In the aftermath of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book The Greatest Generation, it’s hard to imagine—at least for those of us born two generations later—the experience and reception of World War II veterans returning to the home front as being plagued by the sort of ambivalence, disillusionment, and dislocation that we associate with the struggles of veterans returning from Vietnam. But it’s also hard to imagine the story being so simple and uniform in either case; after all, where do these associations come from? We all know the “spitting image” of Vietnam war vets being taunted and spat on by hippies as they returned from serving overseas, but few people realize how long it took for that image to take shape, or that very few vets publicly recounted and virtually no media outlets reported such confrontations during the war or in the first decade after it. That doesn’t mean these abuses didn’t happen, or even that they weren’t widespread; it just underscores the power of collective memory to subsume contemporary individual experience and to package our perceptions thereafter.
Likewise, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a majestic and moving film about the lives of three fictional returning World War II vets released in the immediate aftermath of the war in 1946, stands sharply at odds with the way we understand that generation’s postwar experience today. The psychological trauma that the servicemen undergo in Wyler’s film is well-understood—even if one of them laughs it off as being “nervous from the service” before succumbing to recurring nightmares of a horrific bombing run. But the indifference to their plight, the lack of opportunity, and the outright contempt thrown their way by much of the civilian world they come home to is something that few people of my generation would have expected to happen to veterans of a war that everyone but Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and America’s most extreme nativists and isolationists were supposed to have supported with unilateral vehemence. The way I’ve always pictured it, these guys came home to cheering crowds, parades, loving families, and high-wage working-class jobs in a full-fledged industrial boom that gave rise to the most prosperous country the world had ever seen.
And the fact that one acclaimed film from the 1940s portrays it differently doesn’t mean that it wasn’t so. But it’s not just the devastating realism of nonactor and real-life veteran and amputee Harold Russell’s performance as hook-handed sailor Homer Parrish, or wives and husbands sharing beds on-screen, that make this 64-year-old film about the struggles of life back in the world seem disarmingly contemporary.
The most compelling thing about The Best Years of Our Lives is not the pitch-perfect, Oscar-winning screenplay (even with indelible lines such as, “They oughta put you in mass production”). Nor is it the ever-glorious screen presence of Myrna Loy, the virtuoso performance of Hoagy Carmichael, or the surprising story it tells of the returning servicemen: Air Force pilot Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), who can barely get back his pre-war job as a soda jerk; infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a career banker, who comes home to the unhappy task of refusing collateral-less ex-GIs small farm and business loans; and disabled Homer Parrish, who can no longer differentiate love from pity.
What makes The Best Years of Our Lives so remarkable is the way Wyler tells the story—or, more precisely, the way the peerless camerawork of cinematographer Gregg Toland (best-known for his work on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane 5 years earlier) brings the story to screen. Interestingly, at the heart of Toland’s technique is an approach that’s pretty much the opposite of the hottest trend in camerawork in our industry today for those trying to wring a story arc out of weddings and events: Toland’s style is built on deep focus rather than the shallow depth of field that we generally think of distinguishing cinematic-style shooting from its less sophisticated and textured counterparts in the video world. In Toland’s work, propelled by his mastery of the “master shot,” the multiple planes of a shot are all in focus simultaneously, and rack-focusing from one plane to another is nonexistent.
Deep focus in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives or Citizen Kane is anything but unsophisticated. It’s extremely challenging to pull off because it requires much more attention to staging than is common in contemporary films (or in other films of Toland’s day, for that matter, that rely primarily on tighter shots and shallower focus). In The Best Years of Our Lives, we see incidents in Butch’s Bar, the legendary “I’m going to break up that marriage” scene, and in the wedding scene at the end when significant action is happening in multiple planes of the on-screen image at once, and where the primary action actually moves from one plane to another without a cut or a change in focus or focal length. Much as I admire what feature and wedding filmmakers alike do with shallow depth of field, I find Toland’s deep focus a much more appealing storytelling method because it’s less manipulative of the viewer. Instead of forcing the audience to focus on a specific element of a scene by pulling it into focus (and blurring everything else), deep focus depends more on the power of the story or the action happening in one area of the screen to draw the viewer’s attention to it. It’s more human, more real, more evocative of a world where significant moments in multiple lives happen at once, and more enveloping as a dramatic technique, and it seems to be an almost entirely lost art in cinema today.
In a film with overlapping stories of great personal pathos such as The Best Years of Our Lives, the deep focus technique also affirms the stories’ interconnectedness, as the camera is able to move from one conversation and one story to another without a change in focus or a cut. And in the wrenching scene when Al Stephenson delivers his conflicted, drunken speech to the Corn Belt Savings and Loan’s board of trustees, it allows us to feel the speech’s impact on Al’s wife, his boss, and the members of the board by keeping all of their eyes in focus as his ramblings progress from besotted inappropriateness to uncomfortable truth.
I’d read a bit about Toland’s approach and, of course, had seen Citizen Kane before I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. In fact, I rented the film specifically to study the technique, so there’s no question I was looking for it, and I wonder if I would have been consciously aware of it otherwise. Deep focus is a cinematic style that calls attention to itself much less than one that’s built on low-depth imagery, rack-focus moves, and more frequent cuts between multiple cameras shooting the same scene. And telling a compelling story without calling attention to the tools or techniques with which it’s told should be the goal of every filmmaker (with the exception of formalists such as Quentin Tarantino, whose express purpose is, at least in part, to expose and deconstruct technique and genre).
The Best Years of Our Lives’ most unforgettable shot happens shortly before the end of the film in the boneyard, where fighter planes are being systematically dismantled for scrap (ultimately to be used for prefab housing—how better to evoke a nation so quickly and callously moving on?). I don’t know where I’ve seen this shot’s equal, outside of the battlefield hospital shot in Gone With the Wind.
But the perfect encapsulation of the power of Toland’s deep focus technique comes in the final scene of the movie, where the wedding of two characters ultimately brings about the reunion of two others. The subtle but unmistakable shift in focus happens entirely within the wide master shot of the wedding couple as they’re swarmed by their guests. Even as our attention is fully redirected to the kiss of the reunited lovers, the camera never moves.
All of which makes me wonder if this deep focus approach isn’t a natural for work in our industry. All the raw material is there: the people, the staging, the heady emotional mix, and so many eyes conveying so very much. But the challenges are also unignorable: You need lots of light and a small aperture (or multiple composited shots) to create a compelling Toland-style master shot. But the bigger barrier is the momentum of onrushing trends moving at breakneck pace in the opposite direction. Is it possible to use deep focus so evocatively in wedding filmmaking in the heyday of DSLRs, an era defined by shallow depth of field, focus pulls, close-ups, cuts, and multi-angle coverage? Or does our era really have to be defined so sharply, or so narrowly? Here’s hoping someone among us does try the Toland route sometime soon, and that the effort doesn’t get blurred out in the shallow-focus collective memory that ultimately packages our time for future generations.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EventDVLive and program director of EventDV-TV.com.