By Christopher Sharrett.

While writing an essay on the post-Vietnam film Rolling Thunder, I thought of William Wyler’s much-applauded 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, about three veterans returning at the close of World War II. I revisit this film often, but as much as I appreciate it (I am as moved as anyone by the “corridor reunion” of Al and Milly Stephenson [Fredric March and Myrna Loy], typically harmed by Wyler and his editors by the insert shots of their approving children), especially for its importance as a cultural document about the postwar period, I always have reservations about Wyler, to my mind the least interesting director of the old Hollywood (The Letter, Mrs. Miniver, and The Children’s Hour are of interest, but what can one say about Ben-Hur, The Big Country [best illuminated by Romero’s Survival of the Dead], and so much else?). But it is striking what The Best Years of Our Lives shares in common with Vietnam veteran films like Rolling Thunder, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and First Blood. Among these concerns are the veteran’s anxieties about reentering an often hostile civilian world; a pervasive castration anxiety (basically symbolic in the case of Fred Derry [Dana Andrews] in Best Years, more literal in Homer Parrish [Harold Russell] in the same film, and Major Ranes [William Devane] in Rolling Thunder); the sense of rivalry within the postwar male group that threatens a basic homoeroticism; the threat posed by the female and the domestic scene; the suffocation and outright hostility of bourgeois life.

The Vietnam films are to be distinguished, of course, from a film such as The Best Years of Our Lives by their level of rage, hysteria, and violence, attributable to the ideological conflicts of the period, the loss of a major US imperialist venture, the economic catastrophe caused by the war, and the hatred within US patriarchal society toward the progressive movements coinciding with the Vietnam assault, especially the women’s, peace, and civil rights movements. The Best Years of Our Lives should be noted as a preamble to a cycle of films dealing with the disempowerment of the veteran in the 1950s, and the depression, alcoholism, sexual frustration, and hatred of the job world felt by the male in general. The reaction in these films is plain enough, but it is contained so as to point to the contradictory features of postwar bourgeois life, showing us that their nominal heroes hate what they are supposed to love. In this, these films don’t simply exploit rage (as do the Vietnam films) caused by ideological confusion. Examples are plentiful, but a representative list would include Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958), Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), and the intelligent if very flawed John Frankenheimer film Seconds (1966). Most of these films enjoyed some degree of popularity (not Seconds, seen as too downbeat for a Rock Hudson film), countering present-day notions about US culture in the postwar era.

An Aside on “The Greatest Generation”

The Best Years of Our Lives, and the films of its sensibility in the postwar period, tend to refute current assumptions about the war era and its aftermath. One idea is that of “the greatest generation,” a phrase that entered the popular lexicon after the publication of a book by newscaster Tom Brokaw. The book’s title gave us the phrase, now very commonly used indeed, and typically never interrogated, even to remind us of its source. I must confess that I never read the book in full, but merely chunks of it when it was on display at a local supermarket. The book’s argument – or rather its assertion – was easily apprehended, and there was nothing of substance compelling me to buy the book. According to Brokaw, the Greatest Generation was that which came of age during the Great Depression, fought World War II, and returned to “build America.” I felt this to be a child’s idea, basically because, as a child, I thought my mother and father probably suffered a great deal during the Depression and the war. My mother spoke mainly about the grimness of the era, but basically told me that one got by. Her role, like that of most women, was marginal in patriarchal society, confined to being a “housewife” taking care of children and putting meals on the table. My father, a decorated Army officer who served in the Pacific, had no interest in reliving the war, recalling it only as horror, with aerial bombing and artillery shelling its main feature (heroic infantry charges were almost entirely a thing of the past – not to suggest that infantry weren’t butchered – but of course the cinema asserts the contrary). He had no interest in going to the American Legion or other veterans’ groups to gab about the war; he felt that men who attended those affairs were crazy, alcoholics, or people whose service was marginal, if at all, but who enjoyed hobnobbing with men who were “over there” with the action. In time I felt my father’s remarks to be basically true; the men in my hometown who loved talking about the war seemed to be blowhards, or perhaps even psychotics, certainly extreme reactionaries who loved hanging out in bars telling tall tales. After the war, my father took a series of unsatisfactory jobs, finally becoming a civil servant, a job he hated but one that at least paid him a decent wage. My parents’ experiences (my father abandoned my mother after forty years of marriage – my sense then and now is that he was, in part, simply disgusted with bourgeois life despite his deep conservatism) corresponded to that of most of the local people I knew. I don’t wish to bore the reader with anecdotes, but I think my experience was common. Far from “building America,” most people went about their fairly difficult lives in small town or urban America until corporatization destroyed privately-owned retail business, the small farm, and small town life itself (my home town, in eastern Pennsylvania, was “saved” by gentrification – it is recognizable to me but lacking all the little charms I once knew – even as I dreamed of nothing but escaping it).

