The Best Years of Our Lives: Golden Age Storytelling in the Mode of Classic Realism
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
“Order, it has become clear, is a very fragile thing; And order is especially vulnerable under the cultural conditions of a postmodern world unsure about its grasp on the truth of anything. Order is not self-maintaining. Order is an achievement, and it must be obtained, over and again.”
Director Wyler sought out non-actor and disabled veteran, Harold Russell, to take on the exacting role of Homer Parrish. In addition to his Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Russell was awarded an Honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans” through his role as Homer.
The role of Homer’s Uncle Butch, who owns the neighborhood pub where critical scenes take place, was played by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael was a Cultural Icon of the 1940’s and strong player in creating the Great American Songbook. He played the same role in other films he does here; a wise friend or relative who consoles and offers advice while playing the piano.
Culture, Community, and our Common Humanity
The idea that we human beings have a common human nature and that we live in a shared moral order still seems to make sense, even in our fractured culture. The task of discussing the meaning of culture with each other is harder today. The rising generation arrived on the world stage after so much of our common culture had already been lost.
Piloting classic movies with young people for twenty years has taught me one important thing: The greatest films of the Golden Age give us a vision of human nature through Classic Realism. With films made in this mode, moral choice drives the characters and events in the story. While we have different sensibilities and worldviews, we can view and discuss these films together, seeing essential truths with the same lens.
Persons of the left and the right can be overtaken by nostalgia for the early eras when we had greater national unity as noted by Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic. But this nostalgia can be of a superficial nature. As Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind, tribal emotions (and I would add, movie nostalgia) both blinds and binds. On the positive side, with movies like this, patriotism and social justice blend together and whether left, right or center, through our participation in the drama, we blend them together. This is the essence of the philosophy of Classic Realism, in life or at the movies. We are born into tribes, but human flourishing depends on a whole lot of us working together to cultivate a healthy culture.
A closer look at the Cultural Narrative of The Best Years of Our Lives
In today’s world, it may be difficult to imagine what it was like at the end of World War II. The nation and the world were at war from 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the surrender of Japan in June of 1945. William Wyler’s masterpiece captured the imagination of a nation longing for peace and stability.
The Longing for a Common Home and the Universal Need for Belonging
The homecoming of Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is one of the most memorable sequences of any film in cinema history. The three veterans glimpse their hometown and talk about what it means to them.
Wyler created an unforgettable scene of the reunion of Fredric March’s character with his wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy. The scene is based on his own experience of homecoming after the war.
The Way People Treat Each Other is at the Heart of Culture
Justice and Charity go together.
At the heart of any culture are the moral norms that people have to decide are worth protecting. Al approves a loan without collateral to a deserving Navy veteran. The president of the bank is not happy but he is unable to dispute the bank's obligation to provide services to worthy returning soldiers. At a banquet the slightly drunk Al expounds on his belief that the bank and America must stand with the vets who risked everything to defend the country and give them every chance to rebuild their lives.
Dealing with Cultural Change
Before the war, Fred had been an unskilled drugstore soda jerk. He wants something better, but the tight postwar job market forces him to return to his old job. Fred had met his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo) while in flight training and married her shortly afterward. Marie makes it clear she does not enjoy being married to a lowly soda jerk.
Maintaining a Stable Identity when Becoming Disabled
The most moving story in the film revolves around the character of Homer and his childhood sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). Homer does not want to burden Wilma with his handicap and pushes her away, although she still loves him and he loves her.
Fred helps his friend Homer to put his misgivings behind him and marry Wilma. Fred offers to be his best man.
"Kid, I will stand up for you until I drop "
Wyler had flown combat missions over Europe and worked hard to get accurate depictions in the film of the combat veterans he had encountered. After the war, the combat aircraft featured in the film were being disassembled for reuse as scrap material. The scene with Dana Andrews as Fred Derry walking among aircraft ruins was filmed at the Ontario Army Air Field in Ontario, California.
The former training facility had been converted into a scrap yard, housing nearly 2,000 former combat aircraft in various states of disassembly and reclamation. Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland used innovative camera techniques to help the audience capture the feelings and interior state of mind of Dana Andrews’ character.