Fenwick Archive  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page

James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

(2 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 22, 2 June 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Spring along the Rhine in 1945 was almost like a spring of one’s youth, full of tenderness and promise. The end of the war was visible only a few weeks away, and for the first time in many a month one could, without presumption, begin to dream of living, and of home.

At Bonn, where we were stationed, a friend brought me a bound volume of a Cologne magazine for 1918. There in pictures was the whole tragic last act of the First World War, alienated by time but yet so familiar. I turned to November. I stopped before a simple picture of a German soldier and his wife clasped in each other’s arms. Beneath the picture was the single word: Wiedersehen. I read no more that day.


The theme of the film The Best Years of Our Lives is a moving one – the soldier’s homecoming, older than the dream of “Odysseus, yearning to see but the smoke drift above his own house.” If a simple picture in the yellowing pages of a German magazine could exert such emotional tides, I often thought, what could not the movies do with such a theme. For the movie is certainly one of the great art media of our times, a synthesis of all the arts, direct, concrete, omnipresent, infinitely flexible, multisensuous, unfolding in the deeply receptive pre-natal dark of the theater.

Caveat Emptor

To a movie on a theme such as this a person would like to come in a mood of the deepest peace and the deepest surrender. One would like to do what it is almost never possible to do in life – turn oneself over completely to another person, an idea, a tide of emotion, achieving therein the rare catharsis wrought by any work of art. But one has been so often deceived. It is impossible to approach the Hollywood product without reservations.

In the case of The Best Years of Our Lives the suspicion, the firm grasp on the reins of our emotions, is fully justified. That a critic like James Agee, writing in the Nation, could say “... yet this is one of the very few American studio-made movies in years that seems to me profoundly pleasing, moving, and encouraging” is witness only to the difficulty of isolating one’s self from the cultural mores of our times, the suggestive, if not quite actual, merit of several touching scenes which rise above Hollywood norms, and, I suspect, a little cowardice on Agee’s part in dealing with the veteran question.

The ruling Ideas of each age,” says Marx, “have ever been the ideas of Its ruling class.” The movies, being a medium of mass narcosis, whatever may be true of books, magazines, or papers of limited circulation such as Labor Action, for instance, cannot bring in contravention the leading ideas.of the ruling class. And thereby the film under . capitalism cannot touch the real world, since to portray it truly is to expose it.

Were capitalism in the United States in extremis at the present time more concessions to truth might have to be made, more concepts brought under examination, but even so, with questionable exceptions the film, like a piece of music, would have to be harmoniously resolved on the final note.

Under capitalism the movie is only incidentally an art form. It is primarily a commodity designed for mass consumption and must therefore conform to marketable mass emotional norms. That is, it can have neither subtlety, complexity, intensity, or depth. It must, in our society, like the early Ford, be simple, easily comprehended by all.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best Years of Our Lives is a product of this intellectual climate. Its thesis is that this is the best of all possible worlds, one in which everything turns out all right for the veteran.

In a thousand and one little ways, a hazy atmosphere Is created which blurs the outlines of the real world. Every moment is contrived (consciously or not) to reinforce the capitalist mythos: if problems exist, then they are personal ones, not political or social, and can be solved by good will; the United States is a great frontier democracy where the wealthy and the (temporarily) poor mingle in common fraternity. And so on.

The plot can be very quickly summarized: A former banker, recently a sergeant in a rifle company, returns home. He is placed in charge of the small loan department of his bank. After a brief crisis he establishes a policy of making loans to veterans with honest faces and manners but no collateral. An air corps captain, a slum product, returns, discovers his wife is a floozy, and marries the banker’s daughter. A sailor who lost his hands in the service comes back and ultimately marries the girl to whom he was engaged.

Thus divested of the Hollywood increment – the photography, the familiar settings, the big names, the titillation of sex, the real problem of thg real amputee, Harold Russell, the movie’s length, the familiar minutiae of daily existence – the story seems very banal indeed.

A little inspection will show just how banal this two-hour and forty-five minute fairy tale is.

(To be continued)

Fenwick Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12 October 2022