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Remembering the Best Years of Our Lives


ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

Fifty years after the making of the Samuel Goldwyn-William Wyler film, The Best Years of Our Lives remains worthy of our remembering for its remarkably honest depiction of returning World War II veterans, and of the impact of their return upon the veterans, their families, friends, and loved ones, and postwar society at large. In all these respects, it continues to strike us as an extraordinary production for its historical moment—risking its candor of cultural critique on Americans still proud of a unified national war effort and in the same moment already hearkening to the repressive overtures of the Cold War Right. Indeed, in the calm realism of the movie’s concentration on problems likely to be encountered by a cross-section of convincingly representative figures, one might contend that three major American wars and a number of overseas adventures later, we have yet to see its equal.

Moreover, intertwined with this story of the film’s unusual success is also a production history perhaps as curious as any recorded for an American popular classic: a process actually beginning, as will be more fully shown, with more than a year of bitter combat ahead for Americans, in the producer Samuel Goldwyn’s enthusiastic reading of an August 1944 Time magazine article on returning veterans; and concluding, just before the film’s late 1946 release, with the entitling of the as-yet unnamed project by popular vote from a number of choices offered to test audiences. In between—to give but a sketch of events also more fully detailed below—Goldwyn would commission the historical novelist McKinlay Kantor to write a film treatment based on the article. The assignment so conceived would result instead in Glory for Me, a novel in the form of a narrative poem. That strange artifact would then be converted into a screenplay by the

Whatever the total effect of the article on Goldwyn, surely the idea of the visual artifact must have been deeply assumed and implied in his instructions to the writer McKinlay Kantor for a direct development from article to screen treatment in what was clearly identified from the outset as a film project. That is, after all—even if they are hiring writers at that stage to produce a print text—what moviemakers do. Moreover, in dealing with the popular historical novelist McKinlay Kantor, Goldwyn also must have assumed that Kantor, a veteran of turning at least two of his own earlier works into successful film versions, had the screen treatment idea in mind as well. And even if Kantor seems not to have been Goldwyn’s real top choice for the project—those being Lillian Hellman, with whom, unfortunately, he was no longer speaking, or Sidney Howard, who had died—on the other hand, the producer also saw distinct positives in Kantor’s background as a writer skilled in treating history and military life and also more recently experienced as an Air Force war correspondent.

Nonetheless, what Goldwyn shortly got from Kantor seemed so eccentric a text for his purposes that he gave up on it at once as unfilmable and prepared to write off the whole business as a bad $12,500 self-indulgence. For instead of a scenario or treatment, Kantor had given him a middlebrow verse epic in the vein of such popular classics as Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body and such venerable predecessors as Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Glory for Me, this one was called, with the source of its title noted in an epigraph from the devotional verse of one Charles H. Gabriel. And it, too, was poetry of a sort—to be precise, a book-length narrative poem centered on the homecoming of three discharged veterans. It is sometimes described as being in quasi-Shakespearean “blank verse.” To be more accurate, it should be seen as a kind of homey conflation of verse modes—narrative, lyric, and dramatic—in an unrhymed iambic meter of varying line lengths, combining a formal stateliness with a vernacular flexibility.

To give Kantor appropriate credit, his long poem does suggest the eventual movie not only in outline but also, at times quite movingly, in what might be called its essential spirit. The major characters are all there. In Kantor’s version, Al Stephenson, the middle-aged banker, has walked across Europe as an infantry sergeant so he can return to his wife Milly and his two nearly-grown children. Lieutenant Fred Derry, the drugstore clerk of shabby origins, cast suddenly in the role of officer, and having survived high-risk flying in the bombing campaigns of the Eighth Air Force against Germany, comes home to his contrastingly unfaithful spouse, a tawdry opportunist whom he has joined in a spur-of-the moment wartime marriage, and who has spent the duration (and most of Berry’s pay allotments, apparently) in nonstop revelry. Homer Wermels, the Navy enlisted man, torpedoed off Oran, returns a drooling, twitching spastic to his simple, hard-working, middle-class family, and Wilma, the quiet girlfriend from next door. Similarly, the setting—called, as it will be in the movie, Boone City—captures the quality of life in the mid-sized American metropolis, the state capital, the commercial center, yet on shaded streets and alleys, in bank lobbies, drugstores, and neighborhood bars, still a small town.

