MAY 23, 2014
I USED TO SAY that The Best Years of Our Lives was like a religion to me. In college I watched it over and over again in times of duress — first hoping the fat double-tape set was at the library, which it always was, then bringing it home and sliding it into the VCR and sitting too close to the screen, not wanting any of my real life in my peripheral vision. There were moments in the film — often scenes with Dana Andrews or Teresa Wright — when I would reach out and touch the television’s warm, gently curved surface; the static electricity turned the glass into something soft and almost alive, like sparks on velvet.
I may have loved it more than most, but I’m not the first person to hold this film in reverence. The Best Years of Our Lives is a certified American classic, a heartland epic about three veterans returning from World War II, and it is indeed pretty Best: it won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and a special Oscar for disabled veteran Harold Russell for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” It ranks high on the list of the American Film Institute’s Best American Movies, and it was one of the most commercially successful movies ever made.
It was also a deeply personal endeavor for director William Wyler, who was a veteran of combat in Europe, and who based many of the scenes on his own experiences. Like Fredric March’s character Al Stephenson, Wyler was a middle-aged soldier who came home to a life with financial security, a loving family, and invisible damage. Like Dana Andrews’s Fred Derry, he flew in bombing missions over Europe and lost a close comrade who was shot down. And like Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish, he came home physically disabled, though Wyler lost half his hearing, not both his hands.
The film is often praised for its documentary realism — it was partly shot on location in Midwestern streetscapes and in army airfields, the actors wore little or no makeup and off-the-rack clothes, and Homer was played by a non-professional actor with a real disability. This ordinariness gives the film its step-through-the-screen immediacy. But I love the film just as much for its uncanniness, which is heightened by its verisimilitude. Best Years shows us an everyday reality that will never be the same again: a hometown that appears to be itself, but is forever changed; a homesickness that even home can’t seem to cure. After the war, soldiers feel the aches of phantom limbs, and phantom selves as well.
As we are reminded again after every war, coming home is rarely simple and often sad. In the African American church, “homegoing” is a word for a memorial service: the idea is that in the end, you get home by leaving your home behind and encountering death. The Best Years of Our Lives applies a version of that paradoxical logic to veterans, only it seems that for them the war itself was a kind of home — it was maybe the best years of their lives — and now returning to civilian life is like facing death all over again.
The film begins with Homer, Fred, and Al catching a flight back to their fictional Midwestern hometown, Boone City. As they sit in the nose of the plane surrounded by glass, we see their panoramic view of America: ribbons of lit-up highway stretching beneath them like stars in the darkness, and then daybreak and bright clouds in front of them like the entrance to a celestial afterlife. But then they descend into an airfield ominously crowded with hundreds of warplanes waiting to be scrapped, left behind like bodies on a battlefield, and it starts to seem like going home is actually like a return to combat. As Al says, as he prepares to reunite with his family, “I feel as if I were going in to hit a beach.”
From the beginning, it is clear that the world is no longer safe, as new threats haunt old sites of security. This is true at a global level: on Al’s first night home, his earnest teenage son asks him if he saw any signs of radiation sickness in the people in Hiroshima, and observes that in the future countries will have to get along “or else.” The threat of nuclear holocaust is invoked again in a homey neighborhood bar when Homer tells his uncle Butch (perfectly played by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael) that his family can’t get used to his prosthetic metal hooks. Butch is sitting at the piano and drawls, to the accompaniment of soft legato chords: “Give ’em time kid, they’ll catch on. You know your folks will get used to you, and you’ll get used to them, and everything will settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us will have to worry ’cause we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?” In this strange new world, annihilation is offered as consolation.
This unnerving uncanniness is also manifest in many smaller moments of self-estrangement and mistaken identity. Homer has had to learn how to do everything as if for the first time: lighting a match, drinking lemonade. He has mostly mastered his hooks, but now every ordinary social encounter is a minefield of awkwardness, and he can’t bring himself to touch his girlfriend Wilma.
Meanwhile, on his first night home a drunken Al dances with a wife he is too far gone to recognize. He falls into his habitual overseas seduction script, telling her: “You’re a bewitching little creature. You know, you remind me of my wife.” His wife Milly (Myrna Loy, only slightly less sparkling than her perfect pre-War wife Nora Charles) gamely plays along: “But you never told me you were married!” After their strained reunion earlier in the day, Milly finally connects with Al by pretending to be one of the women he cheated on her with. The next morning, hungover, Al skeptically compares a glossy pre-War photo of himself with the aging, disheveled man in the mirror. Later, when he goes back to work, he discovers that his time in the infantry has given him a social conscience that makes him unrecognizable, and sometimes unacceptable, to his fat cat bosses at the bank.
Fred, who flew the highest, has the farthest to fall. Before the War, he was just a soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks, but during the war, he was a dashing bomber pilot: “an officer and a gentleman,” as he says bitterly in the bad British accent he adopts in ironic moments, who wooed and won a brassy blonde named Marie (Virginia Mayo, playing against type). Fred came home with “a whole ribbon counter on his chest,” recurring nightmares, and the resolve to make something of himself. But as Al says, “It isn’t easy for those Air Force glamour boys when they get grounded.” Fred can’t find a good job, and after months of struggle he eventually returns to the despised soda jerking, a metamorphosis Dana Andrews plays with pained restraint as Fred’s “smooth operator” banter slowly turns into something defeated and self-lacerating. He’s back in his white soda-fountain uniform as if nothing had ever happened, except now he’s haunted by the knowledge of what he’s capable of and what he’s lost.
