War films are imbued with a sense of fatalism, with protagonists caught in the vast maelstrom of events of which they are only a very small part. Their actions when multiplied carry the weight of the entire endeavor while each individual carries the burden of their specific relationship to it. For decades, American cinema predominately concerned itself with the former, while explorations of the latter have been comparatively rare. Hollywood films, forever representative of escapism, often remain as insulated from the direct ramifications of war as the American public. William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives bridged that gulf by crafting an unflinching evaluation of the plight returning veterans experience within the context of a Hollywood picture. The films significance holds because it speaks to universal truths that remain consistent regardless of prevailing political hostilities. Wyler’s masterpiece is a pioneering achievement that serves as a template from which later films have endeavored to reconcile the difficulties veterans and their family’s experience. However, Wyler’s film may never have come to fruition had he not the experiential desire to describe to the families of returning servicemen what they may have been incapable of, nor a very personal imperative.
Wyler, an Alsatian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1921, understood the atrocious shadow Hitler’s fascist regime was casting over Europe and was impassioned to persuade Americans to abandon their government’s stance of non-intervention and become directly involved. His 1942 film Mrs. Miniver was a transparent piece of propaganda that tugged at the Anglo-centric tether linking the United States and England. The story of Greer Garson’s titular matron who transcends ever increasingly dire circumstances of a war brought quite literally to her doorstep was an effective melodrama. The films memorable denouement of the priest’s impassioned plea for the beleaguered members of a “quiet corner of England” to fight the “people’s war” against tyranny doubled as Wyler’s personal entreaty to audiences. By the time of the film’s release, the United States was indeed at war. Nevertheless, Wyler’s agitprop met with American audiences post Pearl Harbor fervor to universal praise garnering six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. When Wyler was informed he won the Best Director Oscar, he was already in Europe contributing directly to the war effort in his capacity as a film director. By 1942 he had volunteered as a Major in the US Army Air Forces, directing two documentaries on the air war, Thunderbolt and Memphis Belle. For the latter, determined to deliver the treacherous sacrifices of the crewmen to American audiences, Wyler accompanied the crew of the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle on a number of bombing raids over German territory to document their 25th and final mission. Naturally, Memphis Belle was subtracted of the contrivances Mrs. Miniver depended on to express the parlous reality of a world at war, but in the context Wyler’s oeuvre, he captured an extraordinary testimonial only possible through the lens of a fearless documentarian. During one such bombing raid, an anti-aircraft shell exploded near where Wyler was seated, rendering him deaf in one ear. During another, one of his cameramen, Harold J. Tannenbaum was killed when the bomber he was occupying was shot down over France. Wyler returned to the United States burdened not only with a disability, but a perspective only afforded men who had experienced the harrowing ordeal of war first hand. Despite his initial misgivings regarding his ability to continue as a filmmaker, he decided to channel his own comprehension into The Best Years of Our Lives.
One such returning veteran is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews). The Best Years of Our Lives opens with Derry asking a receptionist if she has any flights available for his home town, Boone City. She apologetically, if somewhat dismissively, informs him that all flights to Boone City are full right now but she has a flight available in a few days. Fully dressed in his uniform, he impatiently informs her of the obvious, “I just got back from overseas; I want to get back home.” “I’m sorry sir, but there is a long waiting list.” Before Mr. Derry has the opportunity to respond, an older and obviously well-heeled business man interrupts him, informing the receptionist his secretary has made the necessary arrangements for his own ticket. The receptionist immediately confirms the businessman’s flight and asserts that he has 16 lbs of extra baggage, golf clubs. Unthinkingly, he pulls out his billfold and happily agrees to pay whatever amount is necessitated for the extra load. If only the metaphorical baggage Fred Derry is carrying was so easily dismissed or even acknowledged. Dana Andrews’ Derry is a man whose stiffness approaches obvious discomfort; it belies a roiling unsettled disquietude that is just barely suppressed.
Eventually he procures his flight with two other Boone City residents, sailor Homer Parrish and Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson. In the cramped nose of the B-17 they are sharing home, they move immediately from the banal pleasantries of introduction to allowing themselves to express the trepidation of returning to civilian life. There isn’t a switch one can throw to prepare these men for civilian life, nor an instantaneous panacea to ameliorate the distance, time and experiences that have passed between them and their loved ones in the interceding years. Despite Homer’s jocular and winning manner he confesses he has a sweetheart he has misgivings returning to. But it’s obviously more than that. His hands, burned off completely when his aircraft carrier was destroyed, have been replaced by prosthetic hooks. This isn’t an effective Hollywood prop; they’re real and so is the story of the veteran playing Homer Parrish, Harold Russell. While making a training film for new recruits an explosive Russell was carrying inadvertently detonated in his hands. They were later amputated. Frederic March’s Stephenson also has a sweetheart to return to, albeit one the middle aged banker has been married to for twenty years. He’s returning to now grown children he scarcely recognizes and a wife he must become reacquainted with. Derry too has a wife, one he only knew for twenty days before they were married. As Al indelicately yet succinctly puts it later in the film, “Last year it was killing Japs, this year it’s make money.” As they finally pass over Boone City their excitement upon returning gives way to revealing observations. Derry, spying a golf course ruefully notes, “Look at them, playing golf…as if nothing happened.” It’s a statement not of bitterness but of disbelief that hints at a shared concern of where these men might fit in a new world full of mundanities they scarcely recall.
