Blog Directory CineVerse: 75 years of the best lives (and a great film)

75 years of the best lives (and a great film)

Monday, July 5, 2021

William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, took home Oscar gold for Best Picture, preventing It's a Wonderful Life from claiming a wonderful prize. But if you're going to lose out to another picture at the Academy Awards, you could do a lot worse than be bested by this William Wyler classic, probably the best cinematic story ever told about soldiers and veterans returning home from wartime. CineVerse did its patriotic duty this past Independence Day week by examining this movie. Here's a recap of our group discussion (to listen to a recording of it, click here).

How would this film have been perceived as groundbreaking and perhaps controversial upon its release in post-World War II 1946?

  • It addressed, for the first time in an American feature film, the sensitive cultural, social, and psychological issues faced by returning veterans and their families.
    • These issues include adultery, alcoholism, ostracism, unemployment, callous corporate practices, a hostile work environment, and problems in a marriage that appear perfect on the surface.
  • It’s fascinating to hear Al’s son talk about the threat of nuclear annihilation and the start of the Cold War; this would have been one of the first Hollywood films to do so.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives notably also uses a disabled man (in this case, Harold Russell, an amputee with no professional acting background) to poignantly tell its story—and without relying on circus sideshow sensationalism or exaggerated dramatic effect.
  • This was nearly twice the length of average movies at the time—a runtime that risked losing audience interest. There is also no intermission.
  • Framed within the context of World War II and its aftermath, the movie avoids using any flashback combat scenes or action; it’s purely a human drama about real-life issues.
  • In making this motion picture, with three diverging narratives about veterans adjusting to postwar life at home, the filmmakers were taking a big risk; that’s because the Hollywood studios thought viewers were tired of movies about the war by this time. But The Best Years of Our Lives went on to become the highest-grossing movie of the entire 1940s, proving that audiences emotionally connected with these stories and appreciated the issues and characters explored.

Master cinematographer Gregg Toland, famous for his camera work on Citizen Kane, employed deep focus photography throughout the movie. Can you cite a few examples of this technique in the film and why the use of deep focus was the right choice for those scenes?

  • Al’s homecoming to his wife and kids: Framed within the deep hallway, we see him embrace his son, daughter, and then his wife at a distance without employing any cuts.
  • Fred’s important phone call from the bar: presented as a background detail with Homer and Butch playing piano in the extreme foreground—with no cuts or camera movement.
  • The marriage ceremony: We observe two parallel lines of action (Homer and Wilma, Fred and Peggy) on opposite sides of the room, which creates emotional distance yet longing.
  • The filmmakers also utilize deep focus and long takes instead of cutting to medium shots or close-ups that normally break up a scene; this strategy allows many scenes to unfold organically and enables the performers to show their acting chops.

How do you interpret the movie’s title? Is it an ironic or cynical comment, or is it sincere and hopeful?

  • It could be referring to the possibility that many veterans had to give “the best years of their lives” to the military and our cause in WWII.
  • Or, it could be referring to the possibility that the best years of the servicemen’s lives were during wartime, and they experienced more challenging times of a different kind when they returned home.
  • Possibly it's suggesting that the veterans' best years are ahead of them.

Similar films

  • Coming Home
  • Home of the Brave
  • Born on the 4th of July
  • The Deer Hunter
  • Heroes
  • The Manchurian Candidate
  • Forrest Gump

Other films by William Wyler

  • Wuthering Heights
  • Jezebel
  • The Westerner
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Roman Holiday
  • Ben-Hur

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