The Best Years of our Lives as a Reflection of Post-WWII USA
The Best Years of our Lives (1946), is a post-war Hollywood drama directed by William Wyler. After its release, the film was a major success among critics and audiences. It was a massive commercial hit having received 7 Academy Awards. Actually, the film is not an impressive spectacle, it has no battle scenes and expensive set-pieces, but it is filmed in a traditional manner and relies on its script and characters more than on the special effects and cinematography. Wyler’s movie owes its warm reception to a well-thought-out, humane story and the characters. The plot is not very complex, it follows the stories of three soldiers returning home from WWII and their families waiting for heroes at home in a small provincial town. The Best Years of our Lives does not idealize the participants of the war and their lives. The scenes are so honest and genuine that the movie still remains a beloved classic. However, some critics think of it as a propaganda piece. This essay will focus on how the film reflects the post-war historical period through the lives of characters from the different social layers and how it manages to raise the deeper issues such as class division in the USA.
The film takes place in the post – WWII USA and shows the direct contradiction between what the soldiers overcame during battles and peaceful life in America. In fact, the country was barely influenced by the battles as most of the events of the war took place on the other sides of both oceans. People in American cities continued living their lives and while there were some economic consequences and overall feeling of dread, the U.S. citizens never knew the horrors of bombing and warfare in their neighborhood. Still, most families had their members as soldiers and The Best Years of our Lives shows both sides of the meeting right after the war. Interestingly, the film has no scenes of battles in it. The audience knows how devastating the war was through the experiences of three main characters: painful memories of Fred (Dana Andrews) who recalls these traumatic events at night, Al’s (Fredric March) heavy drinking, and Homer’s (Harold Russell) physical trauma – he lost both hands during the fight. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Fred goes through an airport that is full of dismantled military planes (Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives). Notably, this image is symbolic and creates a very effective visual parallel between the machines and soldiers who return home and are forced to adjust to a peaceful life. Fred meets one of the workers of the airport who explains that the planes will be soon turned into houses and this information adds weight to the parallel (Wyler). Overall, the war is subtly present throughout the whole film despite not even a single gunshot or explosion in it. It is also depicted through the characters and their behavior which is very effective.
The peaceful life, on the contrary, is illustrated in a very dynamic and expressive manner. Life in the peaceful USA is shown in the film through a number of montages of crowded nightclubs where people dance and drink and there is no empty space. Markedly, The Best Years of our Lives depicts not only the lives of the returned soldiers but also the direct contrast between what these people experienced in the USA during and after the war. Researcher William Henry Chafe writes, ‘Here if anywhere was normality… hundreds of miles of it and not a sight or sound to remind one that this was a country at war.’ (Chafe) Thus, to create the sense that the USA was struggling with the hardships of war, the state used powerful propaganda. It in many cases was presented through art and cinema as the most popular forms. Namely, cinema depicts soldiers as righteous heroes often idealizing them. At the same time people who were left “at home” were offered to embrace the economic shortcomings they faced because the economy was working for the needs of the front. The movie applies the romanticizing of the soldiers not only during the hostilities but in times of peace as well. To enumerate, three main characters of the film incorporate: Fred, Homer, and Al – all three are WWII veterans who returned home. At the same time these characters represent different social layers and through their stories the film shows the problems each of these classes faced in the Post-War USA.
Fred is from a poor working class family, before the war he was a worker in a drug-store with a low wage. Despite returning home as a hero with numerous medals for his heroic deeds, he has no profession and cannot support the luxurious way of life his careless wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) got used to during the war while working in nightclubs. His story shows the viewer that despite heroism during the battles many veterans were suffering economically after their return. Fred spends all of the money he earned during the war on nightclubs and restaurants trying to please his spouse and soon he is broke once again. While he is shown in a sympathetic way, the filmmakers do not hide the fact that Fred has no money saving habits, has a bad temper, and is overall unable to adjust to a peaceful life. Notwithstanding the fact that he comes from a poor family and represents the lower class, the filmmakers do not relate all his problems to his social status but create a more nuanced character with the tendencies to self-destruction. At the same time Fred’s character aspects are not complete in the film as he does not solve his own personal problems but relies on another female character of All’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). She is supposed to support him and the story degrades into a simple and predictable romance plot.
