A Homefront Picture

No warning shots are fired across the bow, no prisoners taken or Flanders fields crossed, but William Wyler’s homefront picture, The Best Years of Our Lives — about three veterans returning from World War II — is a battle film through and through. It has that same fragile toughness we’ve come to expect from our troops, that same inner salient where memory and duty fight it out to a draw. But it does not begin and end, Saving Private Ryan-style, by the battering waves of Omaha Beach, or travel into Apocalypse Now’s addled heart of darkness. It takes place in middle-American Boone City, a mythical place of soda fountains and parking lots where GIs looking for a loan are “gambling on the future of this country.”

By turns pious, moving, sentimental and tough; sprawling, claustrophobic, mincing and unflinching; too careful, too long, too overtly heroic, not even close to unhappy in the final determination, it is still better than “decent and humane” (David Thomson’s faint praise) — and far more than the “schmaltz” Manny Farber saw. Frederic March captured a vulnerability he had never before displayed. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography gave the mundane a layer of suburban chaos, suggesting that the American order was not as neat as the vets (or their women) would have hoped. And those women: Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, appropriately frustrated and loving, tidying up after a man’s mess, leading lives they wish resembled those of the years before the war just a little more.

What works is the tale’s soft sorrow, the tender disappointment of a hero’s welcome leading inevitably to a sense that even a war’s survivors lose something vital, something they may never fully reclaim — to the touchy, touching notion that Boone City is a salient unto itself, where the battle continues apace.

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