- The Best Years of Our Lives
In introducing her monograph on William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Sarah Kozloff acknowledges that, unlike some of the other entries in the British Film Institute’s “Film Classics” series, her subject “is not a ‘difficult’ film.” As if to prove her point, she requires less than a page to adequately summarize this almost three hour long film about the challenges facing three American veterans of the Second World War upon returning to their home town. With the title of the film being its only noteworthy ambiguity, Kozloff’s focus is on showing that her subject is “noteworthy for how it weaves realism into classical Hollywood filmmaking conventions and for the profound depth of feeling it achieves.”
The first chapter establishes the one-in-the-same historical moment in which Best Years was produced, its story takes place, and it was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike -- a time that very soon will lie beyond living memory. Kozloff provides an excellent overview of the social conditions and personal challenges facing returning American servicemen, the emergence of the Cold War, the ongoing demise of Hollywood’s studio system, and the self-censorship of the movie industry’s Production Code. A number of press photos and print ads directed to veterans and their families nicely compliment the text.
The chapter dedicated to the film’s production history provides brief biographies of the principles: Samuel Goldwyn, William Wyler, Robert Sherwood as well as each of the main actors. Kozloff lets Wyler’s wartime experience, which included permanent damage to his hearing, speak for itself as a motivation for the film’s “detailed texture of authenticity,” which includes the casting of Harold Russell, a non-professional actor who lost both of his hands in a training accident during the war. He also gives the deep-focus cinematography of Gregg Tolland (of Citizen Kane fame) and the music of Hugo Friedhofer their due as formal elements of the film that facilitate its realism.
The chapter dealing with the reception to Best Years discusses the breadth and depth of feeling it elicited from movie-goers who, as documents reveal, identified with the struggles faced by the film’s characters. I do wish this had included a discussion of audience response to the humorous episode when the three soldiers are reunited during their first night home at Butch’s Bar. The first time I saw the film, that scene took me back to one of my last experiences in a large and packed movie theatre, in 1991, with an audience made up mostly of people who, like myself, had grown up in the suburbs of a [End Page 78] Canadian city, sharing a laugh over the night-on-the-town sequence in Wayne’s World.
Kozloff also examines political criticisms of the film: while many right-wing commentators found it to betray communist sympathies, most left-wing commentators found quite the opposite. Kozloff offers an explanation for how Best Years was able to solicit both responses. She suggests that one of the film’s central themes is that “re-entry into civilian life leads straight into the traps forged by capitalism and class, whose teeth now bite with renewed force.” But at the same time, the film “depoliticizes the social ills of 1946.” Kozloff defends this latter feature on the grounds that a more openly left-wing film (she uses the example of Salt of the Earth) could not have been made within the Hollywood system. I believe that Kozloff is perpetuating a misreading of this film’s political stance. Best Years exposes and comments on the tension between civic responsibility and shared national purpose, on the one hand, and hyper-consumerism and hyper-individualism, on the other. In other words, this is not a film concerned with the divisive interests of class; rather it is speaking for the common responsibilities of citizenship.
Certainly the returning veterans in the film are intentionally made to be about as different as they can be (at least without bringing race or...