Likewise the plot, with a few small changes, will be transferred basically intact. Al will come back to banking only to grow quickly impatient with rules and regulations and find refuge in drink. Fred will get back his old drugstore job but lose it for quarreling with his officious supervisors. Homer will settle into a long encounter with his family’s shock and uncomprehending pity. The three will have been united by chance in a bar on a spectacular drunk during their first night back. Then, with that scene as a focus, they will continue to pass in and out of each others’ lives. Al, progressively unhappy with the balance-sheet coldness of banking, will note the growing attraction of his daughter Peggy to the already-married Derry. The latter, facing divorce, fired from the drugstore job, and now desperate and unemployed, will make an abortive attempt at bank robbery, to be stopped short of the crime by Al’s spontaneous intervention. Eventually at Homer’s and Wilma’s wedding, he will be reunited with Peggy after he has tried honorably to give her up. By then, Al will have quit the bank and invested in a garden and nursery business, where he will take Fred on as a partner and eventual son-in-law. At the end, all the principals are thus gathered in a momentary peace, facing albeit an uncertain future, a “sunset glare” where “the wild-west winds were galloping again.”

On the other hand, if the poem does suggest the combination of psychological insight and dramatic focus that will distinguish the film, one looks in vain at the print artifact for a lost classic. Indeed, not surprisingly, given the strangely hybrid nature of the medium, it winds up being—as Geoffrey Crayon describes Knickerbocker’s History—not a bit better than it ought to be. In moments when thoughts or feelings are internalized by its carefully drawn characters, to be sure, it can strike a poignant lyricism. “Now, I will tell you all about the war,” Al reflects, for instance. “It only has one sad consistency:/It’s made of youth, it’s made of boys.” By contrast, in others, where stylized narration jars against vernacular dialogue for instance, or elaborate scene-setting lingers over homey atmospherics, it bespeaks all the trumperies of the popular genre in its long American provenance: melodrama, sentimentality, poetic “effect.”

Reviews were split basically along these lines. Kantor was observed as joining a number of writers then responding to the war in ambitious forms of free verse. He was praised for a moving story told with craftsmanlike concentration. On the other hand, a newspaper review rightly described what must have been many readers’ sense of overall effect. “Much of what perforce is termed “free verse,”” observed the reviewer, is merely “rhetorical exhortation” combined with “a linear, broken-field, hardboiled prose.”

In any event, things might have ended there—with Kantor possessed of another moderately successful book and Goldwyn on to more promising possibilities, had not circumstances shortly intervened so as to bring in the other two most crucial figures in getting the project before the cameras. The first of these was the director William Wyler—himself just back from overseas service as a military filmmaker with the rank of lieutenant colonel—who had become available under prior contract, but with no particular assignment specified, as “owing” Goldwyn a film. The second was the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Sherwood—also having spent a wartime hiatus from art in government as a Roosevelt speechwriter and director of the Office of War Information—whom Goldwyn already had working for him on the treatment of a proposed film biography of Eisenhower.

On his part, Goldwyn acquainted Wyler with both the Eisenhower project and a comedy, eventually made with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Gary Grant, entitled The Bishop’s Wife. In these the director showed no interest. As a fallback, presumably, Goldwyn next showed him the Kantor text, with the latter by then having appeared independently in print as a January 1945 book. In this, by contrast, Wyler took immediate interest. Further, he also enlisted Sherwood, with whom he would have been scheduled to work had he accepted the Elsenhower assignment. By August or September the two began work on a script which would lead to a completed film within a year.

III

What, we might ask, made Wyler see a script in Goldwyn’s unfilmable Kantor property and, presumably, persuade Sherwood to that view as well? As detailed by Wyler and his biographers, immediate answers for the director lay in his own recent experience of the war as a veteran of combat-zone moviemaking. (Oddly, as to Sherwood, on the other hand, in all major biographies, The Best Years of Our Lives work generally rates a sentence.) To begin with the obvious, he surely knew the air war as maker of two acclaimed documentaries—Thunderbolt and Memphis Belle. He had also come home totally deaf in one ear as a result, and thus with a certain understanding of disability. But most important was his sense of having come back to a postwar America as changed somehow as he had changed. Wyler put it succinctly: “the war was an escape to reality.” “The only thing that mattered were human relationships; not money, not position, not even family.” “Only relationships with people who might be dead tomorrow were important,” he continued. “It is a sort of wonderful state of mind. It’s too bad it takes a war to create such a condition among men.” Homecoming, in turn, put the perceptual twist so described into even fuller relief. As a result, for both himself and Sherwood, the film waiting in Kantor’s book, he suggested, nearly created itself. “The picture was the result of social forces at work when the war ended,” he said. “In a sense, it was written by events and imposed a responsibility on us to be true to these events and refrain from distorting them to our own ends.”

