The Best Years of American Cinema

The greatest American movie of all time was made in 1946 and you'll never have heard of it

Simon Heffer

I have occasionally spotted in the television schedules a programme called I’ve Never Seen Star Wars. I’ve never seen this programme, but as I have never seen Star Wars either I have always felt it must be one that I should try. The American cinema has never held much appeal for me, perhaps because one has to go a long way to avoid it, American cultural imperialism being what it is. For the pleasure of his prose I read Anthony Lane’s reviews of its films in the New Yorker, but he rarely tempts me to part with my money or to sacrifice an evening that could otherwise be spent with a book. A visit to an American film is so often a disappointment, not least because of the assumptions that appear to have been made about the audience’s intelligence, and the reliance on special effects and sensationalism.

To experience the real genius of the US cinema one needs to explore the quarter-century between the early 1930s and the late 1950s, roughly from the time of the searing I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Giant, the latter being, whatever else you are told, the only great film James Dean ever made. The films from this period have great style — not just in the superficial sense of the costumes and settings, but above all in the thoughtful, literate scripts and the atmosphere they help create. This is the golden age of film noir, of subtle tough guys like Bogey, Dana Andrews and Fred MacMurray, and of smouldering actresses in the league of Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner and Gene Tierney. Tierney made some particularly stunning films that specialised in taking normal American life in a new age of prosperity and twisting it violently — Laura, Leave Her to Heaven and Whirlpool being exceptional in that respect.

It is traditional for anyone surveying the films of this era — or, indeed, American films of any era — to mark out Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as the pinnacles of achievement. I don’t dispute that Orson Welles had something special, but I have never quite seen either of his supposed masterpieces as compelling entertainment as opposed to tours de force of innovation and experimentalism. But then it has to be explained to me why certain of our contemporary classical composers define what they write as music, or indeed bother to do so, so perhaps this is a deficiency in me. I can see Welles’s genius; and I do admire the way in which he avoids the vice of hyperbole, present in so much at the bottom end of American film-making in the 1940s. Anyone who has had the misfortune to see Errol Flynn’s worst film, the travesty Objective Burma, will know what I mean. Depicting the so-called American victory in Burma-a theatre where British troops fought and died amid terrible conditions-it could not be shown for years after the war here because of the feared reaction by ex-servicemen.

Yet it is a film about the war — or rather, the effects of war — that remains the finest American film I have ever seen. William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives, released in 1946, depicts the return home to a middle American town (the location shots were filmed in Cincinnati, Ohio) of three US servicemen. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, a sergeant in the army who was a bank executive and who resumes his old life in an even more senior position, and who lives on the smart side of town in a swish apartment with his wife (Myrna Loy) and almost grown-up children. Dana Andrews is Fred Derry, a soda jerk before the war who has gone up in the world, been commissioned and highly decorated for his heroism in the airforce; but the outstanding performance, in more ways than one, is by Harold Russell, who plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk in the Pacific. Russell had been an army instructor and was making a training film in 1944 when a fuse detonated and blew off both his hands. He was not a professional actor. Wyler gave him the role because he wanted absolute realism. The film won nine of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated, and Russell became the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role: so overwhelming was his achievement in bringing to bear such humanity in his performance that the Academy gave him an extraordinary award for “bringing hope and courage for his fellow veterans”.

I started to watch this film late one night about 35 years ago, with all the cynicism of an overeducated teenager, having just returned from the pub and while waiting for some food to cook. The food was ruined: three hours later, as the film finished, I had not moved from my chair and was in what I can only describe as a state of shock. The tale of these three men returning from war to face difficulties in picking up the threads of their past life is epic, deeply moving, entirely realistic, understated and utterly heroic. 

America is depicted as a country where justice and right will prevail, but only after a herculean struggle; where family is the bedrock of survival; where there really is nothing to fear except fear itself. Al picks up the threads of his marriage. Homer believes his girl won’t want him because of his disability, but she overcomes his self-immolatory desire to end the relationship to protect her. Fred can’t find work befitting an officer and gentleman and becomes a soda jerk again; he takes up with Al’s daughter, his wife leaves him, he loses his job, but in the climactic scene of the film — magnificently photographed and with a tone unusual in American films up to that point — he wanders through a massive scrapyard of bombers at the city’s airport, as he is about to flee for a new life, and by chance finds a change of direction as a salvage man: he and Fred’s daughter decide to marry, and in the end, for all three men, the struggle has availed.

Whatever else you buy with your Christmas Amazon vouchers, buy this film. It is not just Wyler’s masterpiece, but America’s. Oh, yes, Citizen Kane is brilliant: but The Best Years of our Lives is a hundred times more than just that.

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