Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Life after wartime



THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES

1946
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novella Glory For Me by MacKinley Kantor)

Spoiler alert: moderate


William Wyler may not have invented Oscarbait, but he might've perfected it.  To this day, his films maintain the record for capturing the largest aggregate number of Oscar wins and nominations of any director, with more than just a few earned for himself.  Still, in retrospect, the code he cracked seems simple enough: first, glom onto an important social or historical issue, albeit the more uncontroversial the better ("Nazi Germany is evil," "veterans deserve respect," and "the Romans ought not to have killed [y]our God" being the ones that worked best for Wyler).  Next, present it with a balance of sobriety and sentimentality, and epic sweep and intimacy, while not forgetting to give people a unique hook, so they have something easy to latch onto, along with a sense of insistence, a reminder that what they're watching's important.  Oh, and not that we're so crassly commercial about our art, but it helps if you make some money with it; and, if at all possible, at least try to make it British.

So, if it weren't established before (and it kind of was: Cavalcade was nine years old, and Cimarron eleven), the Academy's formula for what it likes was etched into stone with Mrs. Miniver, Wyler's first Best Picture win after four nominations, as well as the highest grossing film of 1942, and basically a wartime propaganda effort on behalf of Great Britain, hailed as such by no viler a figure than Joseph Goebbels.  It argues that "war is sad, so let us win it"—like I said, the more uncontroversial the better—and focuses itself upon a British family that is irksomely happy before the war begins, and is defined exclusively by their stiff upper lips thereafter (Mrs. Miniver's son's being so terrifically stiff that he looks like his nationality could've been implemented surgically).  I gather that these days Miniver has become more beloved in the country it depicts than in the country that made it; for Americans, anyway, it's one of those numerous Best Pictures whose name is likely to only draw a bemused "hm?"  Even so, while Wyler—compulsive Oscarbaiter or not—should be much better-appreciated than he is, I don't imagine that the present, uncelebrated status of his first Best Picture is any sort of crippling loss: it's well-made and often affecting (which is to say, it's almost-obscenely manipulative, above all in its powerfully ironic ending), and I'd happily call it a good movie; but I would also not suggest that it ever once rises above its fundamental mission.

Subsequently, Wyler himself went to Europe, and there, like a number of Hollywood directors, he plied his trade for Uncle Sam, who awarded Wyler a commission and assigned him to the USAAF's film unit.  Upon his return, he picked up almost exactly where he'd left off, and it seems the distinctions between Mrs. Miniver and his follow-up feature, The Best Years of Our Lives—the latter being a homefront drama about America instead of Britain, set immediately after the war instead of before and during, and structured by way of three intersecting family dramas rather than just one—have obscured just how closely aligned their purposes were.  The fundamental goal of Best Years remains almost precisely the same as it was in Miniver, only shifted four years forward in time: it's about how the fighting and dying was sad, but we stood firm; now it's time to win the peace the way we won the war.  The biggest real difference, then, is its subtler touch—not remotely subtle in absolute terms, insofar as it would be impossible to watch Best Years, or even any given twenty minutes of Best Years, and not "get" Best Years—but it is a subtler touch nevertheless, with Wyler allowing himself to answer a question that Mrs. Miniver didn't necessarily think needed to be asked, namely how to make its human-shaped vessels even remotely interesting in their own right.