Rewriting was careful. Sherwood, for instance, was dissuaded from enlarging the film’s view of veterans’ problems to include a housing riot, which Goldwyn insisted would be too Hollywood-like a mob scene in a film he wanted to keep “simple and believable.” The latter also cleverly adjusted the triangle relationship involving Fred Deny, his faithless wife Marie, and the smitten Peggy Stephenson by making Derry’s recognition of his wife’s extra-marital activities gradual as opposed to instant. For thereby was induced a sexual andmoral tension into Fred’s awareness of his growing attraction to Peggy that is mirrored in the reactions of the young woman and her parents, Al and Milly, to her interest in a still-married man. Perhaps the most important change, however, was the refiguring of the disabled character, Homer Wermels, into the movie’s Homer Parrish. The spasticity resulting from his injuries, described in terrible detail in the book, might prove inadvertently humorous in the visual dimension, Wyler feared especially. He was made an amputee instead. And thereby was made possible, as described more fully below, the casting of Harold Russell in a role still celebrated for its candid and sensitive depiction of physical handicap, prosthesis, and related problems of social and psychological adjustment.

One other major alteration proved a happy combination of intent and chance. Wyler, while working on the project, had come upon an airplane graveyard in Ontario, California, just outside Los Angeles, filled with endless rows of castoif war machines, and determined instantly that he would somehow find a way to use it as a setting in the film. The opportunity presented itself in allowing a way out of the book’s retirement of Al Stephenson from his increasingly loathsome banking responsibilities to start a garden and nursery business and his eventual employment of Fred, after the latter’s aborted attempt at bank robbery, as partner. Instead, the film allowed a celebrated flashback sequence involving the unemployed Deny sitting in a gutted cockpit, a used-up navigator reliving it all in a field of used-up bombers and fighters. This in turn led to a confrontation with a yard manager who eventually helps him get a job on his construction crew, engaged in salvaging materials for the erection of new homes.

Some other changes that may have seemed smaller in detail made large differences in totality of effect. Al Stephenson, described in the book as having served in Europe as an infantry sergeant, kept his branch and rank but was given the combat patch of the 25th “Tropic Lightning” Division, well known for its island campaigning in the Pacific. This distributed more representatively the experiences of the three veterans, with Fred representing the Air Corps in Europe, Homer the far-flung Navy, arid Al the island war against the Japanese. (They have also been described as distributing class relationships into upper [Al], middle [Homer] and lower [Fred]. This is accurate neither as a description of classes nor of the characters’ positionings. Al is decidedly upper-middle. Homer could be best described as simple, hard-working, lower-middle. Fred just comes from a broken home.) Most importantly, it is also the memory of the savage Pacific war that puts the heart into Al’s drunken reflections at his black-tie welcome-home dinner about the cost exacted on return upon those who have often borne the battle abroad. Once it was “kill Japs,” as he has said elsewhere. Now it’s “make money.” Now, he tells his horrified audience, when there is a hill to be taken or a wound to be bandaged, there is always time for a discussion first about collateral.

One other significant change from book to film was an enlarging of the Milly part as a way of attracting Myrna Loy to it. That succeeded, but it also posed problems with Teresa Wright playing her daughter, obviously not a generation younger. Yet even now if these remain apparent to the viewer, they are more than compensated by Loy’s capturing of Milly’s full, mature, distinctly sexual beauty. A single early scene, taken down a long hallway, truly says it all. There she stands: gazing for the first time upon her returned soldier-husband, the banker who has come home an old, hardbitten infantry sergeant—the vibrant, sustaining, faithful wife who has been waiting for him, looking as magnificent as only Myrna Loy in those days could have looked, saying in a surprised whisper, “I look awful.”

