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A cinematic prophecy of post-war America

A scene from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Perhaps no American film has so successfully reproduced the self-image of its audience, or so thoroughly predicted the course of the next half-century, as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It is a truly great film, and its greatness is due in part to the fact that it expresses the impulses – not altogether healthy, but unmistakably ours – that were to dominate post-war life.

Its director, William Wyler, is neglected today, but his achievements rival those of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. During a 45-year career including films such as Roman Holiday and Ben-Hur, he elicited more Oscar-winning performances than any other director.

Billy Wilder called The Best Years of Our Lives “the best-directed picture I’ve seen in my life,” the only film that instantly made him dissolve in tears. The pathos is enhanced by Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography, a method by which objects near and far from the lens appear in sharp focus. In the foreground of one scene, we see two children smiling while in the background their anxious parents embrace. In the foreground of another, we see two men casually playing the piano – while in the background a third man places a fateful telephone call. By placing some of the most important and intimate action in the background, Wyler expressed powerful feelings with exquisite pudeur.

The plot follows three servicemen who are returning to Boone City, America, the ideal type of a Midwestern town. Dana Andrews plays a high-flying Air Force captain who must return to a shack on the wrong side of the tracks and a vamp of a wife. Fredric March is infantryman Al Stephenson, who comes back to a loving family and lucrative job but feels hemmed in by his perfect wife and hypocritical boss at Cornbelt Loan and Trust. Harold Russell (a non-professional actor and amputee veteran) plays a sailor who cannot believe that his sweetheart still loves him now that his hands have been replaced by hooks.

A wonderful early sequence shows the three men flying home in a military plane, enraptured by the clouds and open farmland. Their sense of openness and possibility quickly turns to dread. “Remember what it felt like when you went overseas?” one man asks. “I feel the same way now.” Their time abroad has made home feel foreign. Having been changed by the war, they will now change their country.

Fredric March believes that his bank, and by extension all of American business, is “suffering from hardening of the arteries and of the heart”. He is tired of commerce and flag-waving (“Last year it was ‘kill Japs’, and this year it’s ‘make money!’ ”). At a banquet, his boss delivers a conservative speech about how America must stand “as the citadel of individual initiative”. March offers a drunken yet serious rejoinder. The bank must be “alive … generous … human!” – even if that means disrupting established ways.

March’s daughter, played by Teresa Wright, formulates a similar critique of marriage after falling in love with Dana Andrews. She can’t stand seeing Andrews “tied to a woman he doesn’t love and who doesn’t love him”. This loveless union is “killing his spirit”, just as a heartless profession is killing her father’s. She resolves to break it up.

The Best Years of Our Lives suggests that after the war the men who had fought abroad faced a new but no less important mission at home. Having liberated Europe, they now had to liberate America.

In business, a bourgeois ethic based on individualism, thrift and hardheaded calculation had to give way. In its place would rise a new ethic that trusted in the innate goodness of one’s fellow man and strove for authenticity and informality (“Don’t call me ‘sir’”), even in the workplace.

In family life, a strict adherence to vows would yield to a higher duty to love. Divorce, once seen as undermining marriage, would strengthen it. No one need be shackled to a lifeless union, so couples would attain a new emotional intensity.

For the most part, this new war would be won through love and self-acceptance rather than violence. (Though Dana Andrews does knock out an America Firster, in a reminder that for liberalism the real enemy is always to the right, even in the Cold War.) Its triumph comes in the final scene, when neither amputation nor prior vows will be allowed as an impediment to bliss.

The Production Code censors worried that the film’s attitude toward marriage and divorce would harm the sanctity of marriage. If it did not contribute to subsequent social trends, it certainly anticipated them.

Over the last 60 years, Americans have pushed against social strictures in a quest for authenticity and freedom. The results have not been altogether positive. As divorce has risen, marriage has declined. As business has become more ethically minded, it has also become more coercive, requiring employees and customers to salute new flags and march in new parades.

Because it so thoroughly captures the instincts that have guided America since the Second World War, The Best Years of Our Lives is hard to watch today without a touch of ambivalence. Wyler showed with unparalleled beauty a generation ready to fight for a new and better America. We need another such generation today, even if it sees different problems and battles toward different ends.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things