The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

“The best-directed film I’ve ever seen in my life.” 
— Billy Wilder (Quoted in Eagan, 2010: 401)

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler

Instead of depicting any actual theatre of combat, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), much like his previous feature film Mrs Miniver (1942), focussed upon the domestic front of World War Two. Shifting from the United Kingdom to the United States, it followed the stories of three men from different social and economic backgrounds returning to their hometown of (the fictional) Boone City, who befriend each other during their plane journey home: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a bombardier, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a platoon sergeant in the Pacific theatre and Homer Parrish (played by the unprofessional actor Harold Russell), a Navy officer who lost both of his arms in conflict and who now uses metal hook prostheses. What follows are the parallel stories of how they come to slowly and difficultly adjust to the aftermath of war; finding employment, fixing their personal relationships that they left behind and attempting to move on from their physical and emotional troubles. 

Aside from its unconventional setting, another aspect that immediately ensured the picture had a distinct tone from the outset was the fact that Wyler was a veteran himself. He, along with fellow directors John Huston, John Ford, Frank Capra and George Stevens had all served the war effort in a very important way, utilising their skills as filmmakers to document combat, very often on the front lines and at a very great danger to themselves (when shooting the air force documentary Thunderbolt, Wyler become almost completely deaf as a result of the engine noise he was subject to). Mark Harris, in his definitive book on this topic states that the screenwriter Robert Sherwood (who was a World War I veteran himself), 'infused all three of the main characters with aspects of Wyler's own personality' (2014: 396). This element is key to realism that The Best Years of Our Lives is much lauded for. Wyler truly understood the motivations of Al, Fred and Homer, he knew their struggles and was the perfect person to tackle the subjects inherent in the film and project them onto the screen:

"I came back from the war and had a few of the problems that veterans have in getting readjusted. I understood these men very well. I had spent four years in research, so to speak... I didn't have to think "Now, what would man do in this situation?" because I knew the situation. It made me think that very often we do pictures where we don't know our characters well enough" - William Wyler (Quoted in Stevens Jr., 2006: 201)

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
It's likely Wyler felt that he had a duty to fulfil when taking on this role as director, he had to achieve an honest and truthful depiction of post-war life, otherwise it would be an insult to those who were portrayed: 'He imagined an audience of millions of returning veterans and tried to see any potential Hollywood-style evasion or falseness through their eyes' (Harris, 2014: 426). Obviously, Wyler returning from the war as a disabled veteran had parallels with the character of Homer, whose apprehension about how those back at home will perceive his disability is obvious when he tries to delay his family reunion by suggesting that he, Al and Fred go out for drinks instead of getting out of the taxi. As David Gerber writes, the disabilities of returning veterans sometimes 'inspired anxiety and fear' (2000: 71), which Homer feels acutely when the neighbourhood children, who he believes sees him as a "freak" stare at him through his garage window. Homer's reintegration is not just affected by how others perceive him, but how he sees himself too; a "helpless" individual not worthy of his girlfriend no matter how much she declares her love for him. Wyler's problems were compounded by the fact that his job as a film director would have been virtually impossible to continue with given his condition, 'he was initially traumatised and felt completely isolated in a soundless world, believing his career and life were essentially over' (Kozloff, 2011: 37). Thankfully, like Homer, who is clearly adept at performing basic tasks with his prosthetic hands, Wyler eventually overcame his hearing issues thanks to a sound system which was rigged for him, allowing the director to hear his actors and continue his filmmaking career for years to come.

