I've been reading up on the production of Ben-Hur, as well as the director himself William Wyler. I came across an interview with Wyler in 1946 from the New York Times, and I've pasted it below.
“The Best Years of Our Lives”
William Wyler and His Screen Philosophy
By Thomas M. Pryor
November 17, 1946
The New York Times
When William Wyler was last interviewed in September, 1945, as he was about to return to directing films in Hollywood after serving three years in the Army Air Forces, he frankly admitted that he was ''scared.'' His anxiety was not alleviated by thoughts of the Academy ''Oscar'' he had won in 1941 with ''Mrs. Miniver.'' In fact, that distinction served to heighten his apprehension of the Hollywood axiom that a director is only as good as his last picture, because, as things work out, each successive undertaking becomes in turn that fateful last picture. Thus it wasn't what he had done, but what he was about to do which would really matter. ''I with,'' he said at the time, ''that I could go back quietly and make a small picture just to get the feel of things.''
But he couldn't do that. He was committed to make a picture right off for Samuel Goldwyn in order to terminate a pre-war contract. Moreover, he had then just organized a new independent producing company, Liberty Films, Inc., in association with Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel J. Briskin. Like himself, those gentlemen also had absented themselves from Hollywood to help out in the war effort. Being thoroughly versed in the foibles of Hollywood, he reasoned that since his picture for Goldwyn would be out first, the movie colony's estimation of Liberty would blow hot or cold, depending on the showing he made.
Fourteen months and the completion of ''The Best Years of Our Lives'' has restored Mr. Wyler's self-confidence. The other afternoon he chatted freely and with the assurance that befits an accomplished craftsman who has enriched the screen with such pictures as ''Dead End,'' ''These Three,'' ''Dodsworth,'' ''Wuthering Heights'' and ''The Little Foxes,'' in collaboration with Samuel Goldwyn; ''Mrs. Miniver,'' for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; ''The Letter,'' for Warner Brothers, and the brilliant documentary of a bombing mission over Germany, ''The Memphis Belle,'' for the Army Air Forces.
Mr. Wyler discovered during the making of ''The Best Years of Our Lives,'' which opens on Thursday at the Astor Theatre, that no appreciable differences in technique had been developed during his absence. He speaks with confidence, devoid of any trace of braggadocio, of the picture as the fulfillment of a deep-rooted personal obligation to do something ''worthwhile,'' as ''the best'' film he has yet made and ''the most important'' in terms of what it has to say.
''The Best Years of Our Lives'' tells of the homecoming of three veterans to the same town. There is a middle-aged sergeant (Fredric March), with a wife and grown son and daughter and a good job awaiting him. There is an Air Forces captain, a lead bombardier (Dana Andrews), who has outgrown his pre-war job as drug store soda jerker, returning to a philandering wife whom he married before going overseas. There is a disabled sailor (Harold J. Russell, a non-professional who was incapacitated in the Army), who was a star athlete in high school and lost both hands.
''This is the kind of picture I couldn't possibly have made and done with conviction if I had not been in the war myself,'' said Mr. Wyler. ''If Sam (Goldwyn) had handed me this story five years ago I would have had to say, if I didn't want to make a fool of myself, 'Wait just a minute! I'll join the Army and come back in three years after I get to know these characters.''' As Mr. Wyler thinks back over some of his earlier pictures, he realized that he didn't understand the characters well enough. ''But I know these fellows,'' he continued. ''I've come home twice myself from the war and I know just how these fellows would feel and act. One character is very much like myself in the sense he comes back to a nice family, a good job and a little money. This fellow has lived with the same woman for twenty years, yet he feels a bit strange and out of place at first. No man can walk right into the house after two or three years and pick up his life as before.
''I explained all my own fears and problems to Bob (Robert E.) Sherwood, who wrote the script, and he worked them in just the way I wanted them. He did a wonderful job in weaving the characters together. Writing the script was like doing an original story. The three characters we have now are not at all like the ones MacKinlay Kantor had in his book 'Glory For Me,' which he wrote at the suggestion of Mr. Goldwyn. Kantor's story was good for 1944-45, but we wanted a story that would stand up in 1946-47. Our toughest problem was shaping the character of the disabled veteran. We had a spastic case first, but I realized such a character would never ring true; that no actor, no matter how great his talent, could play a spastic with conviction.