Identity is a significant theme throughout the film. Wyler’s casting of non-actor Harold Russell proved an inspired choice. An actor would have been incapable of translating such circumstances without falling into piteous tropes. While Wyler is certain to show Russell’s capabilities with the prosthesis throughout the film, non-actor Russell’s subtly vulnerable performance lifts Robert Sherwood’s script from the screen and places it before the audience enduringly. Homer’s contemplation’s to his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) regarding his disability, and more specifically his family’s inability to acknowledge them, can’t have been dissimilar to Russell’s own and thousands of more veterans. Butch notes that no matter how Homer’s family reacts to his disability, either transparently avoiding it of being overly courteous in regard towards it, Homer remains uncomfortable. He assures him that in time they will grow accustomed to his disability. But Homer’s discomfort belies the contradiction in Butch’s paternalistic observation. He can’t be certain Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will accept him for who he has become. While Homer readies for bed necessitating his father’s assistance, Wyler’s camera focuses on Homer’s face, careful to avoid showing the extent of his injuries. Later, when Wilma acquiesces to Homer’s decision to expose the nature of his disability, Wyler conversely shoots the same ritual this time with the full extent of Russell’s injuries on display. For Wilma and the audience, it is a shocking and deeply empathetic decision that is emblematic of just how singularly potent The Best Years of Our Live remains in the canon of war films.
Stephenson’s return to his family is simultaneously joyous and impressionistic. He playfully greets both of his children by entreating them to keep quiet so that he might surprise their unsuspecting mother. Realizing it must be her husband’s return, Milly Stephenson (Myrna Loy) appears at the end of the hallway, with March and their children in the foreground. As March strides down the hall towards Loy, cinematographer Gregg Toland utilizes his characteristic deep focus and deep staging, enhancing their distance and ensuring just enough suspension in time to grant their reunion added emotional effectiveness. Stephenson’s embrace of Milly in the background, observed with approving agreement by their children in the foreground defies melodramatic convention and speaks to Wyler and Toland’s sense of economic film making while stylistically it enhances the realism of a film that pointedly invites the audience to draw parallels to their own lives. Despite his loving and obviously devoted family, much has changed in his absence and it’s apparent their reacquaintance promises to be difficult. Throughout the film, Stephenson appears incapable of relaxing and has clearly taken to alcohol in a detrimental way. Despite the fact that Wyler and March play this in a mostly humorous manner, it’s evident at moments in the picture that it is problematic and newly acquired.
While Derry was a low-income soda jerk before the war started, stepping into his uniform granted him a new found status in life. But everything, from the mass of ribbons on his chest to the wife he is returning to comes replete with contradictions. Marie (Virginia Mayo) tellingly informs Fred that he, “Doesn’t look like himself without his uniform.” It’s a portentous observation. Fred is struggling with PTSD and suffering from night terrors he can’t possibly explain to a frivolous, spend thrift wife who works at a nightclub and betrays little concern for his plight, admonishing him to “snap out of it!” Despite the fact that Derry seems determined to make their union possible, it’s evident her interest in him extends only as far he is a useful accouterment to her lifestyle. Derry’s skills as a bombardier, once essential, are now useless and he is left floundering in the same societal stratum he left when he departed Boone City. In order for Derry to regain his person hood, he must find the will to reconcile his considerable impairment with the necessities of carving a life subtracted of assurances or options. In this sense, Derry is representative of countless veterans; he is the universal “Forgotten Man” of the American historical landscape. The Best Years of Our Lives exhibits the anxieties immediate post-war America was contemporaneously experiencing. At one point while Derry is looking for work an observer coldly remarks on the upheaval Americans are expecting with millions of men returning to the labor market. Stephenson upon returning to his bank is promoted to a position cruelly suited to his experience; offering (or denying) returning GI’s loans. It might easily have been Derry pleading with Stephenson for such a loan and indeed, conflict arises when a budding romance between Stephenson’s daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright) and Derry becomes increasingly inevitable.
Despite being a world away from the rubble strewn streets and ominous corners of Italian neo-realism, the miasma of nuclear annihilation is mentioned more than once in the film. Sherwood and Wyler were keenly implying the psychological impact the ultra-destruction the war had on the world with the repeated presumption that a war of this magnitude in the nuclear age would be the inevitable ruin of mankind. It is simultaneously hopeful in its cognizance yet troubling when viewed retrospectively. But this isn’t an anti-war film; it neither condemns nor celebrates warfare in its totality. Instead, Wyler’s film follows three veterans to convey how they cope with having survived something more akin to a natural disaster than heroic adventurism and deals specifically with the expectations that segregate them from their families. Their lives, intersecting in a way only Hollywood could have conceived in a film ending with a bathetic finale don’t mirror reality whole-cloth. It isn’t meant to. Subsequently, films from The Deer Hunter and Coming Home to The Thin Red Line and post 9/11 cinema have attempted to reconcile the war with the veteran and each owes a debt of acknowledgement to the very specific exploration established by The Best Years of Our Lives. For Wyler, It lies somewhere between the cinematic propaganda of Mrs. Miniver and the unflinching visceral reality of Memphis Belle. It is a filmmaker’s personal reckoning with his own war experience and a humanistic picture that acknowledges its audiences need for recognition and more importantly, hope. Tragically, the film likewise predicts a perennial necessity for its existence.
Featured Image: Warner Home Video