BFI Classics: The Best Years of Our Lives

 Author: Sarah Kozloff

On its release in 1946 William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives would have really resonated with its contemporary audience, particularly the thousands of returning veterans coming home to an uncertain future, be it here, Australia or the USA. Still powerful and sadly not often seen on UK TV (although available on DVD and is often shown on Veterans Day in the US) this is still a very effective film. Running at well over two hours it moves along at a cracking pace and is not classic Hollywood in the normal sense as its picture of an American idyll in the small mid-West town is treated as dark and uncertain for those returning. The story centres on three characters, each from the different armed service of naval, sea and air: Al (Fredric March) is a sergeant and the oldest of the three who wishes to pick up his life where he left off with his good bank job, but comes home to a family who barely know him, although he has a wife (Myrna Loy) who is understanding and patient – even with his alcoholism; Fred (Dana Andrews) returns home looking elegant in his captain’s air force outfit when we learn when he is back home that he was a soda jerk in the local ice-cream parlour before the warand is struggling to re-adjust and find a job. On top of that he comes home to his new wife (Virginia Mayo) who, it would seem is the town tramp and high maintenance at that. In addition he is also suffering from nightmares having lost his crew on a bombing mission over Germany. The sailor, Homer is the one with the most visible readjustments to be made as he has lost both his arms in an explosion and his hands have been replaced with mechanical grabbers. He has returned home to his childhood sweetheart whom he had intended to marry but is dealing with his own depression at losing his arms. This is one of the most remarkable performances as Harold Russell was not a professional actor at all and received just a fraction of the pay for his role as the rest of the cast. In fact it was Loy who took the biggest wage from the film at over $80,000, whereas Russell received just $6,000 for his part.

Author Sarah Kozloff goes into great detail about this film and her love and affection for it is clearly evident. She begins the book going into the social historical context which, naturally had to be a big part of the films significance and she provides much in the way of evidence to support what the films intentions were and in many ways how daring it was at the time. Reading the social historical background in no way deters from the production element of the film as Kozloff also goes into great detail about the struggles to get the film made as director William Wyler intended; Wyler was a well known perfectionist who would use many takes to get the reaction he wanted. It is also surprising to learn that the genesis of the film lay as far back as 1944, but needless to say it went under many script changes, particularly in lieu of the war ending in 1945 and additional script changes. One of the most significant was talk of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb, leaving a rather bleak vision of the future. Its overall look is classic romantic studio Hollywood, but this film is much more than that and if it can still resonate with an audience today, imagine its impression in 1946?

One of the books lengthiest chapters gives over to aesthetics, or to be more precise about the cinematography and music in the film. It is the photography by Gregg Toland that is worthy of mention as Toland (and Wyler) seemed to have worked very well together with Toland creating some amazing and innovative framing using deep focus photography and composition throughout the film – having clearly learnt his lessons from working with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane in 1940. Kozloff begins and ends her book by reading the importance of the films title and the various changes that it underwent. She makes the claim that the title alone resonated with the audience and even goes so far as to claim that maybe the film may not have had the same impact it had were the title something a little more kitsch or obvious and poses the question: is the title ironic or does it mean it? She also closes the book with bringing the film right up to date and comparing its reaction on a contemporary audience with that of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker. For anyone who has not seen The Best Years of Our Lives, and I am sure that is many do try to watch it and then read Kozloff’s fascinating book.

Chris Hick

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