Craving Classic Hollywood: William Wyler

Last week I finished reading Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Naturally, I was left with the desire to watch some of the films discussed in the book. Director William Wyler is an interesting case because he made films about the war just before and after his own involvement. In Mrs. Miniver (1942), he tells the story of a British family’s struggles on the homefront, and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) takes an honest look at the experiences of returning American veterans.

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Returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives

Before the war, Wyler made mostly period dramas, including three films with Bette Davis. I had previously watched Jezebel (1938), one of the Davis collaborations, which fits my impression of his early films as emotionally engrossing but rather dreamy affairs. It seems clear that Wyler’s time as a war documentarian influenced him to strip some of the artifice from his films. Only four years elapsed between Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, but there is a maturation in Wyler’s conception of war’s cost. Thankfully, he retained his desire to find beauty in the small human moments of a larger story.

Mrs. Miniver follows an English family from the onset of war and their eldest son’s enlistment through bombings of their village. Filmed several months before Pearl Harbor, the film portrays the stoicism and good humor in the face of hardship that are often used to characterize the British war effort. The opening sequence shows Mrs. Miniver, played by Greer Garson, agonizing over whether to buy an expensive hat. Of course, she will soon be cured of this prewar frivolity! Although the Minivers are clearly well-off themselves, we also see some old-fashioned classism when Mrs. Miniver encounters Lady Beldon, the local aristocrat who doesn’t approve of middle class ladies buying expensive clothes. Perhaps the war will make you change your attitudes, Lady Beldon.

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Waiting for the bombs in Mrs. Miniver

After enlisting with the Air Force and traveling to London, Wyler felt that he got some of the details wrong in Mrs. Miniver. The film certainly has a Hollywood gloss, and most of the actors speak with the ambiguous Transatlantic accent that was common in films. However, Wyler’s focus on the human side of warfare make it an effective story all the same. Greer Garson is a plucky homefront matriarch, but she fears for her son’s safety as he becomes an RAF pilot. One of the most moving scenes takes place in the family’s bomb shelter, where Mr. and Mrs. Miniver attempt to have a normal conversation as the bombs draw closer.

Four years later, The Best Years of Our Lives follows three veterans returning to their hometown at the end of the war. Although the men come from different walks of life, they meet on the journey home and continue a friendship as they adjust to their new lives. That is, their old lives that can never be quite the same. Al struggles to become reacquainted with his wife and nearly grown children, while Fred returns to the woman he married just weeks before shipping out. The biggest adjustment is for Homer, played by an actual disabled veteran, who lost his hands in the Navy. Working closely with the screenwriter, Wyler wove his own experiences into each storyline.

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Fred and his disillusioned wife in The Best Years of Our Lives

Dana Andrews, also the star of my beloved Laura (1944), plays Fred Derry. Although he was a decorated bombardier during the war, Fred comes from a poor family and an unglamorous job at the soda fountain. His wife is practically a stranger, and she comments disapprovingly that she’s never seen him out of uniform before. Of course, the central struggle for these men is to adapt to a life that is not defined by their military service. One quiet scene shows Homer’s father helping him change into pajamas while he smokes a cigarette. His face is the picture of youthful manliness, but in that moment his helplessness is also revealed. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives reach a level of vulnerability that is never seen in Mrs. Miniver.

William Wyler made movies for another two decades after the war. His work includes my favorite Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday (1953). Before and after the war, he knew how to find beauty in the world and in people. I could easily have written individual posts about these films, but pairing them felt like the ultimate crash course in Wyler. The man who showed the Minivers singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in a bomb-damaged church is certainly the same one who followed Fred Derry through a field of discarded fighter planes. Together these films portray bravery, sacrifice, and what comes after that.

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