A classic film examines the lives of returned veterans
Director of Jezebel, Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Miniver, William Wyler was already an acclaimed filmmaker when World War II started. The Alsatian-born Wyler served in the US Army Air Force, becoming Lieutenant Colonel while filming documentaries like Memphis Belle (1944). He accompanied bombing missions over Germany, earning the airmen's respect. "Coming along with us just for pictures?" said Charles Leighton, navigator of the titular B-17 Flying Fortress. "The guy had guts."
In April 1945, Wyler blew out his ears during a flight, permanently deafening his right ear. Emotionally shaken, Wyler worried he'd never film again: "No one could live through that experience and come out the same." But Wyler returned to Hollywood, teaming with producer Samuel Goldwyn for an extremely personal picture.
The Best Years of Our Lives originated with a 1944 Time magazine article and MacKinley Kantor's novel Glory for Me. For returning servicemen, readjusting to civilian life wasn't easy. Many soldiers suffered physical injuries requiring lifelong treatment; others endured psychological wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder. Others grew alienated from family and friends, virtual strangers after years apart. Many found jobs occupied by civilians, or that their service didn't translate into practical careers.
Goldwyn, Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood sought to seriously examine veterans' issues. Goldwyn hoped "this picture could prevent a lot of heartaches... among servicemen who were confronting mobilization." Judging by its reception they succeeded. General Omar Bradley praised Years for "helping the American people to build an even better democracy out of the tragic experiences of this war." A British veteran wrote Wyler: "I felt overwhelmingly grateful to realize that... all those concerned in making the film really did appreciate what we had to face."
Years focuses on three American servicemen returning to fictional Boone City. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) served in the Army; he reunites with wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), but turns increasingly to drink. Air Force veteran Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) unfaithful; he only finds demeaning work as a soda jerk. Homer (Harold Russell) lost both hands in the Navy; adjusting to his handicap, he resents his family's reaction of pity and disgust.
The Best Years of Our Lives provides a master class in direction. Wyler creates postwar America in its homey bars, overcrowded supermarkets and cramped apartments. The movie's most notable for Gregg Toland's incredible deep focus photography: one scene has Homer playing chopsticks, with Fred calling Peggy in the far background. The final wedding echoes this: Fred and Peggy exchange glances as Homer and Wilma say their vows. This immersive realism earned praise from French critic Andre Bazin, who praised Wyler's "equal humility towards his subject matter and his audience."
Years isn't an explicit "message film" yet has plenty to say. The protagonists cope with social indifference. Al becomes vice president at the town bank, yet angers his boss for cosigning loans to hard-luck veterans. Fred's experience as a bomber leads to selling perfume and sandwiches. His coworkers sneer about Fred's "entitlement" to a job as a veteran. Years worries that society pays lip service to honoring veterans while coldly casting them aside.
Al has it easiest: he's got a loving family, his alcoholism seems almost comic, and he publicly shows up his boss. But Fred suffers from PTSD and marital stress: he married Marie hastily during the war, leading to a messy falling out. And he relives the war each night through nightmares. Later in the movie Fred encounters a fleet of scrapped airplanes: a stark reminder of his past trauma and current uselessness.
But Homer, both hands replaced with hooks, endures the worst. In one of Years' most powerful scenes, Homer discovers neighborhood kids (including his sister) gawking at him. Losing his temper, Homer thrusts his hooks through a window: "Want to see the freak?" His parents pretend to ignore his disability; he avoids his fiancee (Cathy O'Donnell), fearing her pity. Only cousin Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) accepts Homer unquestioningly, teaching him to play piano.
Playing Homer is Harold Russell, an ex-soldier who lost both hands in a training accident. Wyler saw Russell in the documentary Diary of a Sergeant, which chronicles his recovery. "For a disabled veteran in 1944, rehabilitation was not a realistic prospect," Russell wrote - yet he persevered. Russell became a lifelong activist for disabled veterans, leading AMVETS and later the Chairman of the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped.
Wyler enriches Years with detailed portraits of the servicemen's families. Al and Milly have a loving but testy relationship: "How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?" Daughter Peggy - well-educated, headstrong yet caring - is a far better match for Fred than Marie. Her encounter with Marie only convinces her she needs to "break that marriage up." We don't resent her for it; Peggy's warmth and assertiveness makes her Years' most likeable character.
If Lives spotlights veterans' hardships, Wyler offers them hope for acceptance. Al's speech, announcing the need to extend veterans' a hand, ultimately trumps his boss's greed. Fred falls for Peggy and finds a job scrapping airplanes for veterans' homes. Homer finds that Wilma, far from being repulsed by his condition, loves him unconditionally. They reconcile in a scene of quiet but palpable emotion.
The Best Years of Our Lives became a massive hit, also winning nine Oscars (two for Harold Russell). It endures today for its brilliant direction, well-drawn characters and sensitive treatment of a timeless issue.
Sources: Mark Harris's Five Came Home (2014); Jan Herman's biography of Wyler, A Talent for Trouble (1995); Sara Kozloff's The Best Years of Our Lives: BFI Film Classics (2011); Harold Russell's memoir The Best Years of My Life (1982).