Brokaw’s ideas may be dismissed on all sorts of levels. The Soviet Union fought and defeated Nazism at a terrible cost, but their real contribution is never acknowledged. America came into the European theater very late, and US troops were often simply wasted, such as in the badly-planned D-Day operation. The returning veteran did not return to “build America.” This was done by corporate capitalism, with the postwar male roughly in the position of the men in postwar melodramas: stuck in loveless marriages and mind-deadening jobs. On the other hand, the GI Bill was the most generous public program for veterans ever conceived, so the veteran was hardly abandoned, as Brokaw at times suggests.

One could argue that Brokaw’s agenda is similar to that of films like The Best Years of Our Lives: he wants to pay proper tribute, and to acknowledge men forgotten or ignored by much of the population. But The Best Years of Our Lives presents us with some extraordinarily complex problems – at the level of its “political unconscious” – within its desire to offer catharsis and closure, while the Greatest Generation myth has a very different ideological agenda.

Creating memorials for WWII veterans (now mostly dead or very elderly, so not really an issue to confront) has become something of a fad in recent years, with nothing accompanying them by way of extra financial or other forms of assistance to the few surviving veterans – during the Reagan era there was a real chance that veterans’ benefits would be cut severely. One must keep in mind that the Greatest Generation idea is profoundly and deliberately exclusionary. At one point Brokaw actually suggests that this generation was the greatest ever to exist, an extraordinary idea. His larger point, I think, is to separate the Greatest Generation from the ones that followed, especially that which came of age in the 1960s, when the Greatest Generation found itself in conflict with its own children, deemed spoiled, degenerate, refusing to follow orders (he says that the Greatest “never whined,” another extraordinary remark signaling his agenda), challenging sexual mores and racial segregation – all the things that the Greatest supported (we should note that Brokaw ignores the members of the Greatest who took part in sit-down strikes during the Depression, or who protested the Cold War, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the antics of HUAC and McCarthy). Needless to say, Brokaw never looks fully at the origins of European fascism, and how WWII need not have been fought if the West had quickly undermined fascism. Instead, it supported it, until fascism’s goals turned against the rest of capitalism. It is evident that the naming of the Greatest Generation is one of the capstones to several decades of reaction following the 1960s, as American society became militarized, focused entirely on business, and in need of the right heroes to celebrate. But if we examine the postwar period with focus, including its representation in fictions like The Best Years of Our Lives, we might realize that Brokaw’s project and the industry it spawned ignores entirely the conditions of the postwar era, and certainly the vision of the era’s art. The Best Years’ worldview, for all its ultimate consolations, runs very much counter to the consolations of the present.

The Return and Psychiatry

A key premise of The Best Years of Our Lives is offered in the establishing sequence. Captain Fred Derry tries to get home on a commercial airliner. It is sold out, and Derry is curtly dismissed by the female desk clerk as a fat businessman elbows Derry out of the way to get his ticket (there is a superb touch in the black porter carrying the fat man’s glove clubs – far from the allied victory ensuring equality, segregation continues with a vengeance in postwar America). The scene underscores a contempt for the bourgeoisie, sensible in the Fred Derry scene, since he comes from humble origins and there is a sense, at the end, that he might not escape them. The desk clerk is important, as the female’s sticking to the rules (Myrna Loy’s Milly Stephenson) or lewd behavior (Derry’s “tramp” wife Marie [Virginia Mayo]) are crucial to the expectations of the returning male.

