The Best Years of Their Lives

The Best Years of Their Lives

Why World War II offered Hollywood directors an escape into reality.


There’s a brief scene just a few minutes into William Wyler’s acclaimed war film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) when the three lead characters, all veterans returning home, hitch a ride on a repurposed bomber. They’ve just concluded their respective odysseys at the battlefront and are eager to get back to Boone City, a fictional stand-in for pretty much any Middle American town. The fittingly named Homer Parrish, a Navy veteran who lost both his hands in battle and now wears prosthetic hooks (and is played by Harold Russell, a nonprofessional actor who had suffered a similar injury in a training accident during the war), stands alongside Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a heavily decorated Air Force pilot who flew bombers over Europe, and Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a former Army platoon sergeant in the Pacific. As they get acquainted, Fred asks Al how long it’s been since he’s been home. “Oh, a couple of centuries,” he tartly replies.

Originally given the working title The Way Home, the film struck a particular chord not only with the millions of Americans who lined up at the box office to see it—making it one of the top-grossing pictures of its day—but also with its director, who had served an extended tour of duty in Europe in the Signal Corps, the Army’s communications unit. Like the characters on-screen, Wyler was still trying to reacclimate himself to civilian life; as he once put it, “I spent four years being one of those characters.” Wyler’s story—how he responded to his own experiences during the war and the wider impact they had on his film career—is just one of the lives chronicled in Mark Harris’s Five Came Back, his finely observed and wonderfully detailed portrait of Wyler, John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston and Frank Capra.

Moving more or less chronologically from March 1938 to February 1947, Harris—whose last book, the widely celebrated Pictures at a Revolution, showed how the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967 helped define the New Hollywood—follows his principals as they balance the competing demands of patriotism and professional commitment. Although Hollywood—in particular its major studios and chief executives—has come under heat recently for its supposed lack of proper engagement during World War II, the story that Harris tells, while not always heroic, demonstrates the kind of complex moral reckoning and personal sacrifice that, until now, has rarely been recognized with such sensitivity and depth.

As Harris notes at the outset, the general mobilization of America’s film professionals was of considerable significance. “Fully one-third of the studios’ male workforce would eventually enlist or be drafted,” Harris writes. “But few of them would enter the war as these directors did, with the sense that in impending middle age, they had found themselves with a new world to conquer, a task that would test their abilities to help win the hearts and minds of the American people under the hardest imaginable circumstances, with the greatest possible stakes.” By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, Ford had already joined the Navy (“I think it’s the thing to do at this time,” he explained, almost like one of the laconic cowboys that populate his westerns); he held the rank of lieutenant commander, and although he was the oldest of the lot—two years Capra’s senior and a good decade older than the others—he served the longest. Huston and Wyler were quick to follow suit, both joining the Signal Corps, while Capra and Stevens also offered their services to the Army.

Although all five came to believe in the necessity of lending their talents to the war effort, they hadn’t always voiced their support for interventionism. While on a trip to the Soviet Union with screenwriter Robert Riskin in 1937, Capra remarked after witnessing a military procession in Red Square: “We Americans are a peaceful nation. We don’t intend to fight.” Yet only a few years later, Capra would helm one of the United States’ most effective series of training films aimed at galvanizing the fervor of young Army recruits, a series whose very title seems to have been conceived as a rejoinder to his earlier statement: Why We Fight.

* * *

Thus, much like Jeff Smith, his celebrated protagonist of several years earlier, Mr. Capra went to Washington, where he worked out of a makeshift office in the city’s Archives Building, drawing on his vast network of Hollywood connections to assemble a team of inestimable talent. Screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, the twin wunderkinder who at the time were busy hashing out the script for Casablanca, temporarily walked out on their studio contract at Warner Brothers to lend their support to Capra. (The studio “was quite mad at us,” Julius later recalled. “But we certainly felt we had to go.”) The first installment of the series, Prelude to War, was ready for viewing by late spring 1942.

Even though it wasn’t until America’s official entry into the war that Hollywood devoted its energies to the cause at full throttle—in 1943, close to half of the 543 feature films produced that year dealt with war themes or, in many instances, even fulfilled specific objectives of the Office of War Information—there were a number of notable films that had begun to take a political stance before US involvement. Harris quotes New York Times critic Frank Nugent in his review of Juárez, which premiered in April 1939: “With pardonable opportunism, they [the Warners] have written between the lines…the text of a liberal’s scorn for fascism and Nazism.” And when Warner Brothers released Sergeant York, its heroic drama set in World War I, in September 1941, Time called it “Hollywood’s first solid contribution to the national defense.”

However, Harris also recounts the way such influential public figures as Charles Lindbergh continued to employ rhetoric denouncing “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration” as “war agitators,” threatening that the Jews especially “will be among the first to feel its consequences.” Up until Pearl Harbor, the outspoken isolationist faction in Congress showed no signs of backing down or any feelings of mercy toward its favorite whipping boy: the Hollywood studios and their alleged role in beating the drums of war. Harry Warner, who was called to testify before the Nye Committee, inveighed without apology: “In truth, the only sin of which Warner Bros. is guilty is that of accurately recording on the screen the world as it is or as it has been.”

The projects with which these five filmmakers became involved during the war sought in large measure to do just that, even if they were made explicitly in the service of the war effort. “Our films should tell the truth,” insisted Stevens, “and not pat us on the back.” While Capra worked from Washington, overseeing Why We Fight, Ford was in the Pacific documenting the Battle of Midway in a 1942 Technicolor short of the same name. Huston was stationed in the remote Aleutian Islands, where in collaboration with battlefield cameraman Jules Buck he made the propaganda film Report From the Aleutians (1943); a couple of years later, by then stationed in Italy, he and Buck would make The Battle of San Pietro (1945). Based in Europe, Stevens was on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day and later shot footage of the liberation of Dachau, while Wyler, born in Alsace to a German-Jewish family, had perhaps the deepest stake in the war. With relatives trapped in Europe, he seemed especially cut out to direct the documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), one of the most gripping films to depict the relentless bombings of Germany.

“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.”

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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