The emotions Wyler was feeling around the time of filming would have been that of intense obligation, to him the aforementioned sense of realism that he was striving for was truly the only way to go about making the picture. Both the narrative and the technical facets of the film were influenced by this fact, he wanted to stray away from making a generic or hackneyed war film that had familiar conventions, and instead craft an original piece of work that felt true to the emotions that he (and by extension, other returning veterans) was feeling after his years at war. While The Best Years of Our Lives can still definitely be described as an inspirational picture, Wyler had no desire to in any way romanticise the era he was portraying: 

"When Wyler came back from the war, having lost a crew member while filming the documentary The Memphis Belle; having discovered that the entire Jewish population of his hometown in Alsace was unaccounted for; knowing his friend George Stevens would never be the same after after filming corpses at Dachau; and having himself suffered injury, he was in no mood for escapism" (Kozloff, 2011: 81)

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
Although these three men successfully adjusted to a radically different world when they went away to war, it doesn't mean that they are going to find it easy to adjust back to civilian life when they return. "When I came back, I was still full of the war even though I was out of it", Wyler himself said. Each character within the film struggles in their own deeply personal way to find their place within the uncertain social climate that emerged after 1945. Trying to lead a life of normality, or perhaps mundanity after being a part of the biggest conflict in history. Their fear at how much America has changed, how much their families have changed and how much they have changed themselves leaves them with a sense of trepidation as they observe the Boone City that they left behind. At one point, Al even compares the adrenaline he's experiencing on the way to see his family for the first time to that of combat: "I feel as if I were going in to hit a beach" he says while in the taxi. Unsurprisingly, the film had origins in a 1944 Time Magazine feature entitled Home Again Special which chronicled the story of a group of Marines returning to their hometown after serving in the Pacific. The way that the article described the men's nerves as they began to see the Manhattan skyline before them intrigued producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was 'moved by the piece and its portrayal of the uncertainties that would face soldiers returning from the war' (Blackmore, 2015), believing that the topics raised were applicable to just about every American who had been impacted by World War Two.

The obstacles that Al, Homer and Fred will need to overcome in the months and years to follow seem to be as much of a frightening thought to them as the war itself was; how are they going to integrate with people who hadn't been though the tribulations that they had? Pacific war marine Eugene Sledge wrote in his memoir about the struggles inherent in the readjustment of life back in America, not just in how he coped with his own memories of his time at war, but also of how some people back at home appeared to possess somewhat of an indifferent attitude to returning troops: 

"I had a long period of adjustment to go through simply to get used to being back home in America. Civilian life felt so strange... I felt like some sort of alien. The war had been so momentous to me... I didn't realise how swiftly most Americans would take their freedom for granted." (Sledge, 2002: 130 & 135)

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
This lack of gratitude, the fact that some back at home had moved on and forgotten the sacrifices of solders even if veterans themselves would find it impossible to is something that Al laments. He's not been home 24 hours before he talks about how quickly it's expected of him to shed his army threads and immediately get back onto the employment ladder: "I've got to make money. Last year it was kill Japs, this year it's make money", he says to his wife. This post war consumerism that the country seems so wrapped up in is also captured perfectly by cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose deep focus photography highlights every facet of the drugstore that Fred works in. Busy crowds, advertising signage, packed shelves and even the omnipresent view of his boss's office looming over him as he serves customers portrays America as a country that seems to be in perhaps too big of a hurry to go about its business again and overlook the preceding years. Wyler's biographer, Gabriel Miller writes about how his blocking of actors in these crowded scenes gives the sense that 'the modern world, let alone Wyler's frame, cannot contain all the people', making Fred (and presumably other servicemen) feel like an 'inconvenience' (2013: 251). Indeed, Fred's sense of purpose and importance that his role that a bombardier during the war brought him is shattered upon his return. Unable to find a job apart from his old junior position as a soda jerk, his wife Marie sees him as a failure, exacerbating his sense of worthlessness in a post-war world by seeming to only respect him when he's dressed in his military overalls. Fred, as a result, feels defined by his wartime experiences, and useless now that he's out of it. 

