The Best Years of Our Lives by Sarah Kozloff, London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 110 pp.
Part of my admiration for this intelligent and judicious contribution to the BFI Film Classics — a series that by now may qualify as the most successful and title-heavy book series in the history of film criticism, perhaps in any language — is my conviction, which I share with Kozloff, that William Wyler’s 1946, 171-minute masterpiece about returning American soldiers after the end of WW2 is, existentially speaking, a rare and almost unprecedented act of witness and social conscience for a Hollywood feature.
Many of the best American film critics have been either divided (James Agee and Manny Farber) or chiefly negative (Robert Warshow) about this picture. Interestingly enough, Farber went all the way from an almost unqualified rave in 1946 to calling the movie “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz” nine years later – maybe because by then he was rebelling against the Oscar-laden mainstream approval – but I think he was right the first time. (In 1957, he was using his disdain to illustrate the maxim, “No one asks the critics’ alliance to look straight backward at its `choices,’” without clarifying that he was part of that original alliance.) But like Kosloff, I suppose I value the film most of all because of some version of the liberal schmaltz Farber decried — one which might be called nostalgia, even though I was only three years old when this movie came out: “Once there was a time,” she writes, “when a Hollywood movie could draw the whole country to the theatres and speak to their hearts.”
But she isn’t blind to some of the contradictions involved in this process.It’s chilling to learn from this book that Harold Russell, the real-life veteran with hooks for arms who won one of the film’s seven Oscars, was paid only $6,000 for his participation, while three of the other leads received $100,000 each and Wyler earned $180,000 plus 20 per cent of the net profits.