The Best Years of Our Lives

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.

36 Comments

  • beetleypete says:

    You got me reminiscing here Rachel. A wonderful appreciation of a marvellous film. Sumptuously shot in black and white, performances of real meaning bring the script to life, and the whole thing is a joy to behold. It also has that rare thing; sentiment without undue sentimentality, hard to achieve.
    It is so long since I have seen it, your article makes me want to watch it again. Now.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Rachel T says:

      Always great to hear from you Pete. And yes you are right: to invoke just the right amount of sentiment is indeed very challenging. Do watch it again if you get the chance; I bet it’ll be just as good, perhaps even better, than you remember.

  • dullwood68 says:

    Hi Rachel
    Once again you’ve written a great review about a great movie. I’ve only seen it once, around thirty-plus years ago but it’s impact has remained with me ever since. I think it’s Wyler’s best movie, and the natural, realistic performances were what made it stand out for me – career bests for all concerned! Thanks for rekindling some (very) old memories.
    Nigel

    • Rachel T says:

      Thanks Nigel! I agree that the ensemble cast is absolutely brilliant; usually in a film with several story lines, we find one or another particularly compelling. It is not at all the case for this movie, and I believe this is largely due to the excellent performances from the whole cast. Combined with the talents of Wyler, Toland, Sherwood, Mandell & Friedhofer – it really is no wonder that The Best Years of Our Lives has come to stand for classic Hollywood at its very best.

  • Kyle Marffin says:

    Surely the ‘best war film that’s not a war film’. Naturally, the plight of real-life war victim Homer the sailor is meant to ensnare us in the returning vets’ plight. But, oddly enough, I’m always drawn even more to Dana Andrews’ character for some reason, feeling he somehow embodies what the majority of the soldiers coming home wrestled with…and still do today. An amazing film, to be sure.

    • Rachel T says:

      Yes, I think that’s the beauty of The Best Years of Our Lives. At first, it is perhaps Homer’s story which is most undeniably heartbreaking. As the film goes on however, we see in each of the three stories a variety of problems which any veteran could easily encounter (e.g. disability, unemployment, disintegrating relationships etc). Actually, during my most recent viewing of the film, it was also Andrews’ character which most intrigued me. There is definitely a sense of irony which accompanies the idea that the highest ranking of the three, Captain Fred Derry, is now stuck with a dead-end job, no home of his own and a wife who doesn’t love him. It is almost as if the bombardier and airforce ‘glamour boy’ has landed back to earth, back to a grounded reality with a rather demoralising thump.

  • Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks Rachel. A marvellous film filled with humanity. Hollywood at its best using all that fantastic craft skill to its best effect. Regards Thom.

  • FlaHam says:

    Rachel, Smiling, I know I must have seen this a one time or another, but I don’t remember, But I do know as a result of your review I will hunt it down for viewing. I have come to respect your reviews, placing a lot of trust in your words and thoughts. Much more than any prior reviewer I have followed. Thank you, Bill

    • Rachel T says:

      You are too kind Bill :) I always feel honoured and happy to hear that you have such trust in my judgement. By the way, have you had a chance to see some of the films I have been writing about recently? I would love to hear whether you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have.

  • Christy says:

    One of my new favourites. Tells such compelling stories from an angle few choose to tell it. It’s personal and intimate. And I love how the role of the women in the process of coming home is seen so clearly – the success and failure of many marriages really fell on how patient and compassionate they were willing to be with the scars the men returned with.

    Saw this one the first time and it didn’t strike me- watched it again more recently and it struck a chord. I think the more you grow up, the more the film resonates.

  • Dazzling blog,thank you for following my blog.l look forward to enjoy your new posts.JMS

  • Love this film, one my husband and I have watched many times.

  • Wow, a beautifully written intensive analogy of what sounds like a great film. I am shamed to say that i have never heard of this film, and the war movie (esp WW2) is one of my favourite genres. I know what ill be ordering next. I look forward to scrolling through your previous reviews. And thanks for following my blog too

    • Rachel T says:

      Being a fan of war films, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing The Best Years of Our Lives which essentially picks up where the classic war film ends: after the battle. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film if you ever get the chance to write about it. And no problem; I’ll be stopping by your blog again soon!

  • KimWilson says:

    I agree that The Best Years of Our Lives is a classic. All of the performances are great, and Gregg Toland’s cinematography is spot on. I would quibble with you about the film not aging, but that’s a minor point. Great article.

    • Rachel T says:

      Thanks Kim! Well, I think quite a few people would probably agree with you on that point! The black and white cinematography, not to mention tiny things like the affected mid-Atlantic accents probably give it away that the film wasn’t made yesterday. If you look at the vast majority of films though, most have a certain style -with regards to camerawork and storytelling- that is incredibly characteristic of the few years in which they were made.

      Off the top of my head, a film like Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (while very charming), is clearly 1950s with its exotic location and very particular variety of CinemaScope combined with intense Technicolor. The point that I was driving at was that it is much more difficult to place The Best Years of Our Lives, which has about it a kind of timelessness which is very rare.

  • Beautiful write up of a beautiful film

  • Jay Croft says:

    Beautiful movie. I just saw it for the first time, as part of my effort to see more of the classics I’ve missed. I wrote my own blog about that, so please check it out if you like: http://storycroft.com/2014/05/12/classic-movie-watch-list-for-summer-31-more-after-sullivans-travels/
    And if not, check out the movie. Just lovely. And surprisingly contemporary and sophisticated, especially in the March-Loy relationship.

    • Rachel T says:

      Thanks for the link Jay. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on these films. It’s always nice (and perhaps a little daunting) to realise that there are still so many classics we’ve yet to watch.

  • Love movies from any era. What a great site!
    Thank you very much for following. Eddie

  • Now I need to add this to my “to-see” list. Thank you. It sounds great.

  • This is one of the best movies ever! I’ve probably seen it 8 times and still watch it just about every time it comes on.

    • Rachel T says:

      I’ve always thought that a great film often seems to get better with each viewing – every time, there’s always some wonderful detail that you didn’t notice before, or perhaps another way of interpreting the film that never previously occurred to you. By this definition, The Best Years of Our Lives is certainly one of the very best of all movies.

  • I totally agree with your review – this movie is modern, yet a classic, and so beautifully filmed. It’s one I appreciate more with each viewing.

    My fave scene is the one where Dana Andrews goes to the fighter plane “graveyard” and experiences those flashbacks. It’s one of his best scenes.

  • Hey! Could not share on my wordpress, so shared it on my G+ page. Great stuff!

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