William Wyler blog-a-thon: The Best Years of Our Lives

My contribution to goatdog's William Wyler blog-a-thon. Enjoy!

Three men return from war, each wounded in similar but separate ways, both physical and mental, visible and not-so much. They try to fit back in.

It doesn't really sound like enough story to fill 3 hours, does it? But quietly, unassumingly, these three hours pass, and when it's over you look at your watch, surprised at how much time has passed while you were in this world.

I have a hard time expressing what makes this film so fascinating, I don't quite know how to describe its appeal in a way that will prompt everyone who hasn't seen it go see it, now, as they should.

Dana Andrews is the young hotshot who comes back to find that the girl he married just before leaving doesn't really like him so much out of his uniform. Frederic March does get to come back to a loving family, a faithful wife, a son, and a no-nonsense, pretty daughter who very much appeals to Andrews. But he can't stand the job he returns to at the bank, having to deny loans to people who fought alongside him, and falls back on the bottle too often. Finally, Harold Russell, himself a war invalid, plays Homer, a sweet young man who comes out without his hands without even really having participated in battle. There is a sweet girl waiting for him at home, but he can't deal with his family's reaction to his handicap, and can't accept the love and care his fiancee is willing to give him.

What I admire most of all, I think, is that the film - while admittedly being somewhat schmaltzy at times - doesn't resolve all these threads tidily. The ending is uplifting, but there are many problems still remaining, and the film acknowledges that none of these people will lead an easy life. Some resolution is possible, but the problems will never entirely disappear. Something that I suspect has never changed and is still relevant for returning soldiers.

And, of course, this being a studio film from the 40's directed by Wyler and photographed by Gregg Toland, it looks absolutely gorgeous and gets all the details right. The performances are also top-notch, especially also from Russell, who was not a professional actor but rightfully got an Oscar for this part.

It's not a flashy movie, it doesn't have any easy hooks, but it's a thoroughly honest and involving movie. Wyler maybe wasn't an "auteur" in the strictest sense of the word. But he was, as can be seen here, amazing at getting the best out of all his collaborators, putting everything together, and crafting a great film out of it.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I agree this is a special movie, particularly for capturing a moment of that post-war era so well. I've written about it myself in the past, and will probably never tire of seeing it.

Campaspe said...

When Edward Copeland did his Best of the Best Pictures Oscar survey, I had no hesitation in listing this one number one. I think it captures something fundamental about who we are as Americans. People seem to remember it as sentimental but in many ways it is quite dark & unflinching. So many moments I treasure in it, and I never get tired of it. I could watch Fredric March and Myrna Loy's homecoming embrace again, and again, and again, and again ...