IV

Casting was accomplished somewhat in reverse. The first player hired was the non-actor, Russell, whom Wyler and Sherwood, while visiting veterans’ hospitals in search of a candidate, remembered from a short army film in which the serviceman—actually an airborne sergeant who had lost his hands in a dynamite explosion during training—demonstrated the proficiency he had acquired in using mechanical hooks. Next came Dana Andrews as Fred Deny and Fredric March as Al Stephenson, with the latter persuaded to take the aging sergeant’s role, it is said, after losing out to William Powell for the lead in Life With Father. As for Loy, the only real trepidation she felt concerning the Milly role, it turned out, involved the director’s legendarily heartless perfectionism. “I hear Wyler’s a sadist,” she told Goldwyn. Not comfortingly, he is said to have replied with a vintage Goldwynism. “That isn’t true,” said the producer; “he’s just a very mean fellow.” Loy took the role anyway, having liked its possibilities even in the unexpanded version contained in a scenario she had seen. And the core ensemble was then joined by the rest of the final cast, most notably with Virginia Mayo as Fred Derry’s estranged wife, Marie, Cathy O’Donnell as Wilma Cameron, Homer’s fiancee, and Hoagy Carmichael as Butch Engle, the piano-playing saloon owner.

The result, as no one who looks at it again must be persuaded to see, is for any time and set of production circumstances a great movie, full of great scenes. Some have already been mentioned: the voices-over flashback sequence with Deny in the cockpit at the airplane graveyard; the moment of Al Stephenson’s homecoming; his drunken speech at the welcome-home dinner. Others include the three veterans’ bombardier’s-eye first glimpse of their home town; Al’s interview with a decent, honest fellow veteran seeking a farm loan; Homer’s first reunion with his parents and with Wilma; and later his smashing out the garage windows with his hooks in rage at his kid sister and other neighborhood children who have been spying on him.

Many of the film’s most powerful scenes are also distinguished, within the constraints of the time, by an oddly omnipresent and pervasive sexual candor that often translates the peculiar human and emotional intensity of relationships between returning veterans and their families and loved ones. During the homecoming drunk shared by the three male principals, for instance, alone at last on the dance floor, Al, playing the lonely soldier, and Milly, playing the lonely wife, literally seduce each other. The next morning, after the Stephensons have dragged Fred home to spend the night, their daughter Peggy appears alone and supportively wifelike with him during a flashback-nightmare scene in the spare room. Meanwhile, in the master suite, Al and Milly play out their return to old connubial rhythms in a dance of comedic gesture. Al finally awakens in bed in the throes of a blistering hangover to find Milly gone. Stumbling to the bathroom, he goes out one door as she sneakily comes in the other. Once there, he contemplates the face in the mirror. Matted curls stand up on either side of his forehead—they are, perhaps, lovelocks, a satyr’s horns, the wreath of a returned Caesar, or maybe just Al’s thinning hair. Silk pajamas now clothe the body we have seen only in uniform. When he falls gasping out of the shower stall, he is still wearing them.

Yet the riskiest bedroom scene in the film is yet to come. That will be one with Homer and Wilma, upstairs in his house, where she helps him remove his hooks and prepare for sleep. It has been carefully prepared for, to be sure, with a parallel one between Homer and his father when the latter has put him to bed drunk. Yet nothing can deflect its sexual power. Today we are likely to regard it as somewhere between kinky and macabre. In its context then, we continue to feel its physical immediacy and risk as a quiet affirmation of love.

As to classic film aesthetics, two other scenes have invariably come to be praised also for what is deemed their innovative syntheses of dramatic design and advanced camera technique. The first is a famous one set in Butch Engle’s bar, a reunion of the three male protagonists during which Fred, still struggling to break off with his wife, is persuaded to end an incipient romantic relationship with Al’s daughter Peggy. The second is the film’s final gathering of all the principals for Homer’s and Wilma’s wedding, at which Fred, at last free of his unhappy marriage, will be reunited with Peggy.

