William Wyler made documentaries for the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army during World War II, accompanying the airmen of the Memphis Belle on bombing missions over Germany—an experience he described as “an escape into reality.” His cinematographer was shot down in the course of filming one raid, and Wyler himself lost his hearing while collecting aerial footage of the Allied advance in the Mediterranean. Disabled, he returned to Hollywood determined, as Mark Harris relates in Five Came Back, to tell a story “not about the end of the war, but about the end of its aftermath, the moment at which, sometimes with resignation, sometimes with renewed hope, and often with uncertainty, the men of World War II would begin to live in a world that was no longer defined by their military service.”
Wyler’s personal struggle to regain his footing as a director and to preserve the balance in his marriage in the face of his disability is what gives The Best Years of Our Lives its punch. The picture has an immediacy that aligns it with the neorealism of Rossellini’s early films, its authenticity underscored by the inclusion of documentary footage in the opening sequence. Sets were built to scale, giving the cameramen less room to maneuver. When we’re in the tail of the B-17 bomber flying home with the three returning veterans, we feel cramped. So many hours trapped together in that cluttered compartment, and yet none of them seems eager to return to civilian life.
Homer (Harold Russell, a disabled veteran, not an actor), the sailor who was severely wounded when his ship was torpedoed and now has prosthetic hooks instead of hands, is quite adept, signing his name with a pen and lighting the others’ cigarettes. “You ought to see me open a bottle of beer,” he quips, but the bravado doesn’t last long. The last thing he wants is pity, from his family or from his girl, Wilma. Sergeant Al (Fredric March) has a wife and family waiting for him, and they’ve been holding his old job at the bank. You’d think he’d be eager to slide back into the familiar world he left behind, but his war experiences have hardened and embittered him. “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me.”
Fred (Dana Andrews), a bombardier who suffers from PTSD, is the most tightly wound of the trio: restless, angry, indifferent to the medals and citations he earned for his heroism, he claims to want nothing more than an ordinary life. And yet he alienates his floozy of a wife and sabotages his job as a soda jerk, punching out a customer who belittled the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the war. Granted, the guy deserved it for calling Homer a sucker for enlisting and getting himself wounded. Anyone who talks that way about veterans deserves to be punched.
Hollywood being Hollywood, all three characters are redeemed by the love of good women, but Wyler pulls off his happy ending without indulging in sentimentality. Sure, there’s a fair amount of wisecracking between Al and his faithful wife Millie (Myrna Loy), but there’s an edge to the dialogue—a far cry from the glib exchanges between Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man. Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) doesn’t flinch when Homer shows her how helpless he is without his prosthetic hooks, and I found myself unexpectedly moved in the final wedding scene, when he succeeds at maneuvering the wedding ring onto her finger.
The best line is Hoagy Carmichael’s. He plays Homer’s Uncle Butch, who owns a cozy little bar where he dispenses beer and advice, the latter delivered while he tickles the ivories. Homer is lamenting his family’s coddling of him but Butch assures him they just need time to get used to one another. Everything will settle down, he says, playing the closing chords of “Lazy River.”
Unless we have another war. Then none of us will have to worry because we’ll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh?
Definitely not a sentimental guy, that Wyler.