The Best Years of Our Lives
(SPOILERS) Something of a surprise, in that a movie made immediately subsequent to the concerted propaganda onslaught of WWII should be as open as it is to the lasting effects of conflict on those involved. There’s undoubtedly a degree of rhetoric in The Best Years of Our Lives, both in terms of boosting the prospects for veterans and extolling a “just” war, but William Wyler’s film (yet another Sam Goldwyn awards darling) treads its terrain with frequent care and attention, and it’s easy to see why this appeared on Oliver Stone’s All-Time Top Ten List back in 2003.
Of course, the picture’s essentially positive, “trials overcome” premise likely vibed with Stone’s affirmative survivor instinct, per Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July (there’s far more treacly, sentimental self-indulgence in both of those movies, despite the blood, guts and language, than can be found here). Goldwyn reputedly commissioned the project after reading a 1944 Time piece on veterans’ problems reintegrating with the civilian world. That he tagged Robert E Sherwood to adapt war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor’s novella tells you this wasn’t going to stray very far from any kind of officially approved mandate. Sherwood was a Roosevelt speechwriter and director of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information – which ought to ring alarm bells as to any approximation of warts-and-all authenticity – who very obliging set aside his anti-war stance in light of the righteous fight of WWII. Wyler himself had been an air force major, and was conscientious in filling out his crew with veterans.
The plot follows three veterans returning to Boone City and adjusting to life in very different ways. Best Actor Oscar winner Frederic March (this would be his second, following Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde a decade-and-a-half earlier) is Sergeant Al Stephenson, a banker in civvy street with a devoted wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children: Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). Upon arrival, Al is tentative and uneasy at the prospect of crossing the family home’s threshold, unsure of himself and his positioning in respect of his dearest; he thus launches himself into a night of drunken revelry, with Milly and Peggy as his long-suffering escorts. This seems like a cue for a dependency issue, one to be charted throughout the (nearly three-hour) running time, but as difficult as Al finds life as the (newly promoted) VP of Small Loans, it’s only at a social occasion that we see him soused once again, and this time, Milly embraces him for his righteous moral fortitude.
Indeed, Al’s demons are less to do with his own experiences, which aren’t really scratched, aside from initially providing his son with a samurai sword and, in a manner that belies his subsequent thoughtfulness and circumspection, a flag found on a dead Japanese soldier (“Yeah, the Japanese attach a lot of importance to family relations” recites Rob of the names inscribed on it). He also comments that he has “been in jungles around savages for so long” that he needs a night out. Al is most concerned with how those less blessed than he will fare: “I can’t help thinking about the other guys. All the ones who haven’t got you”. As such, in its rather facile way, the movie is vouching for the basic, unadorned need for support form a loved one to see oneself through.
Al is also enabled to endorse government mandates through his job, however, so there’s also a rich slice of propaganda flowing here. Tasked with the bank’s obligation to the GI Bill of Rights (via granting loans to returning veterans), Al falls under scrutiny for approving a loan without collateral from the applicant. Such loans were low-interest, so ostensibly a boon, albeit inevitably a slippery slope towards the normalisation of the debt-laden society (they also conspicuously failed to benefit black veterans). Al sends the message clearly to any reticent financial institutions out there in his sloshed speech regarding leading a charge on a hill: “I said, I’m sorry major, no collateral, no hill. So we didn’t take the hill, and we lost the war”.
The loan applicant’s appeal may ring familiar: “With the food shortage all over the world, it seems to me farming’s just about the most important work there is”. This coming after farmers being called up, obviously. Now we are similarly poised, but it will be Bill Gates’ farming and lab-grown meat on the table; If you’re individually keen on arable, you can forget it. The GI Bill was an extension of New Deal liberalism. The war had brought full employment, GNP was doubled, consumers spending rose, savings rose; war was a veritable economic boon (so best spark up another one in as soon as possible). Roosevelt presided over a dramatic increase in the power of federal government, always something to inspire dread, and Truman followed suit. Still, with price-controlled commodities (there was a grain strike during this period, and a threat to draft railroad strikers), one wonders how that budding farmer would have done.
The PTSD element is reserved for Dana Andrews’ USAAF Bombardier Captain Fred Derry, returning to a wife (Marie, played by Virginia Mayo) he married ten days before shipping out; they quickly discover mutual loathing. Fred has nightmares of bombing raids (and to emphasise how thoroughly decent he is, we later learn of the acts that earned all his medals). His dwindling funds lead to his resuming the menial role of soda jerk, now junior to the kid he once oversaw. This plotline soft pedals the PTSD element in favour of domestic strife, and the mismatch between shallow Marie – “Oh, now you look wonderful. You look like yourself” she coos, having persuaded her reluctant hubby to don his uniform for a night out – and his more reflective, brooding mood.
Andrews is good, better with the steely, gritted reserve than having to play drunk, but he’s helped along considerably through playing off Wright as his blossoming love interest; there’s a very necessary chemistry here, such that you’re willing their union despite the stacked odds of Fred being married and Al intervening to protect his daughter. I’ve noted this of a few other Wright performances lately, but I’m continually impressed how assured and engaging she was during this decade, often cast as the relative junior in an ensemble.
Fred: So you’re Al’s daughter.
Peggy: You’ve got it all straight now.
