The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives

“This is the only thing I’ve ever seen where the picture started and three minutes later I was dissolved in tears, and I cried for two hours plus after that. That was the opening sequence in The Best Years of Our Lives. The moment that that guy without his arms was standing there with the back to the camera and the parents came out, I was gone. And I’m not a pushower, believe me [pause] I laugh at Hamlet.”

Billy Wilder


“There are no favorite settings or landscapes for Wyler. At most, there is an evident fondness for psychological scenarios set against social backgrounds. Yet, even though Wyler has become a master at treating this kind of subject, adapted either from a novel like Jezebel or a play like The Little Foxes, even though his work as a whole leaves us with the piercing and rigorous impression of a psychological analysis, it does not call to mind sumptuously eloquent images suggesting a formal beauty that would demand serious consideration. The style of a director cannot be defined, however, only in terms of his predilection for psychological analysis and social realism, even less so here since we are not dealing with original scripts.

And yet, I do not think that it is more difficult to recognize the signature of Wyler in just a few shots than it is to recognize the signatures of Ford, Fritz Lang, or Hitchcock. I would even go so far as to say that the director of The Best Years of Our Lives is among those who have least often employed the tricks of the trade at the expense of genuine style. Whereas Capra, Ford, or Lang occasionally indulges in self-parody, Wyler never does so: when he goes wrong, it is because he has made a bad choice. He has occasionally been inferior to himself, his taste is not absolutely to be trusted, and he seems to be capable sometimes of being a sincere admirer of Henry Bernstein or the like, but he has never been caught in the act of cheating on the form. There is a John Ford style and a John Ford manner. Wyler has only a style. That is why he is proof against parody, even of himself. Imitation of Wyler by other directors would not pay off, because Wyler’s style cannot be defined by any precise form, any lighting design, any particular camera angle. The only way to imitate Wyler would be to espouse the kind of directing ethic to be found in its purest form in The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler cannot have imitators, only disciples.”


“Film is not at all, as Marcel Pagnol naively would have it, magnified theater on screen, the stage viewed constantly through opera glasses. The size of the image or unity of time has nothing to do with it. Cinema begins when the frame of the screen and the placement of the camera are used to enhance the action and the actor. In The Little Foxes, Wyler has changed almost nothing of the drama, of the text, or even the set: one could say that he limited himself to directing the play in the way that a theater director would have directed it, and furthermore, that he used the frame of the screen to conceal certain parts of the set and used the camera to bring the viewer closer to the action. What actor would not dream of being able to play a scene, immobile on a chair, in front of 5,000 viewers who don’t miss the slightest movement of an eye? What theater director would not want the spectator in the worst seat at the back of the house to be able to see clearly the movements of his actors, and to read with ease his intentions at any moment in the action? Wyler didn’t choose to do anything other than realize on film the essence of a theatrical mise en scène that would not use the lights and the set to ornament the actor and the text. Nevertheless, there is probably not a single shot in Jezebel, The Little Foxes, or The Best Years of Our Lives that is not pure cinema.”

André Bazin1

  • 1André Bazin, “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing” from Bazin at Work. Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties (London: Routledge, 2014), 1-18.
UPDATED ON 11.10.2017