Through the plotline of Homer the creators of The Best Years of our Lives show a common post-war issue: the problem of rehabilitation of crippled veterans. During the war Homer has lost both of his hands and while the army provided him with prosthetics and taught him to use these hooks for almost any everyday activities, Homer remains dependant on the people who surround him for the rest of his life. Both this fact and the fear that his family and loved ones will always look at him with a pity causes a depression. Homer closes and tries to distance himself from the loved ones. His story shows that a psychological rehabilitation of such veterans is as important as a physical one because no prosthetics can restore the peace in their minds. By showing Homer’s pre-war photographs in the background the director explains that he was a baseball player and losing his hands took a significant part of his life. Nonetheless, Homer’s family and his girlfriend Wilma remain supportive throughout the film, even as he becomes more restrained. In a heartbreaking scene Homer shows Wilma how his prosthetics are dismantled and that he is helpless without them. Importantly, despite his fears, Wilma is not afraid. As Roger Ebert mentioned in his review, the power of Homer’s monologue in this scene comes from the actor’s personal experience. When Homer says, ‘I am as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.’ (Wyler) The audience knows that Harold Russel is speaking for himself (Ebert). The choice of casting a real-life amputee is very essential in this case as Harold Russell not only effectively uses his prosthetics in a real-life but this also adds a much needed drama and realism to the scenes showing his disability, similarly to the episode when the hero breaks the window and screams at children. Hence, this storyline shows that support, understanding, and patience are the best ways to help crippled veterans to integrate into post-war life.
Al is the third leading character in the film. He represents a higher class of the society: a respected and wealthy banker. While Al does not have the problems other two protagonists of the film encounter, he goes through his own psychological problems. It is clear that the war marked him too as he resorts to heavy drinking in order to run away from his inner demons. Significantly, the center of Al’s story is his work in the bank. The bank attempts to use him in working with other veterans because his war past makes him more relatable and trusted. Nevertheless, Al does not act as they expected and when giving a loan supports his fellow army men, despite this person having no resources to guarantee the loan. Furthermore, during a celebration, he reads a speech in which directly confronts the rich bank owners (Wyler). Al’s storyline highlights one of the more controversial sides of the film that are the class conflict and growing mistrust in the state and government which grew in American society. Al’s defiance of his bank’s policies is just one of such examples. In another characteristic scene, Homer talks to a stranger in a bar (Ray Teal), and this person directly accuses the American government of taking part in a useless war. The unnamed radical declares
We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war… We fought the wrong people, that’s all. Just read the facts, my friend. Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it. (Wyler)
While the stranger is quickly pushed from the bar (and from the film’s narrative), he might not have influenced a simple-minded Homer but some doubts have still appeared in the minds of the viewers. People asked themselves if the sacrifice the soldiers made was inevitable, what they really were fighting for, and why life remained unchanged in their hometown. As a matter of fact, this scene is even more important in the context of the beginning of the Cold War as well as of hysteria and fear growing in society.
While progressive in many ways, the film is very brief in its depiction of women. All the female characters in the film, with one exception, serve to promote family values: to be trusted, loyal, and supportive wives helping their husbands during the hard periods of their lives. Surprisingly, Marie is the most progressive women among other characters as she has a job and can provide for herself. Moreover, she challenges her husband and leaves him when understands that their marriage does not work. Nevertheless, in the film she is depicted as an antagonistic character with all her negative characteristics highlighted.
It goes without saying that the film was a product of its time and depicted female characters as the propaganda required it. David Gerber writes that after the war social work experts mobilized all the possible means for rehabilitation of veterans and returned soldiers, ‘These experts also attempted to mobilized American women on behalf of an effort at the level of the individual family and household in order to take responsibility for assisting veterans in their readjustment struggles.’(Gerber) Researchers Daniel Burland and Jennifer Lundquist state, ‘Family ties, old or new, ultimately save them from various self-destructive tendencies such as self-pity, escapism, and hopelessness.’ Therefore, the film provides a course of actions regarding an effective example of the supportive behavior for families to take care of their demobilized soldiers and for soldiers themselves to feel safe in their close relative circle. In this context, the depiction of a potentially progressive female character in a negative light is expected.
To conclude, the film was praised by critics for its “honesty, realism, and civic contribution” (Kozloff). These three values represent both its strengths and weakness. While The Best Years of our Lives is an effective and truthful representation of life in the post-war USA with a focus on war veterans and their lives, it still serves as a propaganda piece. In general, the film is aimed at promoting the family unit as a “safe harbor” for returned soldiers who were considered a risk-factor population. People in the government saw the unpredictability of this massive layer of the population which was taken out of the normal life, went through traumatic events, and returned to a peaceful life to face economic uncertainty and depression. While the film does not depict veterans as a direct threat, it can be considered a tool to reintegrate the soldiers before they became a threat to society at home. Still, despite the propagandistic motivation behind it, the film itself is a deep and heartfelt story; thus, its status of a timeless classic is doubtless.