The Best Years of Our Lives

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After making the classic documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler began work on what would become his greatest masterpiece and one of the best American films ever made according to the American Film Institute. This classic movie is The Best Years of Our Lives which was released in 1946. I’ve seen this movie four or five times over the decades and it remains emotionally powerful no matter how many times you see it. The film won 8 Academy awards (1 honorary and 7 standard) the same number as Gone With the Wind.

I rarely do this but here are times when it’s best for me to stand back and turn a blog post over to an expert in a particular subject and in this case there is no one more expert than the movie critic, Roger Ebert. The following paragraphs are from his 2007 review of the film. (The entire review can be found here.)

I would make a special note that, Harold Russell, who plays a US Navy sailor who has lost his hands in the war, was exactly that. He had no training as an actor.

Says Roger Ebert:

Seen more than six decades later, it feels surprisingly modern: lean, direct, honest about issues that Hollywood then studiously avoided. After the war years of patriotism and heroism in the movies, this was a sobering look at the problems veterans faced when they returned home….

The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t use verbal or technical pyrotechnics. It trusts entirely in the strength of its story. One of the sources of its power is the performance by Harold Russell, the handless veteran. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was actually criticized at the time for his “tasteless” use of Russell, but look at the heartbreaking scene where Homer invites Wilma up to his bedroom – not to make a pass, but to show her what is involved in getting ready for bed. He thinks maybe then she’ll understand why he doesn’t think he can marry her.

Russell was an untrained actor, but utterly sincere. He says: “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” We know Russell is speaking for himself, and the emotional power is overwhelming. O’Donnell’s response is pitch-perfect.

Russell won an honorary Oscar, “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” Although he was actually nominated for best supporting actor, the Academy board voted the special award because they thought he didn’t have a chance of winning. They were wrong. He won the Oscar, the only time an actor has been given two Oscars for the same role. The film also won for best picture, actor (March), director, screenplay, editing, and score.

As long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded, The Best Years of Our Lives will not be dated.

[Image courtesy of Roger]

The Best Years of Our Lives

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The documentary Clark Gable made is called Combat America. I will discuss it at more length in a subsequent post but first let me discuss the 41 minute documentary which completely overshadowed it and which was shot on the same base. That documentary is the famous The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress which was made by one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, William Wyler. Like Gable, Wyler also flew on five missions and was awarded the air medal although he had all the film he needed by the end of the fourth mission. Determined to qualify for his air medal (he had been given a commission as a major in the USAAF but had not attended OCS) he went for one more mission. “I almost didn’t come back. It was a stupid thing to go on.”

Wyler took a lot of risks. He once sat in the ball turret of a bomber while it was taking off to get the shot he wanted. Given that the ball turret wasn’t even lowered until the bomber was at its cruising altitude, this was slightly nuts and naturally against every regulation of the air force but Wyler was already a famous director. In 1942 he won the Oscar for “Best Director” for the classic World War Two film, Mrs. Miniver, the story of an English family during the Blitz.

Memphis Belle became the focus of Wyler’s attention after the first bomber he used for filming went down. He asked the pilot, Robert Morgan, the swordsman we’ve already met, if he could fly with him.

I told him, ‘OK’, if he didn’t get in the way and get all of us killed. I got to like the guy; he had guts and passion, but he did get in the way.

In April of 1944, Wyler finished The Memphis Belle and arranged a preview for President Roosevelt in the White House. Wyler sat next to the President while the documentary was being screened and when it was over and the lights came up, FDR turned to Wyler and said, “This has to be shown right away, everywhere.” And it was. According to Donald L. Miller who wrote the outstanding history of the US air war over Europe I have been quoting from, “…the film is absolutely authentic in its portrayal of bomber warfare.” Take a look sometime. You can usually find it on the net and I’ve included it here.

Please do not confuse the documentary The Memphis Belle with the theatrical film of a similar name released in 1990 (Memphis Belle). While the 1990 movie is about a US bomber in World War Two called the Memphis Belle, no further attempt at factual accuracy is made by the screenwriter, director, producer, or actors. While the movie is supposed to be a drama it is so inaccurate that one wonders what happened. You could read one book on the bombing campaign in World War Two and avoid the mistakes these clowns made. I saw the movie when it first came out and I can say that my reaction to it remains as strong as it was 21 years ago: this movie is really, really bad. I mean really bad. Not only is the acting ridiculous but the propaganda version of WW Two the movie tells is offensive to anyone who has actually studied World War Two.

I almost started laughing over the following scene in the theatre when I saw the movie. Seems that the pilot, the unctuous and vapid Matthew Modine, couldn’t get a clear view of the target and because he didn’t want to hit a school or hospital so he circles the target again to get his bearings while flak bursts around him. No pilot ever did this. Why? On bombing raids over Europe, USAAF bombers flew closed up in formation, practically wing tip to wing tip, to maximize the potential of their machine guns and further they bombed on the leader. That is to say that the mission commander was in the lead bomber. Since it was almost always cloudy the lead bomber had ground radar and each bomber dropped its bombs the moment the lead plane dropped its bombs. There was no way a lone bomber could circle around the target again since that bomber had already dropped its bombs but also because it couldn’t leave the formation.

(Quotes from Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald Miller)