Storming the Home Front

Directors of today's war movies, with their insistence on graphic bloodletting and happy endings, should look at the original World War II movies, which were subtly subversive
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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.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Web Citations: "Normandy: 1944" (July 30, 1998)
As Saving Private Ryan sweeps the country, learn about the reality behind the celluloid images.

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.

For me, seeing The Best Years of Our Lives on television for the first time, several years ago, was like having a recovered memory. Part of what I was responding to was Gregg Toland's lifelike cinematography and a kind of bourgeois neo-realism. Much of the shooting was done on location in Cincinnati, and the barrooms and high-rises and row houses in which much of the action takes place looked a lot like those in the eastern city where I grew up. There are no stylized close-ups in the movie, and even the women are wearing outfits bought off the rack, which they were asked to break in for a few weeks before shooting started. But The Best Years of Our Lives also felt like my notion of 1946.

Though its credits say that it was adapted from MacKinlay Kantor's novel Glory for Me, the movie's actual genesis was in a news story that the producer Samuel Goldwyn read in Time in 1944, set aboard "The Home Again Special"—a cross-country train taking members of the First Marine Division to their home towns to start a thirty-day furlough after more than two years in battle. The unsigned piece often reads surprisingly like many we read during Vietnam: "In another war there might have been brass bands at every stop. But in this pageantry-less, slogan-less war, the train just rumbled on toward New York, through the big towns and the whistle-stops." "I'm a little worried about how I'll look to them, about how much I've changed," one man says as the train nears his home town. Another confides, "I haven't shaken so much since the night we went around Cape Hatteras, leaving the States."

Knowing a good idea when somebody else had it, Goldwyn commissioned a treatment by Kantor, hardly expecting the 400-plus-page manuscript written in blank verse that Kantor published as Glory for Me after Goldwyn, understandably, passed on it. The project might have ended there if not for Wyler's desire to make a movie about returning veterans, rather than the star-spangled biography of General Dwight D. Eisenhower that Goldwyn had him penciled in for.

Wyler, who died in 1981, eleven years after the release of his final movie (The Liberation of L. B. Jones, a lurid, near-blaxploitation southern potboiler), began his career in the silent era, directing two-reel westerns. He directed plenty of hypermasculine fare: World War II combat documentaries, Humphrey Bogart and the Bowery Boys in the muckraking Dead End, and Charlton Heston on a chariot in Ben-Hur. Yet he is remembered today mostly for his work with actresses—Bette Davis in Jezebel, The Little Foxes, and The Letter; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and The Children's Hour; and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Inasmuch as its drama comes from the working out of personal relationships, The Best Years of Our Lives could almost be one of Wyler's "women's pictures." The difference is that the characters in danger of being immolated by their emotions are disaffected fighting men whose reunions with their wives and sweethearts do not go smoothly.

World War II provided a backdrop for romance in Casablanca; in The Best Years of Our Lives it's the back-story. "Remember what it felt like when you went overseas?" Dana Andrews, the movie's third veteran, asks March, echoing a line from that story in Time, as their transport plane makes its way to Boone City, the movie's fictional midwestern setting. "I feel the same way now, only more so." Andrews and the others have been men without women. War has changed them, and the women have gained a measure of independence in their absence. The liquor cabinet is nearly empty when March arrives home, and there's only enough bacon in the refrigerator for his wife (Myrna Loy) and their two children. At one point March offers her a cigarette, forgetting she doesn't smoke.

What makes March's situation especially poignant is that this is no drab housewife he's alienated from: to the audiences of that day Loy was Nora Charles, from The Thin Man—not just a spouse but an ideal partner in every way. Loy and March obviously adore each other, but after having lived apart for so long, they need to start courting again, and neither of them has the energy.

Russell's problem is more acute: he worries that Cathy O'Donnell, who plays his sweetheart since adolescence, feels only pity for him now. A scene in which she undresses him and puts him to bed after convincing him that she still loves him is just about perfect, and not until afterward do you realize that Wyler was quietly shattering a long-standing taboo by allowing an unmarried couple such intimacy in a bedroom. Part of what makes the scene moving is that you don't feel you're being unduly manipulated. The scene is expository, not exploitative: we've watched Russell impressing people by showing them how nimble he has become with his hooks, and now we're being shown how helpless he is once he removes them for the night—"as dependent as a baby who doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it." O'Donnell watches him take off his arm harnesses, and we, too, get our first look at his bandaged stumps. "I'm lucky I have my elbows," he says. "Some of the boys don't." He wiggles into his pajama top, and she buttons it for him, tucks him in, and kisses him good-night. On her way out she closes the door behind her and then, as if remembering that he might need the bathroom in the middle of the night, reopens it and leaves it ajar. We see him crying in the shaft of light, with no hand to wipe away his tears.

