Last year, beginning in early September, the Film Forum, a theater on Houston Street, in Lower Manhattan, presented a four-week retrospective of films directed by William Wyler, in honor of his birthday centennial. Whether by coincidence or by design, just days after the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers the theater—three stops from Ground Zero on the No. 1 subway line—screened The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler's 1946 melodrama about a trio of World War II veterans and their difficulties in readjusting to civilian life (including the rituals of courtship and marriage). Although it may be remembered today only dimly, for the novelty of featuring a real-life amputee (and a nonprofessional actor) in the role of a sailor outfitted with hooks after losing both his hands when his ship was sunk by a torpedo, The Best Years of Our Lives was once revered. Its first engagement was at a theater in Times Square, a week before Thanksgiving in a year when many families were mourning their losses as they sat down to count their blessings.
Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times, who was the most influential film critic of the late 1940s, immediately recognized the stuff of greatness in it, as did James Agee, of The Nation and Time, the critic with the most literary cachet. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including the one for best picture, for which It's a Wonderful Life and Laurence Olivier's Henry V were also nominated. (Wyler won for best director, and Fredric March was chosen best actor, for his performance as a disillusioned bank officer and former infantry sergeant. Harold Russell, the amputee, won for best supporting actor and was awarded in addition a special Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." Robert E. Sherwood won for his screenplay, Daniel Mandell for his editing, and Hugo Friedhofer for his lovely, Aaron Copland-esque score.) Released nationwide in 1947, soon after the Oscar ceremony, The Best Years of Our Lives grossed more in its first run than any other movie since Gone With the Wind, eight years earlier.
The inevitable backlash wasn't long in coming. Writing in the Partisan Review while the movie was still being shown in neighborhood theaters, Robert Warshow denounced it for its "denial of the reality of politics," by which he meant that it reduced widespread postwar problems to matters of individual psychology that could be solved by the application of good old-fashioned American virtues (hard work, patience, cheerfulness, and the like). Though Warshow was practically the only naysayer, his point of view came to prevail in informed circles; by 1957, when Manny Farber, writing in Commentary, dismissed The Best Years of Our Lives as "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz," he was telling his readers something they felt they already knew. (Then as now, the only ones more disdainful of liberal ideals than conservatives were those on the extreme left.)
Skepticism is the critic's stock in trade, but I think we've become so used to feeling manipulated by movies that we instinctively distrust one that stirs something real in us. Seeing The Best Years of Our Lives again last year, in the aftermath of the media blitz that surrounded the September 11 observances (and amid vague new terrorism alerts and the prospect of war with Iraq), filled me with regret that today's popular culture responds to our current predicament only in ways that seem crass—witness the many commemorative books for which 9/11 represented both a marketing opportunity and a sell-by date—or, worse, ineffectual. Popular music was the first responder, and the most anticipated and publicized album was Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. Talk about a truckload of liberal schmaltz.
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There have been plenty of new war movies in the past eighteen months, but Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and the rest were in production long before September 11, inspired by Saving Private Ryan and the anticipated success of Pearl Harbor—an epic that took in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office without causing much of a stir culturally. Pearl Harbor was like a 1940s double feature: it combined action and dewy romance in a transparent attempt to please young moviegoers of both sexes and become a favorite date movie—World War 90210. It may also have been the first blockbuster ever to incorporate its own sequel, ending not with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which would have been too sobering, but with Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Japan the following year, which demonstrated American pluck and represented a great psychological victory. War movies since Saving Private Ryan have emulated that film's mixing of period sentimentality with the graphic bloodletting of today's action movies. Pearl Harbor, dreadful as it was, felt like a prototype. Audiences want happy endings, which probably means that we won't be seeing any movies about 9/11 anytime soon. As I watched the September 11 observances on television and heard repeated mention of that day's "heroes," it took me a few minutes to realize that this word was also meant to refer to the thousands of innocent people who died in the Twin Towers. There was a reluctance to call them victims, even though they were. I think Hollywood has a similar reluctance, given that the directors now likely to be called on to make war movies specialize in crowd control. They lack the talent to portray the emotional toll that war exacts even on the winners—the subject of The Best Years of Our Lives.
I was born the year The Best Years of Our Lives came out, a dead soldier's nephew and namesake, and circumstantially as much a war baby as a Boomer. My generation was the first to grow up with television, but thanks to the endless after-school hours that local channels filled with diversions originally shown at kiddie matinees during the Depression (Popeye, Our Gang, the Three Stooges, Hopalong Cassidy, and Johnny Mack Brown), we were also the first generation weaned on our parents' popular culture as well as our own. Even Superman, The Lone Ranger, and Gunsmoke were radio hand-me-downs. Vietnam is said to have been the first television war, because it was the first in which nightly newscasts delivered fresh kill to our dinner tables. But World War II was refought endlessly on The Early Show all through my childhood, in movies such as Back to Bataan, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and my personal favorite, William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe—with Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle, the wizened, chain-smoking war correspondent, who did for the U.S. foot soldiers on their advance through Nazi-occupied Italy what Albert Camus did for Sisyphus.
Along with numbers from the latest Broadway smashes, the songs we heard performed on the big nighttime variety shows were likely to be ones that our mothers and fathers had courted to during the war. To us, these songs sounded hopelessly mushy or just plain silly. Our parents weren't about to tell us that "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me" once meant "Promise you'll be faithful while I'm away," much less that "So love me tonight, tomorrow was meant for some, tomorrow may never come, for all we know" was an eloquent way of saying "Surrender your virginity to me now, because I might be sent home in a box." Those songs were the first manifestos in a sexual revolution whose beginnings are usually traced back only to Playboy and the Pill.