director William Wyler
Inspired by the BBC’s The 100 Greatest American Films list, I’ve been working my way through the percentage of that 100 which I couldn’t lay claim to having already watched. It’s an odd effort, hunting down and watching “the great movies” as have been selected by whatever institution or just from popular knowledge. Odd in that the variance in perceived “greatness” is very much in the eyes and minds of the beholders.
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is one of those movies that was big and successful in its day and went on to sweep up at the Oscars big time for 1946. Wyler won Best Picture/Best Director three times and was a perennial for many years, with many notable films to his name including Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968) to name just a smattering.
It’s a tale of America back from WWII, adjusting to civilian life, as prismed through the stories of three vets: Sgt. Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Derry (Dana Andrews), and Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), all returning to the fictive Boone City, OH. The sprawling ensemble cast includes Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and even Hoagy Carmichael, and tells of the various adaptations back to the world that challenged the men who led very different lives fighting in the War from those they left and resumed back at home.
While the film looks at the challenges of the characters, from Homer’s disfiguring wounds (he lost his hands in the war and works marvels with his claw clips), to Derry’s heroic war record but no prospects for work back on the home front, and even Derry’s PTSD nightmares, the film is also almost as much about the normality and regularity of America and the middle class values to which they are returning, as well as to which America itself is returning. In fact, there is a pretty well-suggested future of the post-war 1950’s ideology laid out.
It’s a good film, certainly. The acting is good and it’s very well-made. It’s nearly three hours long, which makes sense for the subject matter, but is a bit of a long haul.
I don’t know. One of the great American films? It has its populist pedigree. I’m not entirely sure yet what I think.