After watching a film, viewers come away with an immediate reaction. They either like the film or they don’t, and this reception value often indicates the likelihood that the film will be dismissed or praised, based on this initial value found in experiencing the film itself (Carroll 56). But beyond this initial taking to a film, there are other measures of success that are more indicative of a longer lasting relevance. Such success in remaining relevant can be found in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The timeless nature of this film’s appeal rests not only in good filmmaking and intelligent casting, but in the film’s portrayals of conflict with authority.
When coming home from fighting in World War II, many veterans found their country to not be the place they remembered. While they were away fighting, the country was moving on without them. A dichotomy arose between the mentality of those at home and the head space that those who had been away at war were in. The Best Years of Our Lives expertly captures the struggle of reconciling one’s sense of identity from the war with the new context of post-war America. This identity crisis caused for each of the film’s characters arises from a conflict with authority. These servicemen find themselves suddenly in an America where ranks and badges mean nothing when it comes to getting a job or a loan.
The character of Al Stephenson finds himself in conflict with the authority figure of the bank he works for. When coming back from the war, Al is luckier than many in that he is offered a position to continue working at the bank he had been working for before the war. His new position, however, puts him in charge of dispersing loans to veterans such as himself under the GI Bill. The conflict comes in when he begins to feel pulled between his loyalty to the bank to make sound financial decisions and his loyalty to the men who served like him and now desperately need loans. In an act of defiance, he gives a loan to a man with no tangible collateral which is something he is admonished for by his boss at first. Al later makes a drunken toast at a work dinner where he argues for his methods as an investment in the country’s future. In the face of skepticism and at great risk to his own career, Al does not change his position, despite pressure being put on him by the authority figure of the bank.
The character of Fred Derry finds himself in a conflict with alternative perceptions of authority. During the war, he was a successful captain in the Air Force who was well decorated for his acts of bravery. His rank placed him in a position of power and prestige, with men who were at his command. Upon returning home, however, these measures of power mean nothing as he finds his job prospects no better than during his days as a soda jerk before the war. Here the authority figure of the American economy and limited job market serve as a reality check in terms of Fred’s sense of worth. This reaches a pinnacle when he punches a man at his workplace for making a comment about men who died during the war being suckers. Though the comment instigated this, the act was a symbolic reaction to all the frustrations felt by Fred as a result of his situation and treatment at work by his boss and other figures of authority who took away his feelings of control over his own life.
The character of Homer Parrish finds himself in conflict with an authority figure, but one which is more conceptual in nature. Having lost his arms during the war, Homer is significantly less reminiscent of his past boyish athletic self. Additionally detrimental to his assimilation into life back at home, besides the already existing difficulties, is the reaction of those closest to him to the mechanical prosthesis he now wears. The authority figure here that Homer is in conflict with is the prevailing societal attitudes towards handicap, especially in men as their normative role as bread winners places this additional stigma on lack of physical ability. In the end, the romantic relationship he has with Wilma is able to transcend this difficulty as only Hollywood knows how.
Even on the home front in a domestic family setting, there are portrayals of conflict against authority as evidenced by the character of Peggy. The authority figure she is in conflict with is that of her parents, who disapprove of the relationship she develops with Fred Derry. Her father Al goes so far as to personally intervene by asking Fred not to see Peggy anymore, bringing up questions of what is morally more deeply justified between a man pursuing love and a father protecting the emotions of his daughter. The relationship between Fred and Al becomes tarnished by this encounter and Peggy ultimately reconnects with Fred only after some time has passed and Fred’s divorce removes the skepticism of Peggy’s parents.
In The Best Years of Our Lives, the conflicts against authority come out of the issues of forcing together two competing systems of power. The hierarchies that exist in a military during a war and those that exist in a capitalistic society outside of a war are unrelated and thus create tension when a person is thrown from one into another. To be transitioned from a system where acts of bravery earn you medals to one where you must beg for a job from someone who has never seen a plane before is a conflicting experience. If anything, the arbitrary nature of the acquisition of authority for any given individual indicates the subjective nature by which power can be achieved and further explores the frustrations of individuals who find themselves unable to succeed within a certain power system. It is this portrayal of the struggle with one’s sense of identity brought about by conflict with authority that we can identify with in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives.
Curator: Monica Mukherjee