Robert Warshow observed that not just Russell but each of the other main male characters has "a scene in which the woman he loves undresses him ... and puts him to bed." Warshow saw in this "an unusually clear projection of the familiar Hollywood (and American) dream of male passivity."

And when it is the sailor who is put to bed, the dream becomes almost explicit. He is the man (the real man) who has lost his hands—and with them his power to be sexually aggressive ... Every night, his wife will have to put him to bed, and then it will be her hands that must be used in making love.

Despite his harsh judgment of The Best Years of Our Lives, Warshow was the only contemporary critic to describe its subtheme of male surrender, emotional and sexual. Warshow, who died of a heart attack in 1955, at the age of thirty-seven, once wrote, "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man"—a defense of subjectivity as an analytical tool that has become a rallying cry for many of today's critics, including me. In Warshow's case the man was perhaps a little too willing to defer to Freud. Among other things, Warshow called the male characters "inarticulate," which at first seems an odd word for so talkative a movie. But these men are inarticulate, in a way: they've done things and witnessed things they feel unable to discuss in mixed company, and words are unnecessary when they're with one another. They're hurting, and their women sense this, but back then nobody spoke today's language of recovery.

Boone City, like the real-life towns that Wyler and Sherwood based it on, is changing, its self-sufficiency undermined by postwar expansion. The drugstore where Andrews briefly goes back to work as a soda jerk has been taken over by a chain, and the local savings and loan where March returns to a desk job has become a branch of a midwestern trust. But it's still the sort of town where a family's social standing remains the same for decades, and personal growth is interpreted as a threat to the status quo. (Boone City's nearest equivalent in literature would be Updike's Brewster.) Fired from the drugstore for slugging an obnoxious customer, Andrews arrives home one day after looking for work to find his flashy blonde wife (Virginia Mayo) openly entertaining another man. In a departure from the conventions of 1940s melodrama—one of many in the screenplay by Sherwood, a former speechwriter for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes for drama—being cuckolded bothers Andrews only in principle, and the news that his wife wants to call it quits is a relief. Like many other wartime couples, they married on impulse soon after meeting, when he was in basic training and awaiting assignment overseas. He married a pinup, she married a uniform. They start living together for the first time, and despite their obvious incompatibility (money is a constant reason for argument, and she scolds him for crying out during his vivid war nightmares), he stays with her, because a stand-up guy doesn't walk out on his wife. But he's fallen in love with March's daughter, played by Teresa Wright. What now prevents him from following his heart and running straight to her is his lack of prospects—the worry that he isn't good enough for a banker's daughter.

We later see Andrews through the Plexiglas nose cone of a plane in a scrapyard. Then we see him from behind, moving his hands as if releasing a bomb; and then in tight close-up—he's sweating and staring straight ahead with a look of determination that could be a disguise for shock. We've heard Andrews dismiss his citations for bravery as "just a lot of words that don't mean anything," but we also know from having heard his father read one of them aloud that Andrews was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for carrying out a mission despite being wounded and losing a lot of blood. He's having a flashback, but we don't see whatever it is that he's seeing. There are no combat scenes in The Best Years of Our Lives, unless you count the battle of the sexes.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Mainstream and Meaningful" (October 3, 2001)
Jonathan Franzen, the author of The Corrections, discovers that, when it comes to fiction, "serious" doesn't have to mean "marginal" or "boring".

The Best Years of Our Lives epitomizes a large-scale approach to storytelling that is no longer favored by our culture, although the success of The Sopranos and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections suggests that it might be staging a comeback. What keeps people away from the movie, I think, is the belief (first voiced by Warshow) that it presented an officially sanctioned, overly optimistic view of postwar American life.

The Best Years of Our Lives is actually a few menacing shadows shy of being film noir. The amputee gets the girl at the end, but what else does he get? In Edward Dmytryk's Till the End of Time—another movie about maladjusted veterans, which beat Wyler's to theaters by a few months—a prizefighter who has lost both legs in the war stops sulking when it dawns on him that he can make himself useful to society by training younger, able-bodied pugs. Russell has nothing but the love of a kind woman to fill his days; he's content to live off his monthly disability checks and amuse his friends by using his hooks to uncap beer bottles and play "Chopsticks" with his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael, looking, as always, like a corn-belt Samuel Beckett). And as Warshow suggested, the question of whether he and his new bride will prove to be sexually compatible is left hanging—possibly in their minds as well as in ours.

