Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler

War movies run in relatively predictable cycles during post-war years.  Conventional wisdom holds that once the war is over, no one wants to see a movie about combat.  The post-World War II years, for example, produced relatively few war films and those that were made (Twelve O’Clock High, Command Decision, Battleground) were far more interested in the impact of combat on the soldiers and officers than on the actual fighting.  It wasn’t until The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957 that war films came back into vogue.

Of course, studying the impact of war is what both society and the movies should be doing.  After the Iraq War, filmmakers did this with The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, after Vietnam it was The Deer Hunter and Coming Home.  The granddaddy of these, and still the most humane and insightful, is William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives.

The Best Years of Our Lives details the terror felt when normalcy looms.  Three vets meet on an ATC flight on the way home to Boone City, a middle American metropolis based on Kansas City, Missouri.  Al (Frederic March) is a banker who has learned during the war to inoculate himself with copious amounts of alcohol.  Fred (Dana Andrews) left for the war as a soda jerk, became an ace bombardier and is now returning to a wife he barely knows and no usable or transferrable skills.  Homer (Harold Russell) lost both arms in a naval battle and must now recognize that the damage to his psyche is far greater than the damage to his body.  All three men fear the unknowables of peace far more than the spit of machine guns or the flash of grenades.  At least in the war they knew what to expect and they faced it with comrades.

The Best Years of Our Lives is surprisingly truthful.  This is not out to tell its audience that everything will be fine.  Whatever triumphs exist for at least two of these men, they are well into a future beyond the bounds of this story.  Without signposting those successes, we are left to consider what will happen to them. 

This is made most clear in the “graveyard” sequence.  Fred finds himself in a junkyard filled with the rotting carcasses of B-17s, the same planes on which he spent his war years.  Crawling into the nose cone he is overwhelmed by memories and the tragic recognition that his best years are now behind him.  His reward for this recognition is not a feelgood life changing revelation.  It is a job offer to help scrap the planes, the only thing in his life that ever made him feel a part of something important.

Al’s victories are equally Pyrrhic.  The morning after his return he sardonically tells his wife Millie (Myrna Loy), “Last year it was kill Japs.  This year it’s make money.”  The idea of a return to his old bank job – with promotion – fills him with a dread that he tries to douse with liberal amounts of whisky.  When he finally decides to speak his mind at a dinner in his honor, he gets so drunk that the truths he tells are easily dismissed as the inebriated ramblings of a likable lush.

Homer’s problems, although the most acceptably resolved, are the most painful.  Russell was a real life amputee and a non-actor.  Wyler films him with enormous sensitivity while still building relentlessly to the scene in which he must finally put his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) through the “test” of helping him to prepare for bed.  Wyler shoots this with minimal cutting, trusting entirely in Russell’s ability to convey feelings the actor surely understood from his own experience.  The result is a remarkable scene, both poignant and painful, yet ultimately the one truly and completely hopeful moment any of these three men is allowed.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows all of the strengths that made Wyler one of Hollywood’s finest directors.  He never cuts away from important moments, allowing them to play to their logical conclusions.  This gives the actors enormous leeway when exploring their characters.  The result is that we see deeper into them – into their fears, anxieties and hopes – than we are used to seeing in movies of this period. 

Both March and Russell received Academy Awards for their work.  Russell, in fact, got both Best Supporting Actor and a special award making him the only actor in history to receive two Oscars for the same performance.  Lost in this, though, is the work of Dana Andrews.  This is unfortunate.  In many ways, Fred is the saddest of these characters.  His story is one of defeat expressed through disappointment and anger.  He has lost his sense of self and there is a big question at the end of the movie about whether he will ever find that person again.  Andrews plays all of these levels yet portrays Fred’s self-pity without ever making him an object of ours.  Fred is Andrews best work onscreen, something that only makes us wonder how many more great performances he would have given if only he’d had the right chances.

In many ways, Andrews performance highlights the greatest aspect of The Best Years of Our Lives:  its willingness to be honest, to refuse to sugarcoat difficult ideas or problems.  Take, for instance, Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).  She falls in love with the married Fred.  Her ambition to break up the marriage and her guilt at what she is doing are painfully real.  This refusal to offer pat homilies about the sanctity of marriage and bad women keep the film from feeling “Hollywoodized” and therefore play directly into the mixed feelings of postwar America.

These explorations are especially jarring in a movie coming out immediately after the war.  It would be both easy and facile for Hollywood to have gone for sweet hope and icky triumph to salve wounds.  The remarkable success of The Best Years of Our Lives (until The Sound of Music it was the second biggest moneymaker of all time) firmly established the popularity of the “problem picture” genre until it was squashed by McCarthyism a few years later.

There is a universality to The Best Years of Our Lives that makes as much sense today as it did in 1946.  This is a movie about what happens when normalcy is interrupted, a new normal takes over, and the anxieties caused when we must recognize that even a sweeping away of that new normal cannot happen without leaving some terrible scars in its wake.