Although both scenes are frequently cited for similar forms of multiple focus technique, the first is most often commented on as a major innovation allowing the camera to deal, without conventional cutting and jumping, with a number of intersecting dramas and problems of character as discrete, yet keep them simultaneously within a coherent larger frame. Again the scene is Engle’s bar, owned by Homer’s cousin Butch, site of the three protagonists’ unexpected meeting on their drunken first night home; and now it becomes the place of reuniting all three together for the first time after each has experienced major problems of return—and with two of them, moreover, Homer and Al, now beginning to experience pronounced and visible problems with alcohol. As the scene opens, Al confronts Fred with his and Milly’s displeasure over the developing likelihood of an illicit relationship between Fred and their daughter Peggy. Fred then retires to a phone booth in the rear to make a call in which he will break it off. Meanwhile, Homer enters the bar and draws Al, listening over his shoulder to the sound of Fred’s nickel dropping in the phone, to the piano, where Homer and his cousin Butch, played by Hoagy Carmichael, show off proudly a series of popular duets on which Butch has taught Homer to play a kind of obbligato accompaniment with his hooks. Apace, the camera creates its own crucial moment: Fred sits in the background inside the phone booth, making the call, while Al, having moved toward the center of the scene, now leans forward trying to look interested in Butch’s and Homer’s foreground antics at the piano. Yet by virtue of “deep” rather than a conventional “shallow” focus, both major actions, foreground and background, continue to be seen simultaneously, with Al’s dramatic and cinematic involvement providing a link between the two centers of interest, and at the same time obviating the need of conventional cutting back and forth between them. Or, as the French critic Andre Bazin has suggested, everything thus going on in the scene, the presence of three main characters, the development of two main centers of dramatic interest, seems somehow to be kept in focus at once, with the viewer “democratically” allowed to participate in the scene, and in fact actually asked to make a choice in a given moment about which part of the drama to concentrate on.

From a technical standpoint, the wedding scene, often comparably celebrated, follows basically the same plan. Again the three male protagonists come together, this time for a formal reunion; and this time further, as Michael Andregg has written, they join each other no longer in their first “shared isolation” or that of the ensuing bar scenes and various incidental meetings, but now in “the context of a public, socially hopeful event.” Now, in the homely precincts of the bride’s parents’ living room, amidst contributed cakes and refreshments, family and neighbors wait nervously, as Homer is helped by Fred, his best man, and Al, the self-appointed punch checker, to fortify himself for the ceremony, to include the giving of a ring. Meanwhile, in a tense exchange of non-sequitur, Fred has also just met Peggy for the first time since their breakup. Soon the ceremony begins, and again, through deep focus technique, we quickly realize that while we are watching the official union at hand, we are also watching a second soon to be consummated. As part of the first, Homer, seemingly the only person in the gathering not painfully nervous about his ability to get through the ceremony, including the placing of the ring on Wilma’s finger, carries everything off well. As part of the second, Fred and Peggy also, through eye contact and facial expression, carry out their corresponding drama of recognition and reconciliation which will crown the ceremony with their own final embrace. And the point is again, of course, that all the while we have not been looking at one or the other but at both, dual celebrations of love and faith for the film’s two youthful couples occurring separately but with a happy and convincing dramatic andsocial simultaneity: a closing of the ranks of the tribe, so to speak; a getting beyond the pain and tumult of the past and a jittery present in commitment to the vision of a happier future.

Yet as far as placing camera technique in the moral dimension is concerned, there is also something that importantly separates the latter scene from the former in making it especially memorable as a conclusion. And that something is a sense of human spontaneousness, almost a home-movie quality that cuts against the sophistication of the camera work that in many ways is trying to imitate it. For everyone involved, the effect is democratic familiarity, for actor and viewer alike now, the family event captured once and for all on family film. We see the last minute preparations, people coming and going with treats and refreshments. We feel, in the close quarters of the small, modest parlor, with the bride about to come down the stairs, preceded by the kid sister, the nervousness, the jostle, the unfeigned petty worrying. For Homer and Wilma, we wonder the usual things: will the bride and groom be scared? Will the best man have remembered the ring? Will the groom manage to get the ring from the best man and then manage to get it on the bride’s finger (the right finger? the right hand?) without dropping it. With everyone else now, we wonder all these things—and probably berate ourselves for being here so obsessively thus preoccupied because the groom’s hands are prosthetic steel hooks. Meanwhile, for Fred and Peggy, we smart with their embarrassment at the dangle of small talk; and for Al and Milly we wonder if Al’s joking about the serious responsibilities of testing the punch means that he is going to get drunk again. Then, afterward, we all feel the relief, the nervous joy of the group portrait, a family picture in every sense of the term. For them, for us, it is one we know somehow will always seem to say “the best years of our lives” in ways that we will always seem to understand, albeit perhaps without being quite able to explain.