Disheartened, Fred walks across the airport tarmac when he learns of a B-17 military craft that will take him to his home in Boone City. As he walks to the depot, he passes under the commercial plane he was refused. The point is efficiently made: capitalism cannot be trusted – only the military can provide the veteran solace. It is a moment capturing the contradictions of the era and of America itself, then and now. The population believes in and serves the capitalist system even while hating it, and valorizes the enforcement apparatus supporting it.

At the other depot Fred meets a sailor, Homer Parrish, who is also going to Boone City. Homer lost both hands in the war (my feelings are always more than mixed about the casting of “real life” veteran Harold Russell, who in fact lost his hands – the casting seems cloying and opportunistic, and Russell, a non-actor, often gives awkward line-readings), and too many scenes involve a focus on his predicament, with Homer smiling and feeling fine about his situation (he is expert with the metal hooks replacing his hands) except for great anxiety about whether or not his fiancé Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will accept him. We keep seeing people staring at his hooks, or Homer dropping things out of nervousness. The point is made quickly but the film won’t let it go – Homer was ready to sacrifice part of his body for the state, but the folks back home won’t let him be (the latter idea makes Homer’s situation important to the film’s ideology, with the homefront and bourgeois heterosexual life nuisances at best).

The two men are joined by Sergeant Al Stephenson, also on his way to Boone City, which is constructed as the locus of Middle America. Fred was a bombardier during the war, so he acquaints the men with the B-17. The three then sit in the glass nose of the plane as it flies at a low level over the open plains and towns of the Midwest – there is a haunting, vague reminder that America escaped the terrible onslaught visited upon Europe and Japan, but as the film comes to its conclusion Fred might wish it had been destroyed. The men fall asleep, the camera showing them in a peaceful homoerotic tableau; the idea of the preference for the male group is introduced, and reintroduced throughout the film.

As Homer sleeps, Al and Fred begin to chat in one of the film’s crucial scenes. Al says “What scares me most is that everybody will try to rehabilitate me.” Fred says that if he has a “good job, a future, and a nice home for me and my wife, that’s all the rehabilitation I’ll need,” unaware of the extent of his trauma, and certainly unaware of the prospects awaiting him, nor is Al yet aware of his alcoholism. Fred exemplifies an almost caricatured notion of a past generation’s supposed concept of the American Dream (given the tableau composed of the three men in near-embrace, it is tempting to argue that Fred and Al are concerned with people interfering with their gayness, new-found in the Army). Psychoanalysis had long become a topic in popular fiction, but for much of the American mainstream it still had very negative connotations. The science was viewed as a non-science dominated by crackpots or people who were themselves crazy; it was something for women, who are always nuts anyway, or was linked to Jews, another reason to hate them and their plotting. Yet the film acknowledges the deep problems that the men deny, although not so much as to undermine the essential “independence” and stoicism of the returning heroes.

Afraid of impotence after his long separation from Milly, Al takes his wife for a night on the town (rather than right to bed) after their emotional reunion – Boone City seems to have more nightclubs than New York, featuring stars of the day like jazz drummer Gene Krupa and hillbilly singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, the point being that America is a cornucopia of unfettered but innocent joys, an idea undercut as the narrative unfolds. The night out becomes a drunken bender that reunites the three men. The moment also introduces Al’s alcoholism, which burdens his return to the workaday world. Al and Fred are concerned about Homer (or say they are – the concern seems an excuse to keep the men together). But Homer is looked after by his piano-playing uncle Butch (another cornball star of the time, Hoagy Carmichael), owner of the men’s favorite bar. Butch will allow Homer only beer, the implicit idea being that Homer is an overgrown child, never dispelled even at Homer’s wedding, which closes the film.

The moment of actually going home is resisted by Al, Fred, and Homer, all of whom project nervousness. Their final arrival in Boone City contains an important sequence showing images of the town’s main street from their point of view, as a taxi takes the three to their homes. We see a whitewashed hot dog stand, a diner, a shoeshine parlor, F.W. Woolworth store – the types of small, independent enterprises today long gone, demolished by corporate capitalism. The sequence introduces us to the warmth of small-town America, but the moment will have greater utility, especially when Fred looks for work, and Al returns to his old job.

