By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
What happens when a war ends? Treaties may determine borders, and armies may discharge their troops, but what then? How do soldiers and sailors who’ve seen combat reinsert themselves into a home-life that remained in motion while they were away?
When America entered World War II, William Wyler left his successful Hollywood career to join the war effort. Like millions of other men and women, he put his family affairs aside to crush fascism. His military career (as well as those of George Stevens, John Huston, Frank Capra, and John Ford) is the subject of Mark Harris’ essential history, Five Came Back.
Filmmakers are not used to taking orders. Even in the days when the studio system exerted great power over a director’s career, a film set often functioned like a private fiefdom. For headstrong creative artists who suddenly found themselves reporting to generals with no artistic sensibilities, military life represented a harsh new reality. Likewise, the military was unsure just what it wanted or needed from its cinematic recruits.
Over time, the filmmakers settled into their new roles as cogs in the war machine. Capra produced the Why We Fight training films. Ford directed a documentary on the battle of Midway. Huston depicted the conquest of Italy. Stevens captured raw, heartbreaking footage of the newly liberated concentration camps. Wyler flew scores of combat missions to make a documentary about the Memphis Belle.
Each of these men returned to Hollywood changed by their experience, particularly Stevens, who never directed another comedy after his exposure to camps. War leaves an imprint, one that cannot be easily quantified or understood.
Wyler’s hours on noisy bombing raids rendered him nearly deaf, adding complications to the already complex duties of directing a big-budget film. Is it any wonder that his first post-War film was The Best Years of Our Lives?
Lives follows three men as they return home from the war. Fred flew planes in the war, but in civilian life he’s only qualified to be a soda jerk. Al is a banker whose time overseas has reordered his priorities (and perhaps led to a drinking problem). Homer is afraid that the loss of his hands–they’ve been replaced by metal hooks–will frighten or disgust his fiancé. They are welcomed as heroes, but after the tearful reunions, a grim reality sets in: they can’t let go of the war, even though the world around them wants to move on.
It’s a shockingly honest picture for its time. Studios must have worried that a public fed years of rah-rah John Wayne movies would shy away from something so honest (particularly in its depiction of disability). Audiences loved it, however, making it the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind seven years earlier. The Academy agreed, giving it 8 Oscars.
Wyler went on to other great projects–notably the 1959 epic Ben Hur–but this film remains his most personal, most moving work.