V

From start to finish, the project had grown out of a disparate, if not downright serendipitous collection of experiments and circumstances. The product, almost magically, as just described, was really something close to a people’s picture. And even here, as we discuss cultural results, we must remain content simply to mention a host of other unusual but inspired production features—some large and others small, some individual matters of craft and others major issues of corporate risk—each oddly destined somehow to come together happily with all the others. To emphasize, for instance, the close-to-home domestic seriousness of the film’s psychological concerns, it was shot in black and white; and to further the effect, all principals had been provided with ready-made clothing which they were instructed to wear in advance of filming to give it an everyday, lived-in look. (Meanwhile, not above hedging his bets, Goldwyn also allayed his unease over Hollywood gossip about possibly unfavorable audience response to the strong material by taking the then-unprecedented step, before a frame had been shot, of engaging a marketing firm, the Audience Research Institute, to make sure Americans had not tired of the domestic problems involved in dealing with the returned veteran.) At the same time, despite the heavy emotional demands it might thus make upon an audience, it was also allowed to run extraordinarily long—twice as long, in fact, as most conventional films, with its more than two hours and 40 minutes comparing only to Gone With the Wind. As noted earlier, test audiences actually selected by popular vote the title. And it was also the response of yet another set of trial viewers that led to its early release, in late 1946, after it had been officially slated for 1947. The success, however, of an East coast preview prompted Goldwyn to rush it into a November release to compete for that year’s Oscars.

As noted earlier, the rush was a good bet, with the payoff resulting in an unprecedented seven Oscars. As importantly, most reviews were also favorable and discerning, devoted to particular praise for directing and various individual performances and overall for the film’s critical realism. (An oddly dissenting voice, on the other hand, was James Agee, who, with a kind of obsessive fascination, picked his way through various objections in a review extending over several weeks in his Nation column that wound up being favorable in spite of itself.) Indeed, if anything, as Ivan Butler has remarked, various aspects of the film ranging all the way from its production merits to its social relevance came in for so much laudatory attention that later response almost naturally mounted a reaction. And so it happened, with film criticism growing technically more self-conscious as film aesthetics became more experimentally sophisticated. The Best Years of Our Lives took its predictable downslide as the artifact of what was simply assumed a less critical, more innocent time.

Now, 50 years and a number of American wars later, particularly in the aftermath of Vietnam we have sat through waves of astringent depictions of the returned veteran—The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, First Blood, In-Country, Born on the Fourth of July—invariably troubled, albeit necessary exercises in national self-examination. Yet perhaps if we have learned through our difficult passage out of the Vietnam era that there actually is more than one kind of national experience of war, so perhaps we may now see that there is also more than one way to make a film that bravely confronts the problems of return, especially to an America once flushed with victory and not without reason deeming itself the geopolitical hope of a new order of history. To put this another way, even as we may newly measure the achievement of The Best Years of Our Lives in its political contexts now—and especially in its relation to comparable Vietnam films—we also need to remember the nature of its achievement in its particular political contexts then, the sense of critical difference provided exactly by the courage of its complex critical realism. Here, the title continues to say it all, itself a kind of ultimate Goldwynism—with the legendarily obtuse, albeit sentimental immigrant characteristically having left the matter to test audiences in a democratic vote.(“I want every man, woman, and child in America to see this film,” he is also said to have averred as to its promotion, “even if I don’t make a cent.”) In its strange quality of non-sequitur, indeed, that title would always supply at once the signature and the gloss. Somehow the Americans of the generation of World War II—military participants and civilians alike—knew they had gone through an experience that had at once taken the best years of their lives and in some strange way also given the best years of their lives. Moreover, this strange ambiguity itself, they seemed to realize even at the time, would continue to configure their basic structure of remembering. Sometimes it had been the good war; and sometimes it had been the great SNAFU. By any assessment, it had been the right war, even a necessary war. And, like the mythical infantryman at the end of James Jones’ WWII, looking back over his shoulder into the setting sun of history, the whole generation of the war could agree on one thing at least about this important and magnificent thing that had happened to them: “none of them would ever really get over it.”

At the same time, however, it was finally over; and now someone also had to show them honestly to themselves as they tried getting on with the rest of their lives as well. Appearing first among the great post-1945 production classics, The Best Years of Our Lives did that by candidly confronting a postwar present and future; but it did that best by bravely projecting these against a past already mythologizing itself into legend and—like the question Goldwyn seems to have read in the faces of those Time magazine marines—deeply in need of its own complex structures of critical remembering.

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john's picture
john · 6 months ago

The Drugstore as microcosm of the Hew Hess Hay deserves a bit of explicitation. Banal kids, banal scents and banal gods perched above their realm!

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