The Best Years of Our Lives is a certified American classic, a heartland epic about three veterans returning from World War II. Being one of the most commercially successful movies ever made, it won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Score. In this essay I will explore how realism is used to its utmost potential in The Best Years of Our Lives to convey a timeless and authentic story. Ironically, this fiction film feels more real and personable than many documentaries. What factors of authenticity made the film such a success and all-time classic? The casting, content, and cinematographic artistry of the film had the perfect combination of authenticity and censorship that made America fall in love with a film this film.
Only a couple years after World War II ended, The Best Years of Our Lives came at a time when America was finally ready to open up their hearts again to a war story. The country still had many open wounds in the mental and social fabric of the nation, but The Best Years of Our Lives was still mountains successful over its competitors, such as 1946’s Let There Be Light. Whereas Let There Be Light highlighted the mental and physical illnesses veterans encountered when they came back from war, Best Years showed more physical impairments. Let There Be Light showed interviews and therapy sessions of veterans in a mental facility before returning to their hometowns. Mental mutilation was deemed to be more taboo than physical mutilation. The film was a complete flop and did not even make it into theaters because it never got past the committee for the motion picture association of America. The film, being a documentary, was as authentic as a film could be, but it was possibly too real and raw for Americans to witness so soon after the war. The fine line of showing too much versus not enough was what producers encountered at this time. The Best Years of Our Lives focused on rebuilding life at home and the social and economic difficulties that came with returning from war. While still difficult to swallow, this was a story that Americans needed more than they thought, and seventy years later, the film still remains incredibly relevant.
Casting and the participation of real veterans behind the scenes were essential in creating the film’s authentic-feeling heart. The realistic casting and genuine content of the film stole audience’s hearts and and the special Oscar for disabled veteran Harold Russell thanked him and the cast for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” Would the film’s extremely positive reception have been different if the cast was made up of professional actors, instead of real life veterans? Harold Russell, who played Homer Parrish was a real veteran and amputee. In fact, the original film script was intended to have an actor play a veteran with a brain injury, however when the producers heard of Russell, they changed the script for him. The producers felt American audiences were not yet ready for someone with such an injury and they did not know how to write or cast that part. This made the scene toward the end of the film with Homer and Wilma looking at Homer’s amputated hands especially powerful to watch. It was a moment that tested the balance of authenticity and censorship. When he takes off his prosthetics, it is shocking in some ways because there’s no distance at that moment between actor and character, or between character and film maker, because Wyler himself was a disabled veteran. Homer has had to learn how to do everything as if for the first time: lighting a match, drinking lemonade. He has mostly mastered his hooks, but now every ordinary social encounter is a minefield of awkwardness, and he can’t bring himself to touch his girlfriend Wilma. The rawness in this scene, especially because it was true and authentic to the actor under the character, made the film have a sense of trust and intimacy for preserving Russell’s real life story. The story is not for show or box-office views, but this part of the film is as real as scenes in Let There Be Light. When questioning if this part of the film should have been censored for viewers, the producers looked to Russell for guidance, and Russell’s approval gave the green light to continue the film with this scene in it.
In addition to casting actors, the backbone and director of the project, William Wyler, was deeply connected to the film. Wyler was a veteran of combat in Europe and based many of the scenes on his own experiences. It was even his idea to create the film from a true story he had heard through word of mouth of three soldiers on a road trip home from their army base and how they were getting more and more nervous the closer to home they got. Wyler put much of himself into his version of the three men. Like Fredric March’s character Al Stephenson, Wyler was a middle-aged soldier who came home to a life with financial security, a loving family, and invisible damage. Like Dana Andrews’s Fred Derry, he flew in bombing missions over Europe and lost a close comrade who was shot down. And like Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish, he came home physically disabled, though Wyler lost half his hearing, not both his hands.
Wyler also made it a point to infuse authenticity into other facets of the project. The film was shot on real army bases and did not use recreated locations on movie set stages. The cameraman even rigged a system for Wyler so he could hear the actors well enough to direct them. It was especially important for this film to be accurate for Wyler because his previous projects were slammed for not being truthful to their original stories. Wyler wanted this film to be accurate, and not just in terms of detail, but on a really deep level; emotionally and physically accurate. He told actors to go to the store and buy their own clothes, instead of having them be designed by a costume department. He told Fredric March to slim down because his character would have been on army rations and should not come home looking heavy and well fed. This “unbelievable powerful realism” is what separated The Best Years of Our Lives from other films of the year.
Music was also a key factor that contributed to the authentic feel of the film. We are encouraged to empathize with the characters through the film’s famous melodies and the hours of deepening struggle set to its wistful soundtrack. The original score of emotional symphonic music written by Hugo Friedhofer pulled the heart strings of audiences. With many actual string and horn instruments, the orchestrations sounded grand and full. Critics described the score as really emotionally charged with a variety of musical swells in every song, which is key to make people feel empathetic. Music played a large role in the film in other capacities as well. Homer had to re-learn how to play the piano with his new hands, which once mastered, gave him a sense of hope that other goals were possible if he accomplished playing the piano, which is so coordination-driven. There were also a few dance scenes in the film that act as settings for relationships to form and break apart. Music and dancing were one of the only outlets of joy at this time, and showing it on screen to remind viewers of the small occasions of happiness they still had, gave the film a joyful element.