Capitalism, Democracy, and Castration

The film conveys the notion of the military as the “great leveler” of capitalist society, abolishing the class structure. Al is a prosperous banker who lives in a pricey apartment, yet he rose only to the rank of sergeant in the Army. Fred came from poverty, yet ended the war as a dashing, decorated captain in the Army Air Corps. The armed services emphasize the American idea that what you do is important, not what you are. The idea becomes strained, since Al’s education and social position would have certainly allowed him at least the opportunity for promotion – unless we imagine that his drinking held him back. But the notion of a classless society is overridden when the two men go back to the job world (Homer’s most pressing problem is dealing with his family’s and Wilma’s view of his impairment).

Al puts on a pinstripe suit and returns to the bank, where he is greeted by his old boss Mr. Milton (Ray Collins, forever the nefarious Jim Gettys of Citizen Kane). In a key sequence, Milton sits in a leather chair at the right side of the frame, his bulk taking up considerable space. Al sits at a lower position on a sofa facing the camera. Milton praises America as “a land of unlimited opportunity,” and says he respects Al’s sensitivity toward the veteran and his needs, but also knows that Al appreciates “fundamental principles of sound banking.” Milton’s mention of the GI Bill of Rights has a discernible edge of contempt. When Al takes his new desk he is handed a bulky dossier of loans needing consideration. He jokes “what’s this, the Bretton Woods agreement?” The joke has resonance in retrospect. The Bretton Woods economic accords, formulated by John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, created the postwar liberal economic order, with the US the world’s banker and the dollar the standard for currencies, undergirded by gold. Bretton Woods contained many key provisions aimed at protecting democracy under the assumptions of capitalism, including regulation of the migration of capital. With the economic debacle of the Vietnam invasion, Richard Nixon unilaterally scrapped Bretton Woods in 1971, ushering in the deindustrialized age of capital migration, job loss, and an economy based on speculation. Bretton Woods played a role in creating the postwar nation that Al and his friends temporarily enjoyed – it was quickly destroyed, despite all the rhapsodies today by Brokaw and his like-minded observers.

Al gives a loan to a young veteran named Novak (Dean White) despite the man’s lack of collateral. Al later takes a small tongue lashing from Milton, an insult Al quickly self-medicates with alcohol. Later, at a bank-sponsored dinner, Al is asked to give a speech to make the trustees feel proud of themselves. Totally drunk, Al says “Our country stands today where it stands today…wherever that is!” The idea of America as absurdity is introduced. He says, with bitter sarcasm, that the “good old bank” gave him the experience to survive the invasion of Okinawa. The first remark suggests America is a joke – it stands nowhere and for nothing. The second comment is even more telling, and corresponds to Fred’s experience: the job world taught Al nothing, and merely made use of him as a wage slave. Al’s speech can be read both as a rejection of capitalism from the right and as an affirmation of the veteran as the “true man,” with those who stayed home lazy parasites, or effeminate (as we find in Fred’s job search). Any reading offers a rejection of the capitalist state that seems inconceivable in a commercial film today, especially one regarded as a heartwarming celebration of the US.

Al’s drinking presents a complex set of problems. There were few Hollywood films of the studio system that portrayed the disease in anything like a sensible light (there are some small, if overly melodramatic exceptions, such as The Lost Weekend [1945] and Days of Wine and Roses [1962]). Rio Bravo (1959) is among the films most egregiously misleading and insulting on the subject, tying alcoholism to moral failure, and a failure of will and masculinity. The Best Years of Our Lives is reasonably intelligent on the topic, but with limitations. It is obvious that the stresses of the moment make Al drink, but exactly what lies at the origin of his alcoholism? If we examine his drinking within the context of his dinner speech, we might infer that America made him drink, both capitalism and its enforcement arm in state power, the military. Milly is the dutiful wife through it all – she is, in pop psychology terms, an enabler, keeping track of how many drinks Al takes (she even makes marks on the tablecloth to keep a tally during the banquet) but never stating her abhorrence of what he is doing – in this she is the dutiful, concerned wife, enduring the unexplained misery that she mentions briefly to daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) when Peggy reveals her love of Fred. At Homer’s wedding at the film’s end Al has simply stopped drinking – he protests to Milly that the punch he sips is suitable for a child. There is a suggestion that Milly’s re-domestication of Al has worked. By patiently standing by her man, Milly cured him of his failings, including his rage at Fred for wanting to date Peggy. He has returned to solid-citizenship, with its implication of castration.

