Last July, as part of an ongoing monthly process of intentionally seeking out noteworthy films that have fallen between my own critical cracks, I watched William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives for the first time. Here is the resulting uncut (but still short) piece that resulted. A shorter version of this originally appeared at Twitchfilm.com.
First Impressions of the Postwar Oscar Winner
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER/1946
Boasting major stars (Myrna Loy, Fredric March), a major director (“90-Take” William Wyler) and a ripped-from-the-headlines relevance, 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives is one that not only earned its acclaim (Oscars galore, and continued adoration), but remains relevant. Although its nearly three-hour duration allows for plenty of glossy torrid drama that Hollywood specialized in back then (young Teresa Wright falling in love with the married Dana Andrews), Best Years’ theme of displaced servicemen returning from the war, counterbalanced with a palpable dread on behalf of the populace of how to make room for these veterans, feels dangerously topical.
Although the name actors more than effectively carry the show, it is the presence of double-amputee Harold Russell, sporting a pair of hooks in lieu of his hands, that fuses Best Years with its lingering vitality. Russell’s work here is the very definition of “supporting actor”. The texture and reality he contributes (via his naturalistic acting) is brave, properly endearing, but never sappy. Wyler, already a Great Director of Hollywood by this time, on some level could relate. He had also sustained injury (considerably less serious) during wartime.
Some may feel that Best Years wrapping up as nicely as it does for the characters is a cop out in terms of its major themes of harsh re-integration and struggle, but we must remember that this is studio-system Hollywood, where the sight of a man with prosthetic hooks on screen was a bold move in itself. The deep focus black and white photography of Gregg Toland, while not as flashy as his work on Citizen Kane, is nonetheless a tremendously pronounced contribution.
At one point in the film, Russell’s character proclaims satisfaction at the $200/month that Uncle Sam is providing to him. Although that might’ve been a lot of money in 1946, it is now a striking tell of how far we’ve failed to come. Nowadays, just getting the proverbial $200 has proven challenging for some. In the U.S., the string of harrowing news regarding the systemic troubles of current service people and veterans (V.A. backlog, payroll issues, The Invisible War, etc.) is a heartbreaking reminder that Best Years‘ themes are as germane as ever.