In Susan Hayward’s summary of David Bordwell in “Classical Hollywood Cinema,” the author relates how the dominant ideology of American culture in the 1930s and 1940s was often conveyed in the films of the era. This particular genre of film follows a narrative tendency towards literalism and dramatic formula over nuance and complexity: “The narrative of [classical Hollywood cinema] reposes upon the triad ‘order/disorder/order-restored,’ also known as disruption/resolution” (Hayward 82). Through these styles of filmmaking, a consistent, accessible reality is created in which to impart the dominant ideology of the time. In the case of The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 William Wyler film about three veterans returning home from World War II, director William Wyler employs this reality-effect to reflect a negotiated message regarding ideas of patriarchy and patriotism, noting the difficulties inherent to adjusting to an America that does not want its veterans back while also problematically presenting patriarchy and marriage as the norm.
According to Hayward, “Ideology is the discourse that invests a nation or society with meaningit is closely aligned to myth” (215). The ruling classes determine dominant ideology, and can control the way a nation sees itself. Cinema is one way to impart ideology, as it is a popular form of art that uses many tricks to tell one cohesive story: “Cinema is an ideological apparatus by nature of its very seamlessness” (Hayward 216). The style of classical Hollywood lends itself to open-and-shut narratives with clear answers and definable concepts: “Classic narrative cinema, no matter what genre, must have closure, that is, the narrative must come to a completion (whether a happy ending or not)” (Hayward 83). Closure is typically the main vehicle for the dominant ideology of the film, as those values and characters that receive closure are ostensibly espoused by the film (Hayward 83). Typically, closure occurs within an Oedipal trajectory, in which said closure involves a marriage, family, and the potential for reproduction (Hayward 83). When a film advocates an ideology it normalizes it – this is typically accomplished through a goal-oriented narrative and characters, showcasing American “upward mobility and success” (Hayward 84). According to Althusserian ideology, subjects of ideology “make ideology have meaning by colluding with and acting according to it,” involving the proletariat in the maintenance of the status quo (Hayward 215). This is done by drawing the audience in through the reality-effect, a style of filmmaking that favors easy consumption through consistent continuity in shots, maintained eyeline and so on, with few stylistic innovations to make the work difficult to read.
William Wyler’s film 1946 relates to many different dominant ideologies, most notably patriarchy and nationalism/patriotism. The film follows three World War II veterans who find their lives intertwining as they adjust to civilian life, a transition that does not come without its difficulties. Throughout this film, the dominant ideologies of post-war American life are critiqued, bringing to light the vapidness and cruelty that men of war can experience even when they are out of the battlefield. While the three veterans are lauded as heroes, they find themselves completely unhappy and rejected by the country that they fought and sacrificed for. Despite this, they are still afforded a great deal of patience and the time to work through their problems, while the women in their lives sit and wait patiently for whatever their husbands or lovers might need from them.
The idealization of war and military veterans is another ideological concept that Wyler disproves in The Best Years of Our Lives; war is shown to ruin men for American society, having no need for them after wartime and no desire to reintegrate them into society. While the three veterans have been scarred by the horrors of war, they still demonstrate a gee-whiz patriotism in the early parts of the film that belies their changed priorities to that of their families and other civilians. Their reaction to seeing all of the grounded warplanes during their flight back fills them with awe and bloodlust: “What we could have done with those in ’43.” These planes are symbolic of the treatment of the veteran; they, like the planes, are being “junked” because they are not needed anymore. Meanwhile, all the veterans can think of is how they could have used them to inflict more damage on the enemy. This is an explicit move made by the text, making it surprisingly progressive for the time in depicting war not as a glorious act, but as something that ruins men and makes them unable to fully come back to real life.
Wyler makes great use of the reality-effect, using the same techniques found in many other classical Hollywood films, to showcase the grim realities of post-war America. For the most part, scenes are shot in continuity, with eye-lines matching and the shots used simply to tell the story of the characters. However, by changing the content to something more critical than the un-ironic jingoism of classical Hollywood, while still using its techniques, Wyler creates a stark portrait of what the war really does to people. Most importantly, Wyler subverts the reality-effect when appropriate to film the veterans and their experience differently from the rest of America; for example, one scene after a huge drinking bender sees Al (Fredric Marsh) wake up, hungover, looking at his bedroom mirror. Wyler frames this shot by showing the audience both Al’s reflection in the large mirror across from the bed, and a smaller mirror on the makeup table, effectively doubling his image. This imagery illustrates his fractured uncertainty about his identity now that he has reintegrated into civilian life; a later shot shows him holding up a framed photo of him before the war and desperately trying to flip his hair back to what it was before. He is unsuccessful, visually illustrating that he is not the man he was before the war.