As with Al, Wyler’s careful navigating the pent-up potentialities, the tension of uncertainty in these men’s circumstances; Peggy has an easy confidence in the face of Fred’s benign inebriation (“He’s my son by a previous marriage” she replies, when he questions her relationship with Al) and later manages to shrug him off as he drunkenly pulls her on to the bed. That said, the situation is so continually fraught that it’s almost a contrivance it should have a happy ending; “I think they ought to put you in mass production” he says of her, echoing that vital need each veteran has for an allotted partner. Her resolution, with regard to Fred and Marie, that she’s “going to break the marriage up” is refreshingly frank, as is her father’s rebuke of her blithe assumption that her parents never had any problems (“How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?”)
Fred’s solution is an “At least we’ll have each other”. With the help of a benignly all-powerful state, naturally (he gets work dismantling now-obsolete aircraft to use for housing). Wyler knows not to push it, so he doesn’t wait around to show Al’s reaction to their kiss at third veteran Homer’s wedding. Double amputee Harold Russell won two Oscars for his performance, one an honorary and the other Best Supporting Actor. It’s an innately powerful part, and Russell was rightly recognised for a fine “amateur” performance as a former naval petty officer who has lost his hands (original written as PTSD, which might have been a bit much, in tandem with Fred). The back and forth of Homer wanting to be treated like everyone else and taking time to convince himself that Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell, who would marry Wyler’s brother) really does love him is probably the least well-sustained plotline, but Russell is so compelling that any slack is more than taken up.
War Naysayer: It’s terrible when you see a guy like you who had to sacrifice himself. And for what?
Where The Best Years of Our Lives remains distinct from the likes of later veteran efforts Coming Home or Born on the Fourth of July is in the attitudes of its protagonists to their war. Those pictures forward indignation, railing against a country that unjustly sent its men off to die. Wyler and Sherwood do, interestingly, broach the subject, but the argument, unsurprisingly, isn’t eager to consider the broader questions of who benefits from a global conflict. Instead, it’s focussed on the fairly rehearsed one of insularism (after all, it took the manufactured event of Pearl Harbour, two years in, to get the US motivated). A man tells Homer he sacrificed his arms for nothing: “We let ourselves be sold down the river. We were pushed into war… The Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the limeys and the Reds. They would have whipped ’em too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington… We fought the wrong people, that’s all. Just read the facts, my friend”. Which, as loaded arguments against WWII’s legitimacy go, isn’t a strong one. Homer consequently deduces “So we're all a bunch of suckers? So we should've been on the side of the Japs and the Nazis?” before concluding “You read about guys like that, but you don’t often see them fortunately”.
Nevertheless, if one puts this together with other exchanges, a picture forms of the broader trajectory of the post-war landscape. One where, nationally, the state is ever-more important, and where the nature of the world is irrevocably changed, in a manner that must be addressed. And globally. Because of the Bomb. And yet, the threat of the Bomb, even at this early stage, is explicitly identified as one we are told about, not one we see or experience.
Rob: Say, you were at Hiroshima, weren’t you, dad? Didn’t you notice any of the effects of radioactivity on the people who survived the blast?
Al: No, I didn’t. Should I have?
Rob: Well, we’ve been having lectures in atomic energy at school…
It’s curious that Al seems so nonchalant about what he saw at Hiroshima, as if it were no different to any other scene during the war. “You’ve been to all these places and seen everything” says Rob. “I’ve seen nothing, I should have stayed home and found out what was really going on” replies his father. We rely on the State and its sanctioned media to outline the paradigm – the new paradigm – which is duly absorbed by the homegrown audience, the next generation.
To which end, teachers have been indoctrinating their classes that the world has “reached a point where the entire human race has to live together… or else”. By implication, such systematic unease endorses the inevitable framework of an eventual one-world government. The American Dream. Cheery Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) tells Homer he will be fine “Unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day”. This sets the stage for the coordinating condition of fear for at least the next forty years, with other new variants to come once it finally splutters out of usefulness. A bewildered Al puts it best, of the changes that have taken place while he’s been away: “All this atomic energy and scientific efficiency”. Peggy is upwardly mobile, studying Domestic Science (everything comes down to science, praise be Rockefeller) and working at the local hospital. Emancipation is implicitly complete, as Fred goes from failing to support Marie (after he insists she gives up working at a night club) to relying on the better-positioned Peggy for emotional support (and likely financial too).
Wyler loathed the score, which doesn’t surprise me, as it lays it on much too thick (not uncommon in Goldwyn productions). His semi-regular DP Greg Tollan, who’d won an Oscar for Wuthering Heights and received his final nomination for Citizen Kane, really ought to have had a look in here (there were only two black-and-white nominees); the picture is oft cited for its masterclass deep focus (to wit, the bar scene, where Fred breaks off with Peggy by phone in the background while Al listens to Butch and Homer on piano in the fore). Also of note is the final scene’s choreography, as wedding guests crowd around Homer and Wilma, leaving half the frame to the reunited Fred and Peggy.
Pauline Kael made some fair comments, that The Best Years of Our Lives fell short of being a great picture but “episodes and details stand out and help to compensate for the soggy plot strands; and there’s something absorbing about the banality of its large-scale good intentions; it’s compulsively watchable”. She noted too its “undercurrent of discontent”. Time Out’s Geoff Andrew admired the film’s resistance to “falling into undue sentiment or bombast”.
The Best Years of Our Lives is much more effective than it ought to have been, given its timing and doubtless establishment-sanctioned content. In the end, though, its status as one of AFI’s Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, at 11 (one below Saving Private Ryan, for goodness sake), tells you as much about its can-do, upbeat agenda as its boffo box office; it was the year’s most successful movie, and it seems sold upwards of eighty million tickets worldwide. In the UK, it ranks as the sixth highest-grossing film by box office admissions, behind Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Star Wars and Spring in Park Lane). That in itself testifies to successful propaganda.