The Store and the Feminine

Fred’s return to the job world focuses on feminization and castration, and the new world of capital dominated by the degenerate male. Fred inevitably finds himself back at Bullard’s Drugstore, where he worked as a “soda jerk” before the war. What he remembered as an unassuming neighborhood store is now a large, vulgar concern owned by the Midway corporation, the kindly Mr. Bullard (Erskine Sanford) now reduced to being a clerk in the pharmacy. Fred is introduced to Thorpe (Howland Chamberlain), the reptilian manager of the store. Thorpe constantly uses a nasal inhaler and talks down to Fred. He is coded as intellectual, self-absorbed, and feminine, that ineffectual category of men who did not participate in the war and scoff at those who did. Thorpe quizzes Fred on Army-learned skills that might be applied to a job at Midway; he feigns surprise to learn that Fred, although promoted to captain, was trained to do nothing but drop bombs (an interesting before-the-fact response to contemporary ads claiming that the Army is a pathway to a career) and has no managerial skills whatsoever. Fred’s employment plight seems similar to Al’s in the sense that work before the war provided him with little satisfaction, and will certainly give little now. But Fred’s predicament is more complex. As portrayed by Dana Andrews (in what may be his best performance), Fred Derry was certainly not a teenager when he stopped soda-jerking at Bullard’s to enter the Army Air Corps. The man we see here is approaching middle age. An answer may be the scarcity of jobs during the last years of the Depression (the film could be seen as supportive of the argument – a common one – that only the war ended the economic crisis of the 1930s), forcing an adult to continue at a low-paying job associated with young people. Or is Fred indeed the low-ambition, feckless man castigated by Marie?

Thorpe tells Fred that he can work as a sales clerk, with duties back at the soda fountain, all under the supervision of Clarence Merkle (Norman Phillips, Jr.), whose name is acknowledged, with a chuckle, by Fred, using the nickname “Sticky” (does the word refer to the masturbation of an invert as much as the confections he sells?), making Thorpe bristle. Sticky Merkle assisted Fred at the ice cream fountain before the war; now the role is reversed, with Fred in the demeaning position of working for an overdressed, carefully-coiffed, effete sissy who was once his lackey. This sequence seems to be offered as one of the most unsettling, simply because the hero is demeaned by the new, femininized postwar culture. Fred is more than hesitant to accept the job, but does so to please his gold-digger wife Marie, whose taste for nightlife are finally not supported by her husband’s work at a drugstore, causing more castigation. Fred imposes austerity at home (meals from cans), as he grins and bears it at Midway. Fred’s castration takes place in ever-more-humiliating degrees, such as when Sticky makes Fred learn the names of the new French perfumes so that he can work the counter; a plump matron asks Fred about the hefty price of a bottle of perfume called “Seduction.” Fred says that it’s a “nice size,” but when he takes the box apart discovers that the bottle is almost a thimble, a nice metaphor for his sexual diminution. The sequence becomes a slam of domestic life: a spoiled brat plays with and smashes up toys on the store counter, as Fred barely keeps his grin in place. He is visited by Peggy Stephenson, their romance in full bloom. Pretending to conduct business, Fred holds up a jar of cold cream, then a jar of cold cream remover, joking “if you don’t buy the one, you don’t need the other,” a nice deconstruction of postwar commodity culture and its imposed needs that also serves a genuine moment of mutual seduction, but one offset by the reality of domestic life in the overbearing chaos of the drugstore.

