Fred Zinnemann

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)

  • Born: 1907
  • Died: 1997
  • Rank: 46
  • Score: 581.30
  • Awards: 2 Oscars / 2 DGA / 2 Golden Globes / 4 NYFC / 2 NBR
  • Nominations: 7 Oscars / 8 DGA / 2 BAFTA’s / 7 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films: 21
  • Best: From Here to Eternity
  • Worst: The Nun’s Story

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. From Here to Eternity – 1953
  2. A Man for all Seasons – 1966
  3. High Noon – 1952
  4. Day of the Jackal – 1973
  5. A Hatful of Rain – 1957

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1948 – 7th – The Search
  • 1952 – 2nd – High Noon
  • 1953 – 1st – From Here to Eternity
  • 1966 – 3rd – A Man for all Seasons
  • 1973 – 1oth – Day of the Jackal
  • 1977 – 9th – Julia

What should we think of Fred Zinnemann and his films? On the one hand, his reputation has certainly declined among those who write and think about film. David Thomson described him as having “all the disposable qualities: diligence instead of imagination; more care than instinct; solemnity, but no wit.” He only has three films in the Top 1000 and only High Noon ranks higher than 700 (his two Best Picture winners are at 709 and 878). And Andrew Sarris, the godfather of the Auteur Theory threw him in his chapter “Less Than Meets the Eye” and said “his neatness and decorum constitute his gravest artistic defects.” And that was in 1968, just after Zinnemann had won his second Oscar.

On the other hand, the awards groups – his contemporary peers – loved him. In spite of directing before the BSFC, LAFC, CFC or BFCA and doing most of his work before the NSFC or the BAFTA award for Director, he still ranks 4th all-time in awards points, behind only Spielberg, Scorsese and Lean. He is one of only two people to win 4 New York Film Critics Awards (the other is John Ford), one of only nine to win multiple National Board of Review awards, was the all-time leader for the DGA until passed by Spielberg, is tied for third for points from the Oscars and tied for second behind Spielberg at the Golden Globes. He won Best Picture and Director in 1953 (deservedly), did it again in 1966 (for a great film but one that shouldn’t have won because of Virginia Woolf), should have won in 1952 (easily the best film among the nominees); even the film I think is his weakest won the NBR and NYFC and was nominated for the Oscar, DGA, Golden Globe and BAFTA.

So who is Zinnemann as a director? After all, I only rank him 46th. He was an adapator. In both a literal and metaphorical sense. He almost never made a film from an original screenplay, but he also never stuck to the same idea. He made westerns, war films, dramas, even a musical. I rank him as low as I do because he made a lot of good films, never a bad one (I am not a fan of Nun’s Story, but I would by no means call it a bad film), but not very many great ones (only has top three do I give **** to). He suffers from the lack of respect on the Top 1000 list. He also is in a big bunch – 30 more points would move him up 10 slots. Howard Hawks once defined a good movie as “three good scenes, no bad ones.” That was kind of the summation of Zinnemann’s career. Many good movies. No bad ones.

From Here to Eternity – #1 film of 1953

How often do the Academy Awards get it right? About 1/4 of the time. I agree with 20 choices in 81 years. And they go in waves as well. I agree with 60-62, 91-93 and 06-08. Eternity was followed the next year by On the Waterfront, another choice I agree with, though they were bookended by Greatest Show on Earth and Marty, in my opinion two of the worst choices the Academy ever made.

From Here to Eternity delivers on its promise. We have an epic length novel – close to 800 pages with a detailed story of poor Pvt. Prewitt and his longing to be a good bugler but not to have to box. And we have his love for the prostitute, Lorene. Then we have the love affair between Sgt. Warden and the captain’s wife. Two completely different types of love affairs involving very different people that still end up linked.

The first thing that was done so well was the casting. Producer Harry Cohn scoffed when meeting with Zinnemann, commenting “You know who this stupid son of a bitch suggested? Deborah Kerr!” Zinnemann immediately knew this was brilliant casting. Then Frank Sinatra begged for the part (the whole idea is the inspiration for the horse’s head scene in The Godfather). And Donna Reed abandoned her goody good image to play Lorene. Then of course, there was the core casting of Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. Sinatra and Reed won Oscars, the other three getting nominations. Zinnemann won, the script won and the film won.

In all, Eternity won 8 Oscars among its 13 nominations. At the time it tied Gone with the Wind for the most Oscars, was tied for the 2nd most nominations and on my point scale is still the most successful film in Oscar history.

Up against it that year were the over-rated Shane, the very nice Roman Holiday and two films very typical of Zinnemann – tasteful good adaptations, but not great films – Julius Caesar and The Robe. But Zinnemann found a way to make a great film. A film that not only stood up at the time, but that still stands up today.