Despite this progressiveness in showing the difficulties of veterans acclimating to civilian life, Best Years of Our Lives still demonstrates sincere advocacy of some problematic ideas about gender and patriarchy. Many of the chief conflicts the characters face once they get home are family and romance-related; Homer worries that his girlfriend Wilma will no longer be happy with him due to his new injuries, Fred struggles between his contentious marriage with Marie and his budding romance with Al’s daughter Peggy, something Al takes great issue with. Peggy is grilled by Fred about not getting married (“What’s the matter with the guys around here?” he says after learning she is single). The women are surprisingly and disappointingly gracious and patient with the raucous and disruptive behavior of their men; Milly and Peggy play along with the antics of Fred and Al, Wilma provides a constant rock to Homer without any realistic inkling of doubt or uncertainty about their marriage, and so on. On the surface, these aspects may seem admirable, as it shows a nation where at least some of its members are willing to help their vets. However, the framing of this support in romantic relationships and performed by saint-like, virtuous women provides a limited and simplistic view of gender roles, akin to the Madonna-whore complex (where women’s sexuality can only be defined as ‘disgraceful harlot’ or ‘virginal innocent’) . Because of the similarity in role and function of many of the female characters, The Best Years of Our Lives reinforces the submissive role of women in the 1940s American household.
Infidelity is treated along the lines of America’s dominant ideology; men are allowed to be unfaithful, but women who do otherwise are harlots. The suggestion of male infidelity, often thought in dominant ideology to be an intrinsic part of maleness, is playfully joked at during the bar bender: a drunken Al doesn’t recognize Milly as his wife (“In a way, you remind me of my wife”), while Milly, though pained, plays along with it. Meanwhile, Fred, also inebriated, sidles up to Peggy and flirts with her, which she dismisses as drunken behavior. Both of these men demonstrate what is presumed to be the kind of flirtatious behavior they would engage in overseas, in which they may have slept with girls outside of their respective marriages. This implication is made overt during Marie and Fred’s fight about her cheating on him with another man, in which she angrily asks him, “What were you up to in London and Paris and all those places?” In this way, despite her infidelity, she is a much more realistic and respectable women than Milly, Wilma and Peggy, who define themselves entirely in their marital status. When she says, “I gave up the best years of my life for you!” the film frames her as the ungrateful villain; however, her perspective is completely understandable, especially given Fred’s implied infidelity to her during his tour of duty.
The end of the film is bittersweet, and indicates a somewhat happy ending for all three main characters, one achieved through marriage. The film’s final scene takes place during Homer and Wilma’s wedding, in which all the uncertainty and potential conflicts of both marriage and post-war assimilation into civilian society are summarized. In the moment when Homer must put the ring on Wilma’s hand, Wyler cuts to the crowd, watching nervous as Homer grips the ring with his hooks; this shot illustrates the uncertainty with which America views its vets, whom they see as unable to cope with normal life. However, Homer proves them wrong by slipping the ring on her finger perfectly, implying that marriage will effectively heal the wounds inflicted on him by war. This is furthered by the crowd gathering around him to hug, indicating that the community has finally embraced him now that he has followed his ideological instructions to marry.
Marriage is no guarantee of success, but it promises the potential for resolution and closure. In the scene where Homer and Wilma are pronounced man and wife, the crowd gathers around them to hug, leaving Peggy in the deep background left of frame, with Fred staring at her from the foreground. He approaches her and embraces her as well, the shot framing two romances, one beginning and one culminating. While this shot implies the kind of happy Oedipal transitions of other classical Hollywood films, Fred’s lines to Peggy undercuts this with the difficulties of marriage that will remain: “You know what it’ll be, don’t you Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere” However, her simple smile and kiss in response to these difficulties implies that their love will conquer all, giving up her pragmatism to follow the Oedipal transition into familial bliss and closure.
In conclusion, Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is a complex film that is progressive and regressive in the areas of patriarchy and patriotism. Military veterans are both celebrated and feared by the public they fought to protect, throwing them scraps like jobs as salesman and soda jerks in order to get them out of the way. In the meantime, no one knows how to address or relate to the pain and anguish that veterans went through, leading to incredible suffering. While the film offers these same hints at positive outcomes for them in the forms of employment and marriage, it does so in a simplistic way, with the female characters being treated as simple-minded and one-dimensionally supportive, Marie’s infidelity being the one act of true agency committed by a woman in the film.
Hayward, Susan. Classical Hollywood Cinema and Ideology. Print.
Wyler, William. (dir.) The Best Years of Our Lives. Perf. Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell. MGM, 1946. Film.