay, which only called for a (yawn) standing-up kiss. Capturing the kiss lying down changed the whole nature of the scene, making it significantly steamier.
Also, we should note that Guffey was responsible for the closeup battle footage with the movie's characters shooting at the Japanese plains.
But he wasn't responsible for the footage of the actual bombing of American ships—the epic, large-scale footage. Those images came from a collage of real and reconstructed battle footage taken by the famous director John Ford (who mainly did classic westerns like The Searchers) for a wartime documentary he made on Pearl Harbor entitled December 7th.
Oh, and since it was made way back in 1953, From Here to Eternity was shot on film, definitely not on digital. (Just thought we should mention it.)
George Duning composed the score for From Here to Eternity, which earned him an Oscar nomination. He was a storied composer who ended up being nominated for Oscars five different times, including for Picnic (1955). Duning also did music for tons of movies and TV shows (and music which was subsequently reused for lots of TV shows), with his work being frequently uncredited.
But the most memorable musical moment in the film is probably a song that some of the characters actually play: "Re-Enlistment Blues," which was written by James Jones (the author of the novel, From Here to Eternity), Fred Karger, and Robert Wells. The character who sings the song in the movie, "Sal Anderson," is actually played by Merle Travis, a famous Country guitarist and singer from the era.
The song itself is a bluesy lament about a soldier who's left the army but doesn't like life outside and ends up reenlisting. "Got paid out on Monday / Not a dog soldier no more / They gimme all that money / So much my pockets is sore / More dough than I can use… Re-Enlistment Blues!" The tune is also referenced in Dunning's score.
Also, the soldiers entertain themselves with music that features in the movie—the group who plays "Re-Enlistment Blues" lets Prewitt jam with them on the bugle. Plus, we see Sgt. Judson playing piano (badly) in The New Congress Club, which ends up starting a fight with Maggio.
From Here to Eternity has a "fandom" in the sense that a lot of people really like it. But it doesn't have a fandom the way Star Wars or the Indiana Jones movies do: little kids are still dressing up like Yoda and Ewoks on Halloween, but not Sgt. Warden and Robert E. Lee Prewitt.
You hear that, kids? Step up your WWII military costume game.
One way people have paid tribute to the movie and its influence is by constantly parodying its most famous scene: where Warden and Mrs. Holmes kiss on the beach as a wave breaks over them. Tons of works of art have lampooned what is possibly the sandiest kiss of all time, from The Little Mermaid to Grease to The Simpsons to MAD Magazine.
Also, according to this article from TCM, fans of From Here to Eternity have gone on to demonstrate its influence in their own creative work: Elaine's dad on Seinfeld, Alton Benes, is supposedly a spoof of the author of From Here to Eternity, James Jones.
There was a critically acclaimed 1979 mini-series based on the book/movie, and The Godfather famously suggested that Frank Sinatra might've got his part in the movie by having mafia guys put a horse's head in the producer's bed. Unfortunately, fiction is stranger than truth when it comes to Ol' Blue Eyes getting his Hollywood break.