The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years Of Our Lives is a sincere and passionate look at how it feels to return from war, and in equal measure how it feels for a loved one to return. Thinking of the meta-narrative I mentioned earlier – the idea that these films tell an over-arching story – The Best Years Of Our Lives ‘closes the book’ on World War II, functionally helping a (no doubt) reeling America cope with the sudden reality of peace, and also offering an artistic engagement with the post-war experiences of soldiers and their families. The Best Years of Our Lives is a true successor to Mrs Miniver, which was also directed by William Wyle and for which he deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Director (that’s twice!).
Interestingly, this is the first Best Picture to take place in contemporary America without featuring New York City. I take this as a sign of maturity in American filmmaking, and as a symbol that American filmmakers feel in control and are able to tell their stories through their eyes. From my perspective though, what’s most interesting about this film is the way that we, of the 21st Century Pacific, pick up on, and relate to, a sense of nostalgia.
From the shots of the townscape through to the ice-cream parlours with coca-cola logos, there’s a sense of ‘coming home’ emanating so strongly from this film I almost feel like this truly is a part of my history. That’s the trick though, right? To make me feel like this is what life should be, like it’s all the things I yearned for during my ‘best years’. We’re suckered in, convinced by this foreign time and place. Is this the magic of film at work? Or is it the homogenising force of war-time imperialism living on?
I’m not really interested in answering those questions directly, I think that’s up to the individual, but what I can offer is a little more light as to why this film works as an indelible piece of cinema; and consequently, how it sells it’s nostalgia. The Best Years Of Our Lives has captured the essence of human feeling. This is in large part helped by the story’s excellent pacing and structure (three men’s lives and families wrapped around one another), and in equal measure through the film’s incredibly astute and well honed performances. Fredric March: outstanding, and Harold Russel: unarguably sublime.
To match the top-notch acting and superior story structure, the camera work and editing are given true attention to detail. Just observe the way the early aeroplane flight makes you feel as though you are in motion when you are clearly just sitting in your living room.
I’ve suggested that this film is homogenising and imperialist, yet it remains exciting today in it’s technical wizardry. It’s themes are often off-kilter, unusual and interesting. I believe that The Best Of Our Lives is a whole-heartedly sincere and pure film. I wonder, then, that perhaps it may be less homogenising and more…universal? For instance, observe Al’s young son debating the use of nuclear war with his father. It is striking that even seventy years ago people wanted to see the same changes in the world.
I wonder if we should feel happy that our feelings today are echoed across time, or sad that these pleas are yet to be fully acted upon.