Just over a year ago I reviewed The Big Country (1958) writing it in response to having just read Five Came Back by Mark Harris which focused on five directors including William Wyler who documented the WWII from the skies, most memorably – The Memphis Belle (1944). The book has just been turned into a 3-part documentary series now. I left my review wanting to watch his first film coming back home to Hollywood, wanting to consider those veterans who were all starting to come home, not all in the same shape that families last saw them go off in. These were the lucky ones, countless men were lost in action and the line of duty but not in vain. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was Wyler’s tribute to these men, America’s veterans from the world’s most deadly brutal conflict. It was also a massive eye-opener to the public that their veterans were coming home, whilst some were adapting well to civilian life there were of course many who weren’t.
There aren’t many films from the 1940s that run to almost 3 hours in length, yet those don’t have such an important heart-felt message to deliver. It has to run at a leisurely pace to feel like real life, no stylish editing to take away from the documentary style aesthetic that combined actors and amateurs who really brought home what civilian life meant for these veterans. We follow three ex-servicemen who are trying to get home. Taking one from the three main arms of the forces – Navy, Army and the Air force we see three very different men return home. The first hour is full of emotion as we follow them first meeting to the taxi they share. Each optimistic and uncertain of what lays beyond that door to their past lives.
First we meet Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) as he wants to get a flight home, none are going his way for now. Whilst civilians find it so easy, as one passenger literally is just handed his pre-booked tickets. He has to return to his own kind to get a trip home, in a bomber that no longer carries bombs, just passengers where he meets the other two veterans – Al Stephenson (Fredric March) a sergeant who fought the ground war and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) a navy officer who has lost his arms to below the elbow, leaving him with hooks, a lasting reminder of the warm and its personal cost to him. Having him on-screen is as reminder of the real sacrifices, Russell a non-professional actor who can really bring home what went on at sea, on the land and in the skies of war. He came close to paying the ultimate cost. It’s a shock to see him, yet we quickly accept him and his situation. He can cope with them why can’t we. I was amazed how he could operate these complex hooks which allow him to function. There’s an underlying fear – will he be accepted by his family and ultimately his fiance Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) who he has to reconnect with.
At this point we don’t know how the war has really affected the other two who have come back pretty much intact – on the surface anyway. It’s when as I keep mentioning they get home do we start to understand what they are coming back to. For Al the banker he’s has changed emotionally, more assertive and sure of himself. His family isn’t yet ready to receive this man back into their lives. Taking his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) on a bender. They clearly haven’t seen this side of their father and husband who has really come of what was a very conservative life of a comfortable job in a bank that assured his families future.
Whilst Fred takes a bit longer to work out. After learning his wife (of only 20 days when he last saw her) had moved out and becoming a club singer. Not the life he was expecting to come back to. He represents all those men who fell in love and got married before their leave was up. Understandably so, no one knew if they would return and wanted to make the most of what time they had. He’s one of the average Joe’s (yes Dana Andrews) who we see again at Butch’s (Hoagy Carmichael) drugstore where we also find Al and Homer who have formed a bond that would never have happened at war, three division of the armed forces have come together. Alcohol fueled and very emotional. It’s at Butch’s that they are all able to open up, start to see their futures.
You could see this as just another standard film of the era, yet there’s something very different in the characterisations, we have more realism, sure they are all well acted, with a nod in Harold Russell, one of the few men in the film who saw action validating what this film is about. He has nothing to lose from his role. You could say the film relies on him which would be unfair, the trained actors/actresses.
Turning away from Homer we have Fred who gives us the first glimpse at what P.T.S.D. really is, of course it’s only fleeting, a nightmare of his time on a bombing mission. Not able to properly process what has happened, to grieve for those he has lost and the scenes he has seen whilst at war. He has it probably just as hard as Homer adapting to civilian life, having to find a job, not wanting to return to his past to support him. A wife whose not the person he married, the woman he knew was in the photo he held onto for 3 years, not the woman who wants the uniform, the image of his past. Both are looking for something in each other that no longer or never really existed, an ideal version. Whilst Homer is unsure that he will be accepted by his family and fiance, not the man they saw leave to fight. It’s one that so many others returning home were facing at the time.
The film drives home what had changed at home in America, that it hadn’t stood still. It’s not like going on a holiday only to see the house is still standing and everyone around you is still there. There was a financial boom during the period, massive change at home, a word I am not afraid to repeat over and over now. Home is what the film is all about, what it means to so many when away for so long. The expectations of the veterans, the civilians who welcome them back and adapt to these changed men to a life they had all but forgotten. No longer giving or carrying out orders, running for or fighting the enemy, all that is over. Going back to where they had always wanted to be. Society at the time was going through a state of mass readjustment, making room and accepting these men back into daily life, a whole other battle. The Best Years of Our Lives went a long way to making it easier for veterans to be accepted back home after they had longed for it ever-since they left.
Lastly I want to find a connection between this film and The Big Country which saw a man out-of-place, adapting to an alien world that spoke his own language yet he had to prove himself to those around him. A war of his own you could say. It’s nothing like Years of Our Lives which was a much-needed film for its time. Much as Wyler’s last film before leaving for war himself Mrs. Miniver (1942) encouraged his own country to get behind the war in Europe. Two films that captured the spirit of the war. Looking at the Western it’s so far away from this time it’s something else entirely, a look back at the war, maybe another look is needed, I know I’ll be taking in Mrs. Miniver soon.