It acquits itself well in that respect—though it had damned well better at 170 minutes long.  It's a remarkably brief-feeling 170 minutes, as Wyler had a penchant for making movies that were more-or-less objectively too long, but still weren't anything like hard sits.  That aforementioned threaded structure helps, as does the melodramatic, even soap operatic tenor of the story (and its reputation as being especially "modern," or "realistic," or much out-of-step with the Hollywood styles of its day, is at least slightly overblown).  So: Best Years asks us to consider the experiences of three discharged servicemen who all hail from the same nondescript mid-sized town—Boone City in [insert your state here]—but who only make one another's acquaintance on their return from overseas, as they struggle to secure transportation back home.  And bless Wyler, because Best Years is the kind of film that tells you exactly what it's going to be doing within about ninety seconds of screentime, as Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) attempts to purchase a seat on an unfortunately fully-booked civilian flight, whereupon he is unceremoniously turned away with a perfunctory apology about how busy the airlines are right now.  We notice, however, that the middle-aged businessman with a caddy bag full of golf clubs—his tickets evidently bought in advance—gets his seat, some civilian's vacation silently given priority over a decorated veteran's homecoming.  That's just the first ninety seconds, mind you; and it never really lets up on these small elaborations of its theme for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Anyway, Fred is forced to resort to the less-comfortable accommodations of Army Transport Command, and on this flight he is accompanied by Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an infantry sergeant in the Army but a banker in civilian life, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a high school athlete who joined the Navy and had his hands burned off during an attack, and who therefore must now get by with a pair of prosthetic metal pincers.  Homer's travails, clearly, are by far the worst out of the three, but Fred and Al do have their own problems.  Fred's discharge means a lifestyle downgrade, as he goes from one of the USAAF's "glamor boys," earning $400 a month, back to the minimum wage soda jerk he started out as; his failure is only magnified by a wife (Virginia Mayo) who's turned self-reliant and disagreeable in his absence, which shouldn't shock him too much (though it does) since they married precipitously right before he left, for no apparent reason other than to satisfy some long-gone mutual lust.  Al, likewise, finds himself troubled by his job—administrating loans to other veterans, most of whom aren't the best credit risks—in part because he's gotten a promotion and a raise. (Poor, poor Al!)  When they do finally make it back to Boone City, they're so disoriented by the houses they call "home" that they each wind up retreating into a drunken bender at the same bar—Al at least brings along his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright)—and the men are thrilled to see each other again so soon, clearly preferring the company of one another to anybody else's.  Their friendship is solidified, and their paths cross again and again; but, ultimately, each man must face his challenges alone.


And so it manages to be "about" post-war dislocation, in the general sense and with a broadly top-down view of veterans as immediately forgotten by the society they served—literally so, as another one of its early images is an aerial view of an endless field of surplus bombers being scrapped for parts ("from the factory to the junkyard"), and Best Years will eventually circle back around to this aggressive visual metaphor.  But it also manages to be about post-war dislocation in a bewildering variety of extremely specific ways.  For example, an unspoken divide of class exists between our three principals (the wealthy Stephensons are pretty much the Minivers exactly, that is, avatars of upper-middle-class normativity, and I suppose Wyler leaned into this by casting Wright, the daughter-in-law there, as the just-plain-daughter here); and their awareness of this divide has only grown keener since the Army sent the fancy high-rise-dwelling banker into the infantry, while sending the soda jerk who crawled out of a garbage heap into the sky.  It offers, too, a remarkably jaundiced take on the masculine bonds of service, recognizing that our men's friendship might be more comfortable than anything else they have going on, but is unfulfilling and even superficial, a direly insufficient replacement for family—a conservative notion, perhaps, but maybe not without its insight.  It likewise posits a nascent independence for women who aren't going to put up with their men's sad-sackery for too long.  And, of course, it deals with trauma, from the psychological to the physical, and, in every instance, it dwells on a certain self-loathing in our men, a self-sabotaging tendency that prevents them from fully coming back to life at least as much as the uncaring society around them does.

It is also "about" the instant attraction that blossoms between Fred and Peggy, which winds up expressing itself in fascinatingly off-center ways, especially for 1946—I don't think I've ever seen a movie where a teenager explains to her parents how and why she intends to wreck her dad's buddy's home, and I've certainly never seen one decide to make this the subject of a relatively-calm family conversation—but this is, unfortunately, also the self-evidently weakest strand of the film.  That's mostly because despite nearly three full hours of interpersonal drama, I've got no idea why Peggy falls in love with a man she's introduced to as a sweaty drunk prone to night-terror war flashbacks, or even why Fred falls in love with her, except she's the only non-shrew woman he knows.  And so this represents Best Years' most sustained (and least credible) retrenchment back into Mrs. Miniver's characters-as-symbol mode, with Peggy positioned a little awkwardly as the pretty face of Fred's potential redemption.


For better or worse (and I realize I'm doing the exact same thing), Best Years is perhaps valued more highly these days as sociological documentation than it is cinema; but it was, after all, one of the very first films after the Second World War to deal seriously with that war's permanent traumas.  (And, oddly, instead of generating knock-offs, its status as financial and cultural landmark seems to have intimidated its potential followers: I'm aware of only a scant few other movies from the period that take on the subject directly rather than channeling post-war anomie into noir, and even then there's a tendency to focus on a frolicsome Gene Kelly.)  In any event, it might be in some respects a more authentic depiction than its more numerous modern descendants: for starters, Major Wyler was a disabled veteran, sustaining dual eardrum injuries from the constant machinegun fire he experienced during the filming of The Memphis Belle (this being Wyler's jaggedly impressionistic reconstruction of a daylight bombing raid over Germany—it's pretty good, though it'd be better if it didn't have a stentorian narrator explaining basic shit to you like you were a child).  And while it would be way too much to directly equate his near-deafening with, well, Homer's far more severe problems, Wyler had grave initial doubts whether he could keep working with partial hearing in just one ear.

