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Epic melodrama “The Best Years Of Our Lives” honestly chronicles three World War II veterans

William Wyler’s 1946 film screens at UW Cinematheque on April 8 as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival with special guest Mike Pogorzelski from the Academy Film Archive.

William Wyler’s 1946 film screens at UW Cinematheque on April 8 as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival with special guest Mike Pogorzelski from the Academy Film Archive.

Header Image: Veteran Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) gets a ride to his wife’s apartment from Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) after a night of drinking with Peggy’s father, Al, another veteran.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a 1946 film about three World War II veterans arriving home and their subsequent adjustments to re-entering civilian life. Director William Wyler had already shown interest in depicting the American veteran experience earlier that decade, and released a documentary about a U.S. Army bomber called Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress in 1944, which shares its name with the aforementioned bomber. The Best Years Of Our Lives further explores characters in a narrative context. The Wisconsin Film Festival offers the rare opportunity to catch it on the big screen on Friday, April 8, at 1:30 p.m., with Mike Pogorzelski, Director of the Academy Film Archive at the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences in Los Angeles, in attendance.

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This film introduces us to three men, all of whom are white and lower-middle class but had differing experiences in the war. They discover that, despite never having met, they are all from the same Midwestern town of Boone City. Fred Derry, portrayed by Dana Andrews, is an Air Force captain who married a woman shortly before deployment and is nervous about seeing her again. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, a married army sergeant with two children who have grown up in his absence. Naval petty officer Homer Parrish, portrayed by non-professional actor Harold Russell, lost his hands in combat and uses prosthetic mechanical hooks. Russell himself used prosthetic hooks in real life, having lost both hands in an Army explosives training accident in 1944. Watching this in 2022, when representation of disabled people in film and television still leaves a lot to be desired, it’s easy to appreciate how the casting of a disabled person in a role didn’t come across as exploitative. (Sign Of The Ram, from 1948, is another film from this time to cast a disabled person to play a disabled role, which was a return to the screen for actress Susan Peters, after suffering from an accidental gunshot wound.)

While The Best Years Of Our Lives spends nearly three hours following three different characters, its long duration isn’t felt. It seamlessly flows between storylines, because all three characters have entered each others’ lives since meeting at the airport. It shows what it’s truly like for these three men to be away from their loved ones, and how strange it must be for everything to continue under normal circumstances without them. Al forgets that his wife doesn’t smoke, and barely recognizes his children as puberty has changed them in his absence. Homer is hesitant to propose to his longtime girlfriend because of the alienation he experiences as a visibly disabled person. He is wary of allowing himself to reveal his vulnerability by showing her his authentic self without his prosthetics. Fred has night terrors reliving his combat experience, which broadens the growing divide between him and his wife.

While Wyler’s prior Memphis Belle might be viewed as propaganda or as an inspirational film about the military-industrial complex, The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t glorify the American war effort as even Wyler’s own documentary efforts might have around this time. It shows the sacrifices these men had to make in order to serve their country, with little reward upon returning. Al gets his old job back at a bank, but sees how few veterans actually qualify for loans under the bank’s terms.

Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography allows viewers to focus on more than one character at a time, which only strengthens the camaraderie and unity of narrative. While a few key phrases stand out as problematic, overall this multifaceted film still feels fresh. Something engaging is always happening, and due to the steady pacing, it never feels rushed or overwhelming. The film’s sets were built to be life-size instead of larger-than-life to mimic reality, opposite the trend at the time, when sets were usually built bigger to accommodate cameras and their angles. All of the lead actors were told to buy their own wardrobes in another attempt to make their characters seem realistic and relatable.

For fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) who might feel that it’s too long, The Best Years Of Our Lives offers a more streamlined story and experience with a focus on only three main characters instead of ten. As with much of Wyler’s prolific career, The Best Years of Our Lives is a sterling feature to pitch to anyone who thinks that black-and-white films are boring to prove them wrong. For more of Toland’s cinematography paired with Wyler’s direction, Wuthering Heights (1939), The Westerner (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941) all have something to offer.

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