For Reel

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
January 31, 2016, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William Wyler
5 Stars
The Best Years of Our LivesIn the opening scene of The Best Years of Our Lives, returning veterans fly above Boone City and comment on what it is like to look at their hometown from a bird’s eye view. Even when the men aren’t surveying a field full of bombers, the tension is clear–these men converse about how different things look from above, making literal the fact that their homes and community have become only vaguely recognizable. A rare Hollywood prestige picture that is able to overcome being saddled with that burden, The Best Years of Our Lives is as empathetic as the movies get–not only are these characters wrought with their fragilities foregrounded, but they show remarkable love for one another as they try to adjust back to living in a world that has become impossible to return to. One of the most striking shots of the film involves a disheveled Fredric March holding a photograph of his younger self and surveying the physical differences in the mirror. The image carries a certain fascination for confronting celebrity so directly (and admitting that a famed actor now looks considerably older), but there’s more to it than that. Superficially, it considers the effects of aging, but it also suggests a transition in cinema itself. March’s portrait (taken sometime in the 1930s) reflects the actor at the height of his fame, during an era when Hollywood was defined by the escapist epics, screwball comedies, and genre pictures that he was known for. Now, audiences are confronted with the actor as a confused, chronically depressed veteran in a grimly realistic drama. The concerns of audiences and filmmakers had indeed changed, and this one simple image uses March’s performance, his filmic image, and the weight of the picture’s consideration of veterans as a means of remarking on the ungodly difference that a decade had made in our nation’s history.