This idea is best articulated in the film's most celebrated and famous scene, when Fred walks amongst the countless rows of discarded bomber planes which are about to be scrapped. Wyler, who 'tried to find aesthetic equivalents for psychological and social truth in the mise-en-scene' (Bazin, 1997: 6) seems to be using this setting to analogise how Fred feels. The antiquated, discarded machines littering the field mirror Fred's own perception of himself. Whereas at once in his life he was a significant, decorated war hero contributing to the world's greatest conflict, the America that he has returned to and that he helped to protect is now no longer something that he feels that he is a part of. Feeling forgotten, he comes to realise that the skills that he spent years refining as a pilot are no longer of any use after 1945. As Wyler's camera pushes in on Fred as he sits in his old position within the front of the plane, the director was once again thinking of what he felt was right to include not just as a filmmaker, but also as a veteran. As he has explained, having worked on the B-17 bomber documentary The Memphis Belle, Wyler believed that it made sense for Fred climb up into the plane and and become 'lost' in the memories and intense sounds of battle. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn't forget that the end of one war was the start of a whole new one for many people, and it's ironic that this scene culminates in what will ultimately be the start of Fred's recovery process. What we believed to be ineffectual scrap metal is in fact going to be used to build homes for returning veterans. Fred assures the foreman who interrupts his wartime flashback within the plane, that he will be able to learn how to work in construction, just as he learnt how to become a bomber pilot. 

"Those obsolete planes, were conducive to the basic idea of the film, of the man feeling lost” - William Wyler (Quoted in Stevens Jr., 2006:210) 

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
Despite not returning from the war with the clear physical scars that Homer has to carry, Fred is in many ways the worst-off of the three men when he lands back in Boone City. Not simply because of his financial situation, but because his experiences have left him with emotional scars that his unsympathetic and shallow wife has no interest in understanding, nor helping him overcome. After she insensitively brings up the subject of his mental well being because of his nightmares that she witnesses, she berates Fred: "Can't you get it out of your system?" she says, "The war's over. You won't get anyplace till you stop thinking about it. Come on, snap out of it". Unfortunately, it's difficult to imagine that this would have been an uncommon interaction for many men, after all, how could those who weren't overseas ever hope to imagine what they had experienced? Prior to World War I, for instance, the symptoms that Fred privately exhibits would have simply been seen as 'cowardice or an attempt to avoid the dangers of combat' (Walker, 2008: xiv). Such an ignorant take on PTSD was something that, although had been improved by the time of WWII, was by no means at a stage that truly appreciated the returning combat veteran's plight. Victor Gregg, a paratrooper and veteran of the Battle of Alamein and the Battle of Arnhem who served throughout the entirety of World War II states that after he was demobilised: "People didn’t talk about what was going on in their minds... the men who did try to raise the subject were treated with scorn" (2015). Similarly, Tim Madigan, writing about his experiences interviewing veterans of the war suffering from PTSD, notes that this scepticism wasn't simply restricted to those who didn't have to fight, but even many military personnel including George Patton who 'famously slapped two soldiers being treated for combat neuroses' (2015).

"The veterans of the 1940's returned to a country that emphasized traditional values of self-help and self-reliance. Upon facing reintegration, all veterans received advice literature that showed compassion, but urged men, just as they had been urged while they were in the military, to be tough, uncomplaining." (Stafford, 2001: 11)

