In Mark Harris’s book “Five Came Back,” Harris chronicles director William Wyler’s thoughts as he grappled with making “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He talks about his decision to cast the non-actor and real-life amputee Harold Russell as Homer, a man who lost his hands not in the war but during training. In making that choice, Wyler said he was dedicated to honesty and authenticity. He looked at thousands of veterans returning home to watch his movie, and he knew anything that didn’t ring completely true to their experience would fall flat.
Today when we think of authenticity, it’s the opposite of Hollywood endings and drama. It’s grittily real, dark and cynical. Earlier in “Five Came Back,” an early treatment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” became the novel “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor. Harris describes the book as “more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been,” and that the “hardbitten pessimism of [Glory For Me’ was tonally closer to the budding genre of postwar noir.”
This is the film that would get made today. The returning soldiers have been through hell and back, and the civilians on the home front have taken their jobs and spit in their faces, either oblivious or uncaring to the challenges of PTSD. We’ve seen it in Vietnam movies, Iraq movies and more contemporary World War II stories. And journalists would write about those films as though these were the ones that captured the reality of the world.
Except Wyler’s film today seems the most authentic. It has a classical, Hollywood-friendly love story and uplifting ending despite some tough themes and drama. “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t grapple with the extraordinary cases and nightmares but the ordinary people returning home. It’s 170 minutes long but feels intimate and small in its scope. Whereas other war films have been intrinsically tied to the politics and the pulse of the day, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels timeless.
The film’s first shot has Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) literally crossing the world and back, specifically walking across a floor mural of the Earth in the airport to return home. He tries to book a flight, but there’s an enormous backlog of soldiers all trying to do the same. The waiting period is some kind of purgatory, where the worst is over but they still haven’t made it back.
Fred meets Al (Fredric March), a former banker with a luxurious home and a loving family, and Homer (Harold Russell), an amputee who explains he didn’t lose his hands in some moment of combat heroism, but during a training mission gone wrong. This story was pulled from Russell’s real life experience, and Wyler’s choice to not fake it in any way serves as an unflinching look at disability.
In fact Homer’s arc may make for one of the best disability movies ever made. Typically a character needs to be defined by something other than their disability, and Homer has his own wants and needs that wouldn’t change regardless of what his affliction was, but his hooks for hands are all anyone notices. Wyler stages Homer’s first scene so uneventfully, as though it were just keeping time until everyone returned home, and then his hooks come out from underneath his coat in order to sign his papers home. The clerk offers to do it for him, but he says casually, “Don’t you think I know how to write my own name,” and ignores the awkward moment.
Up until the marriage at the end of the film, Wyler uses cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep focus technique to show Homer’s friends and family petrified that something will go wrong whenever he pulls his hooks out. Wyler doesn’t embellish the moments, but he lets you know it’s always the elephant in the room for the others and that this is always something he’ll have to learn to live with. “They couldn’t train him to hold his girl or to stroke her hair,” Al says upon watching Homer’s family reunion. He’s lost so much more than his hands.
It’s an authentic disability story because it’s evenly worked in among Fred and Al’s own personal conflict and how all three stories intertwine in small and large ways to affect their families around them. Fred is having nightmares of his time dropping bombs, his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) wants only a life of parties, she prefers Fred in uniform, and his inability to get a job cripples their marriage.
Fred’s story feels relatable whether or not you’ve ever been in uniform. Here’s a guy who has been decorated with medals, rewarded and celebrated as a hero, but now comes back to learn that he’s not qualified to be anything more than what he was when he left. He just worked his tail off fighting in a war that gave him PTSD, and now he finds that this is the real world, not the one he left behind in Germany.
Al too grapples with reality. In his first meeting with his family he says, “I should’ve stayed home and found out what was really going on.” Even in an Internet age, soldiers returning home are coming back from a different world, unaware of how the public has reacted to the unrest. What’s more, he finds that being home can be too much of a good thing. He can’t settle back into his old life as easily as he had hoped, he’s immediately pressured to get back into his old job, his children have grown to the point where he no longer recognizes them, and the pressure of it all forces him to drink and humiliate himself in front of family and colleagues. In one moment Al looks at a younger, debonair photo of himself and compares it to the much older, worn man staring back at him in a mirror.
Upon a listing of all of these trio’s hardships, “The Best Years of Our Lives” sounds bleaker and darker than it would initially appear. But Wyler gives the film a noble, grand quality full of humor and good cheer. We see Al jumping out of a shower fully dressed in his pajamas. We get to see Homer mashing on the piano with his hooks along with Hoagy Carmichael. And the love triangle between Fred, Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Fred’s wife is scandalously fun. To hear Peggy declare her intentions to break up Fred’s marriage so plainly comes as such a shock even today.
And of course Toland’s cinematography makes the film as aesthetically balanced as the story. There’s the famous moment of Fred making the call to break up with Peggy in a phone booth in the background of Homer playing piano, a sobering moment blended with a serene one. In the scene just before, Fred and Al face off in a confrontational two shot that makes the moment tense but never aggressive or overly melodramatic. There’s the beautiful unnatural lighting as Homer’s girlfriend Wilma comes to help him get undressed for bed. And Toland is the DP to look to if you want proof that a simple shot of a hallway or long corridor can be gorgeous. Al’s return home has a blissful, heavenly look in a way that isn’t matched when Fred goes to see his parents and discovers his girlfriend nowhere to be found.
Harris again talks about how Wyler’s movie feels so genuine because he put so many of his own wartime experiences into the story. Samuel Goldwyn begged Wyler to put the war behind him and make a lark of a story, a rom-com or a fantasy. His decision was to make something larger and more meaningful, and yet “The Best Years of Our Lives” is both small and large, a delicate entertainment and a meaningful portrait of the post-war. The film went on to win Best Picture and 7 Oscars in all and is among the best of the Best Picture winners, but is also one of the most modest.