Fred literally breaks out of Midway in a flurry of violence in defense of Homer, who drops by to gab with his friend. Homer is joined at the counter by a right-wing fanatic (Ray Teal) who praises Homer’s courage for serving in the war while scoffing at the US involvement. The man is no isolationist, but a Commie hater who thinks that the US should have sided with the Nazis against the “real” enemy, a very common refrain (which included anti-Semitic slurs, Jews being the ultimate source of the problem) of postwar America. Outraged, Homer attacks the fanatic; Fred leaps over the counter, decking the rightist with one punch and destroying the perfume counter in the bargain. Promptly fired (“the customer is always right”), a disgusted Fred prepares to leave town.

Castration by the female continues to be at least as great a threat to the male at home as the same threat in the job world. Marie continues to manipulate Fred, wanting him to wear his uniform in public even though it is an identity Fred wants to discard (Marie says “you look like yourself,” suggesting that Fred’s own identity is a fraud, uninteresting, or worthless). She humiliates him by her physical presence – one shot shows her seated with her long legs draped on the arm of a chair as she gossips with a friend, the blonde bombshell as infernal woman. She brings home her boyfriend Cliff (Steve Cochran), to Fred’s very fleeting consternation. He sees an Army Air Corps pin on Cliff’s lapel. Far from telling us “there are bad veterans too,” the moment reinforces male camaraderie, which reaches hysterical heights when Al learns of Fred’s romance with his daughter Peggy. Al confronts Fred at Butch’s bar, the two men seated at a table, shot in profile. The Fred-Al-Peggy construct has a strong touch of the perverse, because it seems incestuous (Fred’s sexual involvement with Peggy seems a violation of his partnership with Al, and his acceptance by Al’s family) and pedophilic (Peggy is Al’s daughter, and is constantly referred to as such – although Teresa Wright was 29 at the time, her character is a typically infantilized woman). Al is suspicious of Fred’s married status, wondering how Fred sees Peggy fitting into “this romantic arrangement.” Even as he contemplates the possible ménage, Al assures Fred “I’m very fond of you too.” It seems that Al is merely overly protective of a child, fearing that Fred, a married man, will merely want love with Peggy “on a bootleg basis.” But the rivalry that Al instigates flows from dependence – he is comfortable only in Fred’s presence (Homer is regarded, again, as a child and something of a simp to be patronized). The homoerotic/homosocial bond is reinforced at Homer’s wedding when Al, Fred, and Homer reunite on the porch for a cigarette and the benign punch.

Homer’s Moment

When Homer disrobes in the bedroom in front of Wilma, the film’s sexual politics become unraveled. He removes his robe and the harness holding his artificial limbs in place. He stands before her, displaying the bandaged stubs of both arms. Castration anxiety could not be clearer, and one asks the question why? His fear is rooted in the basic concern of patriarchy – loss of power. There is no evidence that his genitals have been damaged; he is still capable of kissing and caressing Wilma, but his inability to be “in control” of the sex act is the turning point he faces. As he does so, Al and Fred simultaneously confront their own castration and ability to live with it. Al has already acquiesced by returning to the bank and Milly, and relinquishing Peggy to Fred. Fred’s fleeing both the drugstore and Marie suggests his insistence on the male group and independence; he is the one most resentful of castration.

The Scrapyard

Fred says goodbye to his parents (he has already fled contemptuously from the betraying tramp Marie) and goes to the Boone City airport, asking for the first flight out – like an errant gunfighter, he has no interest in destination. The film cuts to Fred’s father softly reading a letter from General James Doolittle, citing Fred for extraordinary bravery, and recommending him for the Distinguished Flying Cross, about which Fred has said nothing. What follows is a stunning sequence, perhaps the greatest valorization of the male in film history (the DVD chapter title reads “American Hero”). As he awaits his flight, Fred wanders into the massive airplane scrapyard the three men noted when they flew into Boone City. Fred walks within the endless graveyard of military overproduction, with its thousands of rusting husks manufactured too late to be deployed in war. He suddenly spots a B-17, the type of plane from which he dropped bombs – its markings shows it had numerous “kills.” He climbs up into its cockpit, then sits, shuts his eyes, and goes into a tortured meditation. The scene becomes his momentary embrace of death, life and the erotic having failed him. In an extraordinary shot sequence, the camera dollies forward, looking up at Fred inside the dirty glass cockpit from a low angle, emphasizing his stoic bravery – this is the man who won the war. The shot cuts to various angles, finally showing him in close shot through the badly scratched glass of the cockpit; Fred’s eyes are closed, the composition conveying a fractured psyche and wounds still unaddressed. We were already shown his troubled sleep, which gave the lie to his assertion that “rehabilitation” is a silly notion meant for the weak.