Marie refuses to recognize Fred in his civilian clothes, and insists that he change into his uniform when they go out: “Oh now you look wonderful. You look like yourself! … Just as if nothing had ever happened. Just as if you’d never gone away.” Fred burns with a pilot light of anger always ready to ignite, and it flares into flame as he tries to shake some sense into her: “Don’t say that Marie. We can never be back there again. We never want to be back there.”
Marie won’t acknowledge the extent of the war’s damage. The film, on the other hand, won’t let us look away. Mostly avoiding close-ups, the film habitually shows its characters arranged in relation to each other, their moments of connection and alienation framed by their friends, family, and environment. There’s a kind of respect and love in the sheer duration of its steady attention and deep focus: it’s a long movie with sustained shots and slowly unspooling scenes that mire you in the shame of not having fingers or fists, the uphill battle of bureaucracy at the bank, the indignity of trying to survive on $32.50 a week. As the hours of the film unfold, we watch each of the men trying to survive using macho military strategies that fail in the civilian world. Homer withdraws into solitary target practice interrupted by flashes of rage. Al turns to booze. Fred briefly regains a flash of old fly boy glamour when he leaps over the soda fountain counter to punch a Nazi sympathizer, but it costs him his job. In postwar America, fighting Nazis lands you in the unemployment line.
We are encouraged to empathize with the characters by the film’s quiet melodic patience, the hours of deepening struggle set to a wistful soundtrack. But there is more to the appeal than that. We are also being educated into a new erotics of male vulnerability, a broken beloved masculinity that hints at the Method anti-heroes of the decade to come. It’s a vision of romance in which the men fall apart and the women keep it together. In a scene of utter vulnerability, Homer finally shows Wilma how to disarm him. She takes on the task of taking off his prosthetic harness. After it’s off, he tells her, he can’t smoke, put on his clothes, or open the door. Their marriage will depend on their acceptance of his dependence. She is ready when he is.
Al unsteadily walks the line between social drinker and alcoholic with a wry, wrecked charm. Milly watches her husband’s compulsive self-medication, silently counting each drink and confiscating as many as she can. She seems to have given up any expectation that he will stop drinking, but she refuses to accept it all the same. Her anxiety is mostly covered by humor, and when she can she relaxes into moments of relief, pride, and the familiar physical intimacy that has lasted half their lives.
Marie’s response to Fred’s PTSD is to tell him “Snap out of it! The war’s over,” which is how we know their marriage is doomed. When Fred hits the town with Al and Milly and their grown-up daughter Peggy, played by the tough and thoughtful Teresa Wright, she seems immune to his practiced patter. Later that night when Fred and Al both come home drop-dead drunk, Peggy matter-of-factly flops Fred on her frilly canopy bed, unbuckles his belt, loosens his tie, casually fends off his automatic attempt at a pass, and then goes to sleep on the couch. Later she is woken by his screams. She sits with him and holds him as he sweats and stares and watches his friend dying again before his eyes. The next morning is an approximation of a morning after. She cooks him breakfast, and Fred flirts: “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? Where did you sleep last night?” She banters back. But they both know that what they shared was more intimate than sex.
This is the film’s bracing view of romance, one in which men and women walk into love already embracing the worse, the poorer, the sickness of wedding vows. In the movie’s most emotionally expressive speech, Milly sums up her relationship with Al as a series of difficult returns to the same familiar but often hard-to-find place: “How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?” This kind of constantly reclaimed loss is the film’s view of work as well: a good job is a return, a recycling, a repetition of the past but with a difference. Al is still a banker, but a better one, one who is resisting the system. And in one of the last scenes in the film, Fred finally finds a way forward when he heads back to the airfield of scrapped planes, fed up with Boone City and about to take the next flight out. He’s sitting in the ruins of an old bomber, reliving war memories, when he meets a man who offers him a job turning scrap metal into prefabricated houses — salvaging homes from the wreckage of the war. Divorced, broke, and homeless, Fred decides to stay and work.
At Homer’s wedding, Fred runs into Peggy, after months of keeping his distance during the protracted death of his marriage. She says, “Dad told me he heard you were in some kind of building work.” He replies, with guarded self-deprecation, “Well that’s a hopeful way of putting it. I’m really in the junk business.” The film leaves us with this image of hopeful wreckage, with Wilma grasping Homer’s metal hand as they say their vows, and finally with Fred’s ragged marriage proposal, more a warning than a promise, which also serves as the film’s last words: “You know what it’ll be, don’t you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We’ll have no money, no decent place to live. We’ll have to work, get kicked around…” The offer is broken enough to be believable. The joy hurts enough to feel real.
In his classic anti-sentimental essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin puts The Best Years of Our Lives on a list of infamy alongside Little Women, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to Baldwin, they are all failed feel-good liberal art. He is only slightly right. Yes, Best Years is a popular straight white romance, and if it weren’t for its melancholic score, ironic dialogue, war-haunted performances, and unfinished ending, it could be summarized as some kind of pat statement about democracy and the love of a good woman. But its sentimentality is mitigated and messy and tarnished enough that at the end of the film I am always ready to say Yes. Yes: work is hopeful junkyard salvage, and love is enduring struggle, and it may take us years to get anywhere, but yes, this. It’s what I once tried to touch, my hand on the screen — the hope and the struggle, if I could only find my way home to it.
The Best Years of Our Lives has stayed with me. I watch it less now than I used to, but it’s one of the movies that I’ve made friends and boyfriends watch, and some of my little sisters have gotten hooked on it as well (one says Fred Derry’s marriage proposal is her “daily mirror affirmation”). The film can still be religion as needed, and even elegy. Four years ago I watched it with a new friend who was in the midst of a long and courageous struggle, and two years later I read some of its restless, uncanny dialogue at her scattering-of-ashes service:
“I had a dream. I dreamed I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time I wanted to find out if it’s true. Am I really home?”
In memory of Sarah Hammond