There were also a couple unscripted scenes in the film where Wyler had to solely rely on Friedhofer’s score to tell the story, such as in Fred’s nightmare sequence. Friedhofer incorporated plane noises and heavy drums to convey the violent sounds of battle. When Peggy came into the room to comfort Fred, flutes and violins took over with a comforting innocent melody. Secondly, when Fred is in the air field at the end and has flashbacks of his time in the air, the score vaults out of the warm, slice-of-life mode into pure musical horror: psychological turmoil and graphically dissonant suggestions of a desperate aerial battle with machine guns, fire, and blood. Sherwood said to Wyler about the last scene in the plane field that he did not know how to write it. Wyler was given complete artistic control and had to use the language of movie direction to convey the scene because Sherwood claimed to not be able to convey it through dialogue. When Fred stands by himself wandering through and air field, it is the moment when the trauma of his past and the terror of his experiences comes out of his system and is purged in a way that will allow him to go on with the rest of his life. It is conveyed through camera technique, and through impressionistic audio where we hear the dead planes in the air field appear to roar to life, and we see an ever greater pressure inside Fred’s head. Wyler had to create this through the language of film and Friedhofer had to create an original score for an unscripted scene. These sounds were probably actually in Wyler’s head from his previous experiences in combat, and they were brought to life by Friedhofer’s imagination. Wyler lost his hearing in a plane so he realized this scene would have to be created sonically and the sounds would and could mean something to audiences. To convey such vulnerability, comfort, and violence through a musical score is a true skill that Wyler had to trust in Friedhofer to portray, since Wyler could not fully hear it by himself anymore.
Cinematically, the pace of scenes and sequences helped the film connect to audiences in a more realistic way. Technically, the picture was free from quick cutting for mechanical pace that Hollywood is so known for, and close-ups did not pop in to fill dramatic vacuums. There was no excess of moving shots having the aesthetic value of vertigo. The film’s plot did not start moving until about an hour into the three-hour long film. This very intentional slow start was to illustrate the lifestyle and suspense the soldiers felt before arriving at home. Studying these characters in isolation before they reached their families allowed the audience to feel more connected to the characters as we root for their recovery. Mostly avoiding close-ups, the film habitually shows its characters arranged in relation to each other, their moments of connection and alienation framed by their friends, family, and environment. There is a kind of respect and love in the sheer duration of its steady attention and deep focus: it is a long movie with sustained shots and slow scenes that make us appreciate the luxuries we experience in a post World War II today.
The stereotypical image of a macho-man hero saving the day is also ignored and the authentic reality of gender roles in these households unfold. We are educated into a new erotic of male vulnerability, a broken beloved masculinity that hints at the method anti-heroes of the decade to come. It is a vision of romance in which the men fall apart and the women keep it together. In a scene of utter vulnerability, Homer finally shows Wilma how to disarm him. She takes on the task of taking off his prosthetic harness. After it is off, he tells her he cannot smoke, put on his clothes, or open the door. Their marriage will depend on their acceptance of his dependence, and she is ready when he is. Walking the line here between authenticity and censorship, this fictional scene is the right amount of truth that gave communities hope to keep going in households that might not be the function of what they had imagined. Having a real-life veteran in the scene accepting that manhood is not always the definition of physical strength was a huge moment to see on screen.
Here we are faced with the general stereotypes of the film industry and popular fiction. The original novel by Mackinlay Kantor was even more run-of-the-mill, and the Wyler-Sherwood changes moved the story progressively toward realism. In Kantor’s story, Al leaves the bank to become a small-time farmer and Fred narrowly escapes becoming a bank robber. The film’s drive toward truth is evident in every sequence. There is immense patience for detail and emotional texture, especially in the homecoming scenes of Al and Homer, where the inventive commentary on human behavior is enormous. A passion for insight smashes the stereotypes, around the edges. The lesson for directors and writers is evident: writing for the movies is writing under censorship. The censorship forces stereotypes of motive and environment on the creators, and the problem is to press enough concrete experience into the mold to make imagination live.
As we are reminded again after every war, coming home is rarely simple and often sad. The Best Years of Our Lives applies a version of that paradoxical logic to veterans, only it seems that for them the war itself was a kind of home — it was maybe the best years of their lives — and now returning to civilian life is like facing death all over again. Hollywood did not get the best of this film and the unapologetic realism and touching story elevates The Best Years of Our Lives above other war films. The Best Years of Our Lives is often praised for its documentary realism, however its authenticity is what is unremarkable and nearly unprecedented in the genre. This was one of the first times an actual civilian was cast in a blockbuster movie to portray a real life condition on screen. The team of producers went above and beyond to make this production holistically authentic, on and off screen. Although the story does not necessarily reflect the most positively on America and the job crisis that veterans has post war (and are still experiencing today), producers ruthlessly and without shame showed America’s faults and holes in its systems. The film took on subject matter that no one talked about in those days. PTSD, unemployment for the returning veterans, and the adjusting to civilian life.
To conclude, I wondered how Wyler changed his mindset on directing and the film industry during his years in combat. In an interview with a reviewer of the film, they said “There was nothing for Wyler in the years he stopped making films…but there was also everything.” The cultural, intellectual, and emotional baggage Wyler put into his projects after his time serving is what gave the films the heart and endurance to stay relevant for decades to come. The Best Years of Our Lives was ahead of it’s time and contained the perfect balance of authenticity and censorship which was everything America needed and still needs today. When casting a project, on and off screen, it is so important to infuse the project with authentic experiences and emotions, so that the project has a real-pumping heart, and is not solely made up of the fantasy of Hollywood.
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