The Best Years of Our Lives may well be one of the greatest war films of all time. Perhaps surprisingly, the movie presents us with not a single fighting sequence; we do not even, in fact, get a glimpse of a battlefield. Instead, it presents us with something far less common and thus arguably more precious: a moving portrait of the servicemen who lived to return home after many years of war.
More specifically, The Best Years of Our lives is the story of three veterans: Al, a soldier; Homer, a sailor; and Fred, an airman. From their first meeting at an airport, it is clear to us that the trio are from very different walks for life. They seem to have little in common, save for a shared destination of Boone City – the place each one calls home. We get to know the three on their journey back to their fictional city, learning of their experiences in the armed forces, the lives they had led before the war, and their loved ones whom they both yearn and dread to finally see again. By seamlessly entwining the lives which they lead, Sherwood’s writing offers us a glimpse of a analogical ‘big picture’ – an insight not only into the psyche and experience of three particulars, but of all people and the obstacles they faced in post-war America.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its breathtakingly modern approach. The plot, for example, possesses a realistic and a courageously candid tone. While retaining enormous reverence for the sacrifices made, Wyler never romanticises the war; nor does he dilute the difficulties which the characters are met with. By the same token though, life is not presented as pathetically grim either, but counterbalanced with hope, happiness and occasional hilarity. The result is something that plays out rather a lot like real life.
The work of Wyler and Sherwood is supported beautifully by the cinematography of Gregg Toland, whose style could not be more suited to the subject matter. Take, for example, the scene in the bar in which the three vets reunite for the first time. Through the use of his innovative deep-focus technique, Toland allows us to see Homer in the foreground, Al in the middle-ground and Fred in the background speaking on the telephone. Although a seemingly straightforward composition, the sheer quantity of subjects in the frame is almost overwhelming at first, so much so that we are forced to choose what we focus our attention on.
The result is a shot which mirrors our experience of the world as it really is, complete with inherent ambiguities and a maddening untidiness. Consequently, the deep-focus perfectly highlights the intricacies and complexities of life ahead for the three servicemen, and strengthens the idea that the problems they currently face may remain unresolved for some time to come.
Yet for all its artistic and technological innovation, The Best Years of Our Lives stands also as the epitome of the classic Hollywood form. For its priority is first and foremost to provide the audience with an immersive and profoundly potent experience. In viewing this movie, one does not watch passively as an onlooker; instead, we become intimately involved with the characters and the lives which they lead. We are deeply saddened by the plight of Homer, who lost his hands in a shipboard fire and believes he is burdening his fiancée with his disability. We are overjoyed as we watch the reunion of Al Stephenson with his beloved family unfold. The brief moment in which he stands at his door, thinking of his family and his home on the other side, is one of pure serenity and quiet happiness.
With characteristic style, charm and humanity, William Wyler brings to life one of the truest portrayals of war to yet grace the silver screen. For me, The Best Years of Our Lives simultaneously embodies both the new and old cinema, and it is this combination of two seemingly antagonistic forces which results in art at its very greatest: a film which has truly aged not a day. The Best Years of Our Lives continues to be an extremely relevant work, acknowledging our weaknesses and fragilities, but insisting also on the fundamental constancy of human goodness.