Andrews and Wright wind up together, true, but the only work he can find—and keep—is as a beginner in the scrapyard where he had his flashback. A more optimistic scenario would have ended with his taking out a loan on the GI Bill and opening his own flight school (he could go on wearing that bomber jacket in which he cuts such a handsome figure). March stays on at his bank, even though he knows he's in for a fight with the manager every time he approves a loan to a veteran with no collateral. Along with a social conscience, he has developed a drinking habit, and this is still an issue in his marriage at the end.

The Best Years of Our Lives was Wyler's masterpiece, but its reputation has depreciated along with his. What made Wyler's approach fully cinematic—and what thrilled the French auteurists and their followers, who otherwise ignored Wyler—was his use of a technique called "deep focus": a way of shooting a scene so that everyone and everything in it, whether in the foreground or in the background, in the center of the frame or toward the margins, was photographed with equal clarity, eliminating the need for frequent cuts or shifts of focus to redirect the audience's point of view. A trademark of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer for Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath as well as this and other Wyler films, deep focus credits audiences with having enough intelligence to follow more than one action at a time. It involves a viewer more directly in a scene by inviting him to "do his own cutting," as Wyler once put it. Cinema's fourth wall is the camera, and there are moments in The Best Years of Our Lives when you almost forget it's there. The movie concludes with Russell and O'Donnell's wedding, a scene that reconciles several divergent plot lines by bringing together all six of the principal characters in a much larger gathering. Andrews is the best man, and when he turns his head from the ceremony to stare at Wright, who's all the way in back, it's as if he's showing us where to look. As the other guests rush to congratulate the bride and groom, Andrews and Wright keep looking at each other for a long moment, with the left side of the screen all to themselves.

The casting of Russell, who was a meatcutter before he joined the Army, and whom Wyler cast after seeing him in a documentary about disabled veterans, was in keeping with a trend toward greater movie realism in response to World War II. Wyler vetoed acting lessons for him (a wise decision). The established Hollywood directors who served in the military were put to work making combat documentaries that required them not only to forgo elaborate technical resources but also to put themselves and their crews at risk from enemy fire. Even many wartime features qualified as semi-documentaries: The Story of G.I. Joe, for instance, includes actual combat footage from John Huston's The Battle of San Pietro. In the credits the extras were identified as "combat veterans of the campaigns in Africa, Sicily, and Italy." Many of them were dead by the time the movie was released, in 1945.

War lent moral urgency to even the most conventional sort of romantic melodrama: a kiss was no longer just a kiss, no matter what the song said. During the war producers had to submit scripts not just to the Hays Office, which frowned on political themes almost as much as it did on suggestions of sexuality, but to the Office of War Information. The OWI's ardent New Dealers urged studios to emphasize women's importance as factory workers and temporary single parents, and to make it clear that our fight was against fascist forces in Europe and Asia, not the entire populations of enemy countries—and certainly not Americans with roots in those countries. (Political correctness is nothing new, nor is it necessarily undesirable.)

In return for putting up with all of this, directors and screenwriters routinely got away with things they couldn't possibly have gotten away with before the war. Although homosexuality, for instance, was permissible only in a character wearing a Nazi officer's uniform, the circumstances under which something first appears onscreen eventually cease to matter. Once it's there, it's there for good, to be treated, one hopes, with more dignity as the years pass. Many wartime movies were lurid and sensational, including (I confess) two of my personal favorites, both directed by Edward Dmytryk, the Quentin Tarantino of his day: Hitler's Children, in which a young American woman played by Bonita Granville is tied to a post and whipped on her bare back in sight of the swastika, and Behind the Rising Sun, in which a Chinese baby is tossed in the air and speared on a Japanese bayonet (the camera pulls away not an instant too soon).

But there were also scenes of surprising intimacy, not necessarily sexual in implication. Death pervades The Story of G.I. Joe, as it does many of the Hollywood movies made during the final stages of World War II, when certain victory eliminated the need for home-front morale boosters, and audiences were finally given permission to weep. Toward the end a weary soldier touches his mud-splattered hand to his dead captain's cheek before hobbling to catch up with his platoon. Had one man ever touched another so tenderly in an earlier movie? All these breakthroughs culminated in The Best Years of Our Lives.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
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Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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