Moreover, there's an attitude here—partly born out of Hollywood optimism, but reflected in American society at large—that resists treating trauma as out-and-out apocalyptic (why, it even allows its traumatized characters to have senses of humor; not just nihilistic irony, but senses of humor).  And, frankly, this is radically distinct from many of its cinematic treatments today, which routinely "take PTSD seriously" by depicting its sufferers as barely human.  It works better than usual at generating real, actionable empathy, then, winding up in a cautiously inspirational place that's optimistic, but still not blind to the fact that our heroes have years of self-reclamation left to do.  (For example, for all we can tell, Al's semi-worrisome drinking problem is simply something that his family will have to tolerate for the rest of their lives.)  But then, by the same token, by approaching it with less despair, it maybe fails to integrate its depictions of trauma as snugly as it could within the characters—one could easily make the claim that Fred's trauma comes and goes as the plot requires, rather than ebbing and flowing in Andrews's performance.

And, generally, Best Years does boast good rather than great performances—it's down to the long runtime, I think, that they feel as lived-in as they do.  The closest to "great" is also the one that was, after its fashion, a stunt, and it's still what the film is best-known for: that is, casting Homer with actual disabled veteran (and not-actual-actor) Harold Russell, who did indeed lose his hands in the war.  (Russell lost his in a training accident, not combat, but to its credit, Best Years' version of what happened to those hands isn't any more glamorous, scarcely more of a cool war story than "I woke up and they were gone.")  Possibly as a result of this, Best Years is not really three stories presented equally, Homer being by some substantial margin the least-visited of our three protagonists—though Homer's story is, inevitably, the most memorable.  Efforts were clearly made to give each of the men their "big scene"; these are successful efforts in Fred's case, which brings us back to that airplane graveyard, allowing for the most subjective of the film's reckonings with the things he'd rather forget.  Meanwhile, Al gets a good drunken speech that only in retrospect do we understand was his big scene.


Homer and Russell get the best of this, by far.  Homer's story is not always perfect: Russell is shockingly good—better than you would have the slightest reason to expect a non-professional actor would be, even at playing himself, and I expect "Forty Takes" Wyler ran the poor man ragged—but as cleanly as Russell portrays Homer's hope that maintaining a smiling disposition will help him avoid the pity that he fears the most, the movie isn't always well-calibrated to accept his brittle, more naturalistic register.  Sometimes, when it's his scenes with Andrews and March, this means a fascinating reconciliation between different acting styles, which, oddly, does a lot to sharpen Homer's character as somebody who has to push his trauma down much harder, because he's so much more afraid of it defining him.  And sometimes, when it's his scenes with Cathy O'Donnell, it's just a pain to watch Wyler fail to bridge the obvious mismatch between the eager amateur and the stilted, dewy-eyed pro playing the fiancĂ©e that Homer's been avoiding out of shame and uncertainty.  Luckily, for Homer's centerpiece, O'Donnell is reduced to mostly just a prop, a collection of pained reactions as Homer matter-of-factly gives her a taste of what living with him and his disability would be like; and this scene, sitting nervily on the border of both exploitation and schmaltz, but playing as neither in the moment, is very likely to just plain wreck you.

Best Years is ultimately more about its stories than its storytelling, but, for all that it is observational and meandering, Wyler puts it together with a surfeit of craft, and a strong directorial point-of-view.  Collaborating with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland for the final time, the pair burnish Best Years with a whole lot of narratively-loaded deep focus compositions; my favorite of these is a framing that puts Homer behind a piano—cutting him off at the wrists—while we watch his cousin tinkle the ivories.  (Though I suppose my favorite single image of the film is the abstracted chiaroscuro of Fred floating in a void against the filthy plexiglass windshield in the bombardier compartment of a junked B-17.)  The usual deep focus shot, anyway, tends to unify the characters in a single reality.  It demands, subtly but unmistakbly, that you remember they all exist in the same world even if, psychologically, they often seem like they're drifting off into their own.  And maybe it's to this as much as anything else that Best Years, despite being invested totally in the low-key (and high-key) suffering of its subjects, remains a strangely warm and inviting thing, full of sympathy for its characters but also eager for them to finally remember that, yes, they're home.

Score: 8/10

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