Film Reflection: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)- William Wyler’s Brilliant Post-War Reflection That Utilized Magnificent Acting Complimented by Gripping Visuals and a Beautiful Score

Movies that age like fine wines in Hollywood are actually a dime a dozen, but the first great generation of cinema that was ignited in the 40s certainly offered a great deal of films that are still relevant today. There were a great deal of tales that showcased the struggle of love (Casablanca), the obsession of power and money (Citizen Kane/Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and even dabbled in controversial topics of the day such as alcoholism (The Lost Weekend) and infidelity (Double Indemnity). However, the topic of war and the psychological and social implications of returning from the horrors of war were delicately and truthfully explored in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Based on the novel by MacKinlay Kantor, who was an American journalist in London during World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives follows the lives of three different classes of soldiers in the War and their difficulties of returning home. Each character is remarkably thought out in the adapted script from Robert Sherwood as well as through the professional and non-professional actor’s portrayals, including the outstandingly truthful performance from real life war veteran Harold Russell. The Best Years of Our Lives successfully combined gripping and emotional performances from a large and talented cast, renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland’s masterful abilities behind the camera, and a script that balanced psychological and social conditions of returning to normality after being immersed into trying circumstances into a film that earned all of its academy awards and critic recognitions. It remains as much a graceful and relevant film today as it was back in 1946.

The fact that The Best Years of Our Lives continues to be of relevance today is due to the scripts authenticity in dealing with subject matter that transcends a specific place and time. It certainly is set in the aftermath of World War II, where the three main characters are returning from the brutal and memorable harshness of the Pacific, but the transitional struggles, psychological turmoil, and feelings of having a solitary shell are all matters that modern soldiers deal with. Our main character is played by a diverse Dana Andrews as air force pilot Fred Derry, who suffers post-traumatic stress during his sleep. He’s married to a floozy of a wife and due to accidental circumstances ends up meeting a fellow soldier’s daughter Peggy, played remarkably well by Teresa Wright, which is the pivotal love story in the middle of The Best Years of Our Lives. Fred certainly pertains to the psychological aspect of war where a drastic and seemingly horrific bombing run follows him everywhere. Al Stephenson, the father of Peggy, was an infantry man in the war and is played well by Fredric March. Al is considerably richer than his other men and has been in a lengthy and happy marriage with Milly, played by the beautiful and talented Myrna Loy, but he still treats his fellow soldiers as if they were brothers. March brings a great sense of balance to his character, which involves many moments of humor in dealing with minor alcoholism and drunkenness but has a genuine demeanor about him. His transition from war is more on the social end of the spectrum, where getting used to his old job at a bank where bankers could never understand the predicament of war is a barrier he must get past. The last character is a real life war veteran Harold Russell as Homer Parrish, who was a sailor during the war and lost both of his arms which have been replaced by hooks. Considering that Russell was an amateur actor things could have gone wrong but he does a fantastic job showcasing his vulnerability, depression, and reluctance towards getting back into his life. It just takes understanding and love from his fiancée Wilma, played delicately by Cathy O’Donnell, to bring him to his happy ending. Each and every actor handles their selected representation extremely well, which carries The Best Years of Our Lives out of melodrama and into reflective relevance.

The message could have been delivered without visual aid, but with cinematographer extraordinaire Gregg Toland behind the camera The Best Years of Our Lives acquired another layer of storytelling brilliance. Having been nominated for several academy awards, Gregg Toland is known mostly for reinventing cinema visuals in the 40s with Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane. Perhaps it’s the angles that Toland uses or the dramatic lighting, but every shot counts in The Best Years of Our Lives, whether the camera moves or not. When it does it can be a remarkable effect, such as when the camera moves toward the plane while Fred is sitting in it overcoming his fearful memories. It seems as though the plane is moving towards us while at the same time acting as the memories coming back to Fred. The camera is used just as powerfully when it isn’t moving, especially in one of the last shots of the film during Homer and Wilma’s wedding. There is a steady shot behind Fred as he glances over towards Peggy, and as everyone swarms Homer and Wilma as their kiss ends the wedding, Fred moves delicately passed the crowd and embraces Peggy as the shot never changes. This was just pure brilliance by Toland to know where to set the camera along with the Editor agreeing to keep the choice. Why Toland didn’t get another nomination for his delicate camera work we’ll probably never know.

William Wyler at the helm of this project proved to be a great choice, considering his vast display of strengths in such films as Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), and Mrs. Miniver (1942). His ability to work with such difficult subject matter and many strong actors displaying varying emotions, intentions, and relationships shows how talented he was in controlling a difficult script. This definitely came in handy later on in his career especially with bigger budget projects such as Big Country (1958) and the epic of all epics, Ben-Hur (1959). Every artistic choice must have gone through Wyler’s sensibilities as an efficient and successful director and when watching The Best Years of Our Lives and witnessing all of the technical, emotional, and story elements come together it’s understandable why he was such an accomplished director. The score is intense and beautiful from credits to finish complimenting Toland’s wonderful imagery as though the image and music were always meant to be together. Film is just pure manipulation but The Best Years of Our Lives is the sort of manipulation you never get tired of experiencing as you watch love conquer all social, psychological, and personal ills. It seems a bit cliché when speaking of the inevitable conclusion, but Wyler’s presentation couldn’t be more real, and everything from the acting to the camera work and score aid his intended delivery.

The 40s is certainly one of the greatest decades of American cinema, which gave us most of our memorable cinema experiences from Casablanca to The Grapes of Wrath. It was a decade filled with memorable and defining films from John Ford, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, and Howard Hawkes. The Best Years of Our Lives was one of William Wyler’s magnificent pieces of drama that bravely explored the realities of war and the aftermath of struggle coming back to normality, which puts him among the greatest of American filmmakers. It’s a film that proudly showcases diverse acting performances that are revealing and delicate, which are complimented by the gripping cinematography, score, and editing that allowed such a gracious project to be admired for generations upon generations. Whether you see this film in the 40s or 40 years from now, The Best Years of Our Lives will continue to be a work admired for its script’s authenticity and its messages eternal relevance.

4 Responses to “Film Reflection: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)- William Wyler’s Brilliant Post-War Reflection That Utilized Magnificent Acting Complimented by Gripping Visuals and a Beautiful Score”
  1. Juan C says:

    A good movie, but I liked the Lost Weekend better. Nothing was better than seeing the main character in that movie go crazy and imagine those bats coming out through the walls.

    • octavarium08 says:

      I’m in total agreement. I don’t think they should be compared considering they deal with very different subject matter, but Billy Wilder is a better director than William Wyler in many ways.

  2. jkbro says:

    It was Al who suffered from PTSD in his sleep, not Fred. Fred dealt with the struggles of returning to his job as a soda jerk and only receiving $32.50 a week. When he was in the military during the war, he got allotment checks of nearly $500 a week that were sent to Marie, his wife. Hence why she’s so dissaproving of his low income..

    • Ann Keefer says:

      No, Fred absolutely experiences PTSD and nightmares. In the movie, Peggy interrupts one of Fred’s nightmares and, if I recall correctly, soothes him back to sleep. The next morning, they make an explicit pact to not speak of it again. Later in the movie, Fred climbs into a hollowed-out, abandoned bomber jet and experiences flashbacks to his wartime experience. Certainly, Fred is troubled by his apparent inability to achieve upward socio-economic mobility (only able to get work as a soda jerk when he has apparently learned many new skills during the war), but he also experiences flashbacks and nightmares associated with war-related PTSD.

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