The Best Years of Our Lives: Review
Is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the most honored picture of its time, considered Goldwyn’s greatest film? This film for me took on a whole other level after seeing, Saving Private Ryan. The reality and magnitude of what these men lived through for love and country really made an impact as seen through the depiction of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war drama... and obviously it didn't end on the battlefield.
“The best tribute this film received came from Frank Capra who had a film of his own in the Oscar sweepstakes that year in several categories. In his memoirs he said that he was disappointed to be skunked at the Oscars that year, but that his friend and colleague William Wyler had created such a masterpiece he deserved every award he could get for it. By the way, the film Capra had hopes for was It's A Wonderful Life...” IMdB
I start with IMdB quotes because, well, ‘my words exactly.’ After watching Private Ryan, and overwhelmed/stunned/blown away by the intense gritty balls-to-the-wall heroism, hard-won bravery and sheer guts of these men (and women) going into battle in the European theater just made me look at ‘war heroes’ in a whole new way. The television series, Band of Brothers continued to raise my consciousness.
I was a placard-waving anti-war hippie in the late 60’s. Furious that my high school friends were forced to decide to go to ‘Nam, or run to Canada or get married in a hurry or try to head to a religious seminary, I saw no point to that Southeast Asian conflict. But I had no particular interest either in listening to the war experiences of the ‘greatest generation,’ one of which was my own father. The fact that he as a scrawny, mostly illiterate Puerto Rican slum kid who was actually REJECTED by the US Army during the latter part of WWII’s Japanese theater draft, and yet still begged and scraped to join up, was for decades a quickly-dismissed anecdote on my part. But he did indeed join, wept for joy at the vast buffet line that was Army grub, and lived what he called the good life in Occupied Japan. But still, there were stories to tell, and ‘Private Ryan’ opened my mind to those stories.
Then, my experience watching ‘Best Years’ brought it all home. An “old” black and white movie? Yes. Amazingly enough the black-and-white look gave it a crisp and timeless aspect. Scenes were stark when the plot called for them, and warm and soft when needed for other times.
And, now I look at my war-vet relatives and that generation with new interest, with unabashed RESPECT and, yes, awe. My whole ‘paradigm’ towards old-timers with old war stories, changed. The three men in the story (based on a MacKinlay Kantor free-verse poem - he’s one of my favorite historical-novel master writers) return after WWII military service, survivors and really, war-heroes, to a new reality as just plain civilians. They are changed, their country, their female counterparts, their fellow townspeople, are all changed. The job market has changed. Uniforms and civvies, lunch counters and banks, city streets, airfields that are graveyards to the noble and mighty planes they flew, everything has changed.
In fact, a scene at an airplane parts ‘graveyard’ which only lasts four minutes could represent the entire film: airplanes built for war duty, efficient, powerful and useful are now lined up like so many monument gravestones, useless, rusting and dust-covered. But the returning vet played by Dana Andrews, blending rugged handsome good looks with weathered vulnerability, (now a softer, richer and deeper character than his hardboiled detective persona in Laura) clambers into an all-too-familiar plexiglass warplane cockpit. Carefully-composed dramatic music and quick cutting of film shots demonstrates that he refuses to be relegated to a dusty, useless, rusting life. Unlike the unused and discarded warplanes, he intends to use his skills and extend them into contemporary rebuilding. (Interestingly, a similar airplane graveyard inspired the amazing, priceless and historic collection at Chino Planes of Fame, the largest collection of flyable warplanes in the world.)
Director William Wyler knew intimately the story he wanted to tell, as he himself had served on a bomber B-17 and had lost much of his hearing from an injury sustained in the service. A veteran’s veteran, one could say, with ‘street cred’ of real experience, and hard-won survival. His choice of wardrobe, set design and careful focus on sharing three complicated story lines resonates throughout the film. Though he evidently didn’t like the soundtrack, it works. The movie portrays the heartbreaking dilemma, of our returning veterans: their readjustment, with clear-eyed and unsentimental honesty. Each individual’s storyline brings poignant sentiment to the heartbreaking, grueling, and sometimes triumphant readjustment. Casting real-life vets to work on the sets of that movie, and gifted veteran actors to carry the main parts, but also especially a vet who’d lost both hands, took courage. Allowing great actors to be ‘real people’ and not chew the scenery but let the depth and pathos of the storyline and plot unfold with logic and intentional purpose, took great courage.
Cynical ‘flower children’ such as myself were first awakened by Private Ryan’s opening scenes depicting the inexorable tragedy of seemingly wasted young lives. Coupled with the ‘now you have a reason to live’ ending solidifies the film as a masterpiece. We look at gray-haired, bent over men with new eyes. I now openly seek veterans to talk to, such as the history teacher at a Seventh-day Adventist Academy in Ventura County. He is now a small, slightly built man with a twinkling warm wit and a slight shuffle. This same man had flown turret gunner in a bomber, similar to one of the vets in Best Days. It was hard to visualize that unassuming scholar with raw bravery as a skinny 18 year old flying ‘open to the world’ in a clear plastic bubble under a bomber, who got shot down over Germany and survived a concentration camp to be a member of The Great Escape (yes, for real). He just amazed me.
Now, I can not get enough of his stories, and was honored to drive him to Camarillo Airport for the landing of a B-17 on its final flight to the Smithsonian. As he stood on the field, erect and saluting, watching that noble plane approach from Naval Air Station Point Mugu with fellow vets, tears streaming down their faces, I wept too — not knowing what was in their deepest memories, but moved by their courage.
Best Years gave me a window into the returning experiences of these men, uniformed, trained, disciplined, and then dumped unprepared into a new paradigm of civilian life. This movie gave us a transitional look, a ‘segue,’ so to speak. It encouraged me to embrace the marvelous series Band of Brothers with new respect. Best Years has that timeless power to open our eyes to another generation’s sacrifices and adjustments done for our sake, and to extrapolate those experiences to the returning vets with PTSS, and to look anew at the treatment my friends returning from the Southeast Asia theater of the 70’s received by an unappreciative and misunderstanding nation.
And watching ‘Best Years’ once a year fixes the plot, the characterizations, the different scenes that work together so seamlessly into my understanding.
Last Spring, while visiting the powerful, magnificent WWII Memorial on the National Mall in DC, busses with WWII vets from the Northwest on ‘Honor Flights’ unloaded hundreds of men and many women too, dressed in their original uniforms, chests festooned with battle ribbons and medals. I tried to shake the hand of each one. They were Feeble hands, gnarled with time, but paired with bright eyes, proud and aware of what they had done. Although the bodies were bent by arthritis they attempted to be erect and proud. The experience of watching Best Years of Our Lives, filtered through Saving Private Ryan’s brutal and gritty reality, brought a renewed appreciation, and profound gratitude, for what these brave vets did.
‘Best Years’ deserves all the accolades. Oscars, for both Best Picture and Best Director, and the acting Oscars only begin to honor its thematic richness and the powerful meaning. Wry, serious, humorous, but profoundly meaningful, ‘Best Years’ glows with human understanding and sympathy, and continues to challenge and educate all the generations.