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
Shockingly, Wyler's very real hearing problems seemed to have been something that was subjected to the same kind of ridicule that Fred encounters too. Officials apparently felt that he could simply 'shrug off' his deafness when a consultation at a hospital in Santa Barbara concluded that he could in fact hear, and that his disability was merely 'psychosomatic' (Kozloff, 2011: 37). What makes The Best Years of Our Lives so memorable amongst its peers is that it recognises this toll that World War Two had upon the psychological health of its veterans, and that this emotional pain was just as devastating and long lasting as the immediately noticeable physical damage that they sometimes came home with. Given its timely release one year after 1945, it spoke to not just the veterans, but also the wives, girlfriends, parents and children of returning servicemen, exemplifying how important their patience and understanding was going to be in the rebuilding of the minds of the soldiers who had witnessed unspeakable and harrowing sights at war. While Al quite clearly suffers from his own demons (he becomes very dependant on alcohol), he does at least have a supporting and loving family, while Homer's loyal girlfriend Wilma rejects his hypothesis that she's only staying with him out of pity for his condition. Fred, on the other hand has no such safety net until he meets Peggy (Al's daughter, played by Teresa Wright), who takes care of him after a night of drinking and who contrasts so sharply with Marie's exasperated personality that it's easy to see her character as a poster girl for the perfect military wife (much like Wilma). Many audience members watching this picture in the 40s would have been living the lives of these characters on the screen themselves; going though parallel experiences and relating to at least one, or perhaps more of the people being portrayed. Whether they were recognising the emotions of the characters or being educated for the first time on very real problems such as PTSD, The Best Years of Our Lives hit a perfect note with 'a receptive audience that had grown weary of wartime propaganda films... illuminating timeless issues surrounding veterans' return from war' (Karsten, 2005 78). 

Wyler's aforementioned use of deep focus photography was an aspect of the picture which further contributed to the realistic tone that The Best Years of Our Lives is remembered for. The large depth of field enabled scenes to play out with fewer cuts; allowing moments of emotional intensity that account for some truly memorable moments of cinema. For instance, the scene when Al returns home to his children and wife pays off because of Wyler's restrained camerawork and Toland's photography. The director, who had 'an unerring gift for locating the precise location in a scene where the dramatic intensity is to be felt' (Sinyard, 2013: 6), ingeniously plays this moment in the hallway of Al's swanky apartment. After silently greeting his two children (he quickly hushes them so that he can surprise his wife), we cut to the back of Milly (Myrna Loy), who turns her head in hopeful anticipation that the guest at the door is her husband, what follows is an unbroken take from one end of the hallway as Milly walks into Al's line of sight to see him for the first time in years. Wyler's blocking of his actors, which places his two children on either side of the frame as Al embraces his wife in the centre is another inspired choice, culminating in a shot that includes his whole family at the precise moment that they are all reunited (Is is any wonder that Billy Wilder said that he cried for two hours after watching?!). The lack of cutting here works since it creates a sense of anticipation as we wait for Millie to emerge from around the corner and into the frame of the shot, we are feeling what Al is experiencing and the smart choice of location heightens the emotional weight of the homecoming by separating husband and wife for one final time. Wyler explained the thought process behind the moderate editing that he sometimes employed, stating that: "The audience could do their own cutting. It gave you more to look at, more to think about", indeed, it's difficult to imagine this moment being as effective as it is had Wyler cut between the reactions of all the family members. It's a testament to the technical accomplishments of the picture that this moment, as well as the aforementioned plane graveyard scene are amongst the two most unforgettable scenes of the film, and yet they feature little to no dialogue.

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler

The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler

The film's unique perspective on the post-war life of its veteran characters rather than their actual experiences in combat allows us, over 70 years later to appreciate that VJ day wasn't at all the end of the effects of war for those who fought, nor was it for the relatives of them. The post war years simultaneously brought about emotions of optimism and anxiety, both of which are presented within the film's representation of the greatest generation; those individuals who, despite partaking in a worldwide event of an overwhelming scale, all had intensely personal experiences which Wyler was trying to bring to the forefront of people's minds. The Best Years of Our Lives went on to win most of the highest accolades at the 19th Academy Awards, most notably TWO Oscars for the unprofessional Harold Russell, who unexpectedly was victorious in the supporting actor category after also being awarded with a special honorary award for 'bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans', making him to this day the only person to win two Oscars for the same role. Regardless of this critical success or the profit generated from it (and it was a huge commercial success too), the producer Samuel Goldwyn was less than interested in all of this, instead he believed the universal messages behind the film in 1946 was something that was key to its longevity and importance: "I don't care if the film doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man, woman and child in America to watch it" (Quoted in Ebert, 2010: 71). 


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