William Wyler’s 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives, is about soldiers’ hardships in reintegrating into society after war. Specifically, the main character Fred is struggling with creating his place in society because he has no previous social status outside of being a soldier. This character’s struggle to move away from the soldier’s uniform status represents the final transition in my analysis. While the uniform is a positive aspect during the war by creating indivisibility, men suffer consequences after the war from its uniformity. As Dr. Timothy Parsons explains, “the institutionalized power embedded in uniforms also [makes] men vulnerable to appropriation” (362); their newly created identity and status is stripped away when the uniform is taken off. Thus, Fred struggles with putting away his uniform because his social status declines as he dons street clothing. This conflict is seen through the interaction of Fred’s uniform with the setting; each scene is a tangible demonstration of his rise and fall in status in society.
The first scene that refers to Fred’s impeding status decline is in the cab with Al and Homer, on the way home for the first time since the war ended. While in the confines of the car, Fred is looked up to by the other men. They are still considered active soldiers at this point, and between the three of them Fred is the highest ranking officer. Yet as the cab drops off the other two men first, viewers see their social status outside of life as soldiers. It is ironic that while Al and Homer’s statuses rise in their homecoming, in contrast Fred’s social status degrades as a civilian. It becomes apparent Fred wants to hide this reality when he declines Al’s offer to be dropped off first. He then relies on his soldier status to decline Al’s offer to pay the cab fare, declaring “you’re outranked.” Fred’s upcoming social status shift is foreshadowed as Al says goodbye to Fred. While Fred’s status in the car is highest, as seen in the picture below, when Fred leans out of the car he is looking up to Al’s salute. Thus, in postwar society Al is above Fred. Furthermore, the fact that Al is bending down to Fred’s level to accept his being outranked indicates that Al is also conscious of still being in uniform, having not yet entered postwar society.
As Fred leaves in the cab, he looks back at Al standing on the street. Since Fred is back inside the cab, he returns to his high uniform status once again; he has not reentered his place in society as a civilian yet. Seen in the picture below, the camera makes Fred look larger than life as he takes up almost half of the shot. In contrast, Al is only portrayed as a fraction of the size. This large image of Fred conveys he is again the most prominent soldier between the two of them. In addition, the lighting in the shot focuses around Fred, while Al’s image is left in shadow. This use of lighting contributes to the delivery that Fred is the more important soldier. In this shot, his uniform is emphasized to symbolize “the exclusive social distinctions of soldiers” from the rest of society (Clifford 364). While in the car and in his uniform, Fred is still considered an active soldier, and thus looked up to by the public as an ideal citizen.
Fred first tries to physically remove his soldier status when he arrives at his wife’s apartment. The scene begins with his wife on the phone gushing about how amazing Fred is and wanting to show him off in his “snappy uniform.” Yet when she opens the door for Fred, she is clearly unimpressed because he arrives in a suit, not in his uniform. She greets him by saying, “wholly smokes, this is the first time I think I have ever seen you in civilian clothes.” When he fires back that he will never wear the uniform again, she faces him with her arms jutting out in an unwelcome way. As seen in the picture below, Marie is standing in a hostile way while Fred is standing proudly in his new civilian suit. Between them is their marriage picture, indicating that their happiness is only recognized when Fred plays the part of a soldier in uniform. In addition, the way the door and the shutter angle towards them signals this confrontation as a pivotal moment in deciding whether Fred’s civilian social status is adequate for Marie. As she stands with an unhappy demeanor, she foreshadows the upcoming problems that end their marriage because of his lowered status.
The first objection Marie utters about his status change occurs as Fred tries to put his soldier uniform in the closet; Marie begs him to wear it instead of his suit when they go out to dinner. As seen in the picture below, Fred is surrounded in a way that conveys the pressure on him to hold onto his previous military status. In front of him is the clothes rack where he tries to put his uniform, and beside him Marie hangs on his arm. Behind him though, the folded up bed creates the image of jail bars. The bars behind Fred highlight his claustrophobic feeling in knowing the uniform is the only item that gives him a high social standing in post-war society. Fred is literally forced into the bars when he refuses Marie’s demand to don his high status uniform. As the bars are unyielding to his weight, it proves Fred cannot get away from the uniform at the moment. Emphasizing this point, when he again puts on his soldier uniform, Marie states she can now recognize him, saying “you finally look like yourself.”
The scene Fred begins accepting to his status exchange to a civilian’s is when Homer visits him when he is working as a soda jerk. A customer comes in and identifies Homer as a veteran, calling him “soldier.” He compliments Homer, saying he “has plenty of guts,” even though viewers know from previous conversation that Homer never sees much action during the war. In contrast, the customer ignores Fred because Fred is not wearing his soldier uniform. When the customer states that “we fought on the wrong side” and Homer becomes angry, Fred tries to intervene. The customer then says to Fred, “who do you think you are? Every soda jerk in this country has got the idea that he’s somebody.” This statement conveys that Fred has no status without his uniform, and is only seen as an insignificant soda jerk.
His lowered status can be visually seen in the way Fred blends in with his bland workplace surroundings. Seen in the picture below, the shot includes many parallels and straight lines. There is the bar and the overhang that run parallel. In addition, viewers see the line of stools and the edge of the aisles making straight lines. There are also twofold images present in the shot; there are two overhead lights, two customers, and two soda jerks all running parallel to each other. This setting complements Fred’s new social status because everything is featureless and merges together. Nothing in the still is meant to stand out or give the impression that one of the person’s is important. Fred easily blends because his new work uniform helps to create his persona of an anonymous worker in the store. All of the lines and parallels in the shot indicate his social status will remain low as he continues to work as a soda jerk.
By Kelsey Knight