When Wyler came back

This past Tuesday evening Turner Classic Movies put the World War II work of William Wyler in its September Spotlight. Wyler is one of the directors starring in Mark Harris’s Five Came Back on the great Hollywood directors who contributed their services to the war effort. Harris’s book is a deeply researched work of popular narrative history. If there is a bloody crossroads at which art and politics meet, Harris has found an illuminating byway. On Tuesday evenings this month TCM has featured the work of these directors with an assist from Harris. This month’s Spotlight series concludes next Tuesday with the work of George Stevens.

Tuesday night’s highlight was TCM’s showing of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives with Harris’s introduction. It is an unforgettable film with a lot of truth and a big heart. It’s also a movie every American should see. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to try to catch up with it on the TCM mobile app that includes the film with Harris’s intro. Harris tells the highly improbable story behind the making of the film in his book. The Best Years of Our Lives provides a sort of postwar capstone to the history.

Making a film portraying veterans returning to their lives at home was Samuel Goldwyn’s idea; he commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay. Instead Kantor turned in a treatment in blank verse.

Goldwyn somehow thought to solicit playwright and Rooosevelt confidant Robert Sherwood to draft a screenplay based on Kantor’s treatment. Sherwood declined, but Goldwyn persisted. Goldwyn also turned to William Wyler — one of the five who came back in Harris’s telling — to direct. Wyler enlisted the great cinematographer Gregg Toland to film it, and Toland’s contribution was invaluable.

Wyler had virtually lost his hearing while serving on the Memphis Belle in Europe during the war. He jumped at Goldwyn’s offer and worked with Sherwood to shape the screenplay. Indeed, as Harris demonstrates, Wyler poured himself into the film and each of its three leading characters. “As they collaborated,” Harris writes, “The Best Years of Our Lives gradually evolved into Wyler’s own story.”

If you’ve seen the film, you haven’t forgotten the performance of Harold Russell. While serving as an Army instructor, Russell had lost his hands handling explosives in a training accident. In the film his efforts to return to his prewar life hold a special challenge.

Goldwyn doubted that they would be able to find an amputee to play the role and said so in his pungent style: “You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen.” The disabled veterans visited by Wyler in search of the right man to play the part shared Goldwyn’s skepticism.

Wyler found Russell in a documentary made during the war. (The documentary is posted online here.) Harris quotes Russell’s words in the documentary: “I got my [my injury] on D-Day, all right, but it was in North Carolina when half a pound of TNT exploded ahead of schedule. I didn’t have a German scalp hanging from my belt. I didn’t have a Purple Heart. I didn’t even have an overseas ribbon. All I had was no hands.” It wasn’t long before he had an Academy Award (actually, two of them) for his performance in the film, which swept the Oscars for 1946.

Russell lived a long life, dying in 2002. Here is his New York Times obituary.

Below is a trailer edited (I think) by a YouTube poster. If you’ve seen the film, it will remind you of its power. If you haven’t, I hope it might entice you to do so.


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