The Best Years of Their Lives | The Nation


The Best Years of Their Lives

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Frank Capra

Frank Capra

Five Came Back
A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.
By Mark Harris.
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“Life’s a journey,” wrote Stevens in his war diary, “and it’s always most interesting when you’re not sure where you’re going.” Even before the war, he’d suffered from chronic asthma, something he managed to hide from the Army during his physical, and while in Normandy he was bedridden for days on end. Like the others, he also had occasional bouts of homesickness, painting the words “Toluca Lake”—the San Fernando Valley neighborhood in which he and his family resided—on his Army jeep. During his time in Normandy, North Africa and finally Germany, Stevens shot many reels of color footage capturing the devastating scenes he’d witnessed, the canisters of which he carefully labeled (“Eyewitness at Dachau,” for example, or “Atrocity”) and, after the war, kept sealed up, like bottled memories, in a storage cage in North Hollywood. According to Harris, Stevens retrieved the reels only once during his lifetime, when he was in preproduction on The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)—and even then he hastily stopped the projector within a minute of starting.

Five Came Back gains momentum and quite a bit in dramatic tension in its final chapters, when Harris describes the difficulties his protagonists faced after the war, ranging from melancholia and depression to rage and alienation. “John Ford, who loved to tell war stories, didn’t talk about D-Day for twenty years. George Stevens, a prolific letter writer and journal keeper, fell uncharacteristically silent, leaving three weeks almost blank in his diary.” Upon Huston’s return from the front, he lived by himself in the St. Regis Hotel, basically unmoored, “where he would lie in bed unable to sleep until he could no longer bear it. Then he would get dressed, load his service revolver, take the elevator downstairs, and walk alone across Fifth Avenue into Central Park. He later said he was hoping to get mugged so that he would have someone to kill.”

Wyler, who purportedly once said of the war that it was “an escape into reality,” lost partial hearing in his right ear and, after his return from the front, struggled intensely to cope. “I’d never seen anybody in such a real state of horror,” observed Lillian Hellman. “He was sure his career was over. He would never direct again.” These were, by Wyler’s own recollection, the “worst weeks of my life.” The movie that had started its life, while Wyler was still stationed in Europe, as a Time magazine story on the members of the 1st Marine Division arriving in San Diego after combat in the Pacific, suddenly became something both personal and seemingly universal. “The plight of the returning veteran,” writes Harris, commenting on the zeitgeist that informed The Best Years of Our Lives, “was at that moment perhaps the most avidly discussed domestic issue in the country; the question of how to resume a normal life, and what exactly ‘normal’ meant, opened up other subjects—from spousal abuse to mental illness—that finally had room to be aired now that the war was over.”

* * *

Around the time that Wyler began work on his war feature, change appeared to be afoot within the movie industry. The New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “Breaking Hollywood’s ‘Pattern of Sameness,’” while Capra and Stevens formed a new independent company they called Liberty Films. According to Capra, who was then working on the company’s first feature, It’s a Wonderful Life, the war prompted a kind of rethinking, of seeing the industry “through new eyes” and turning away from the routinized product that defined so many films of the era. “Many of the men who had been…producers, directors, scriptwriters,” Capra commented with a slightly puffy chest, “returned from service with the firm resolve to remedy this.” Wyler joined the short-lived company—it would soon be bought out by Paramount—and harbored the shared belief that Hollywood’s movies had regrettably been “divorced from the main currents of our time.”

But in making a film that cut to the heart of the issues of the day, Wyler bumped up against all the usual obstacles. Censorship czar Joseph Breen insisted, after reading the script for Best Years, that Wyler remove the reference to “Jew-lovers in Washington,” originally included in the famous rant delivered by an unreformed isolationist at the lunch counter at which Dana Andrews’s Fred holds a lowly position. Along similar lines, producer Samuel Goldwyn worried that audiences wouldn’t sit through the film’s 172-minute running time (test screenings thankfully proved him wrong). Apart from a few cuts and some minor concessions, the film retained the tenor and sensibility that Wyler had envisioned. Wyler “has come back from the war,” wrote James Agee in his effusive review, “with a style of great purity, directness, and warmth, about as cleanly devoid of mannerism, haste, superfluous motion, aesthetic or emotional overreaching, as any I know.” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times pronounced it “the best film” of the year, and Billy Wilder, who had won the Academy Award for Best Director the previous year with The Lost Weekend (1945), hailed it as “the best-directed film I’ve ever seen in my life.”

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One of the most poignant aspects of The Best Years of Our Lives is the visceral, almost unvarnished immediacy that it conveys, owing in part to cinematographer Gregg Toland, who had pioneered the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane several years before, as well as to the truly extraordinary performances of the three leads. On working with the nonprofessional actor Harold Russell, who endows Homer with such astounding credibility, Wyler remarked: “He understood the character because he’d gone through it himself. I didn’t have to explain to him how it felt to lose your hands.” Wyler, too, had his own stores of psychological and emotional trauma to draw from: “This is the kind of picture I couldn’t possibly have done with conviction,” he recounted, “if I had not been in the war myself.”

Arguably the greatest achievement of Harris’s book is that it shares, in terms of narrative structure and sheer force, the immediacy of Wyler’s film, which might as well have been titled Three Came Back. Indeed, as if employing a literary equivalent to parallel editing, Harris presents these five lives as deeply interwoven into one larger tapestry. And like Wyler’s cinematic forerunner, Harris lets us witness with clarity and grace just how profoundly their wartime service marked the lives of these five men, and how lasting those effects were. “As long as they lived,” Harris observes, “the war lived in them.”

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