His memories are interrupted by a loud voice from below telling him to get out of the plane. The foreman of the yard is gruff with Fred, especially for his terming the old planes “junk.” They are to be used in making “pre-fabricated houses.” Fred jumps at the chance for a job. He gets one, seemingly confirming Brokaw’s myth that veterans returned to “build America.” It is impossible not to appreciate this swords-into-ploughshares moment within the context of the last seventy years. Prefabricated housing produced the Levittowns of America, the miles of cheap, nondescript tract housing that became synonymous with conformity and spiritual death in the postwar US (one of the best renderings of the problem on film is Martin Ritt’s No Down Payment, 1957, at this date not available on home video). Almost as bad, prefabricated housing became associated with shoddy workmanship, rip-offs, and kickbacks to contractors; many pre-fab developments became abandoned wastelands within twenty-five years of their construction. Today, the pre-fab commitment to cheapness is such that walls are put together with glue rather than nails.

Not seeing any of this of course, Fred is overjoyed, and runs back to Boone City, where we next see him as best man at Homer’s wedding; he later spots Peggy, proposes to her, even though he says that they will probably be “kicked around” (by the economy?). The three bourgeois couples are sanctified several times over as Butch plays the piano, children sing, and consolation becomes complete. But The Best Years of Our Lives is among the melodramas whose happy ending could not contain more anxiety, given all that we have witnessed in the previous two hours and forty-eight minutes, not only regarding the plight the characters have suffered, but their uninterrogated world.

“The Best Years of My Life”

There has always been a question, to my mind, as to what the title means. It could suggest that the people of the narrative lost part of their youth due to the war, or that the best years are still ahead despite their respective heartaches. The only time the phrase of the title is used is when the bimbo Marie gripes to Fred that she gave him “the best years of [my] life,” with the suggestion, given how we are meant to see her, that her life is worth nothing. The easy irony, of course, is that the lives of Al, Fred, and the others are worth everything, and they aren’t complaining. But the film can be seen now as one big complaint about America that is never addressed, at least not in fact.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes regularly for Film International and other publications. He has been revisiting the albums of David Bowie, who, with Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music, seems the last great surge of energy of the great era of rock. Punk/new wave would offer the form a shot in the arm before corporatization of music produced the nondescript, devitalized muck of the present. Bowie needs a final tip of the hat for his accomplished genius, his skills as writer and singer. His androgynous, bisexual pose may have been precisely that, but it seems more compelling than Jagger’s, more integrated into his art (“Rebel Rebel,” “John, I’m Only Dancing”). The albums Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs are more fully prescient of the deindustrialized, postmodern moment than anything I can think of in rock, the “Berlin” albums (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger), along with Scary Monsters and Outside, superb commentaries on that moment as it arrived. Yet Bowie retained romanticism (his performance of “Wild is the Wind” on Station to Station).

3 thoughts on “The Best Years of Our Lives: a Revaluation”

  1. I’ve seen “The Best Years of Our Lives” at least a dozen times. I’ve always liked Wyler’s craftsmanship, and I really like “The Desperate Hours,” with Humphrey Bogart. Yet despite my opinion of Wyler’s storytelling abilities, I have never thought of him as a director with a real point of view. (Which is one reason Romero’s “Survival of the Dead” is able to really take “The Big Country” in interesting directions.) Your view on “The Best Years” is right on the money. I think it’s Wyler’s very best film, and that it obliterates the mythmaking of Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” which is such a cynical elision of the real lives veterans led when they came home. Next time I teach this film, your essay will be required reading.

  2. I really enjoyed this commentary, having just seen this film for the first time. I was highly struck by the scrapyard scene too. Here, the hollow husks of war could be repurposed into something useful, if imperfect. Just like Fred himself. And you’re right–a happy ending, but fraught too. Thanks for this!

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