''One day while I was looking at some Signal Corps films about disabled veterans I saw 'Diary of a Sergeant,' which showed a fellow who had lost both hands trying to get accustomed to hooks, artificial hands. I knew that he was to be our sailor. Bob Sherwood agreed with me and we approached Goldwyn, fully believing that he would reject the suggestion as too gruesome. But he saw what we were driving at and said 'Go ahead.' We decided to take up this boy where 'Diary of a Sergeant' left him and show him returning home fully readjusted and determined to live among other people and to act like them in every respect. We wanted to show people that these disabled men were thoroughly capable of doing ordinary things with artificial hands; that we, in fact, are the ones who are maladjusted, since we annoy and embarrass them with our patronizing attentions.
''I sought out Harold Russell for our film. He never was overseas but he was a war casualty just the same. He lost both hands in an accidental explosion in an Army training camp in Georgia. After seeing him in 'Diary of a Sergeant,' I knew no one else could play the role. He isn't an actor, of course, and he has no acting technique, but he gives the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen. I didn't try to teach him to act. I concentrated on guiding his thinking more than his actions, because I reasoned that if he was thinking along the right lines he just couldn't do anything wrong. I call his performance a 'thought' performance because you know instinctively what he is feeling just by the expression on his face or the way he tilts his head or covers his hooks.''
Drama Based on Facts
Mr. Wyler firmly believes that the picture ''has something as important to say to audiences as big news story.'' Yet, he says, ''what it has to say is gotten across in such an entertaining manner that people coming out of the theatre will think they are saying it, not the writer or the director or the producer.'' He has not yet decided on the subject of his first picture for Liberty, but feels pictures seeking a world-wide audience ''cannot be detached from the great events of the world.''
''Great pictures can't be entirely fictitious,'' says Mr. Wyler. ''Pictures that will live on for years, like 'The Birth of a Nation' and 'Gone With the Wind,' had great historical events in the background. The trouble with Hollywood is that too many of the top people responsible for pictures are too comfortable and don't give a damn about what goes up on the screen so long as it gets by at the box office. How can you expect people with that kind of attitude to make the kind of great pictures that the world will want to see?''
The Production Code is another barrier in the path of screen progress, says Mr. Wyler. He doesn't deny its usefulness and admits that there is a need for some sort of check to hold irresponsible producers in line. However, he is strongly critical of the way in which the Code is being enforced and cited an experience he had in making ''The Best Years of Our Lives'' to illustrate his contention that the ''Code is too rigid when enforced according to the letter.''
Mr. Wyler was called on the carpet by Joseph I. Breen's Code staff and reminded of ''the sanctity of marriage'' because the ex-bombardier had fallen in love with the daughter of the sergeant and obviously desired to get a divorce from the wife who was two-timing him. ''On the other hand,'' he went on, ''there was one scene which was full of sex and quite vulgar, not because of any dialogue that was spoken, but because of the way it was played. It was out of key with the rest of the picture and it actually embarrassed the preview audience. I cut out the scene myself after that because I knew I had done the wrong thing. But the point is that the Breen Office raised no objection, either on reading the script or after seeing the picture.
''Incidents like that convince me that those people have no real judgment. They apply the Code evenly to all pictures, which is just like giving an aspirin to mend a broken arm. If we must have the Production Code than I think the only way to use it effectively is to judge a film as a whole and determine whether its effect is good or bad.''
Turning to a discussion of filming technique, Mr. Wyler said he deliberately refrained from cutting sharply from one scene into another and also held back on using close-ups of the players. ''I shot most of the scenes through from beginning to end and by letting the camera turn with the actors it caught their actions and reactions. In that way the players did their own cutting. I don't believe in overworking the close-up and only use it when I want to make a point by excluding everything else from the audiences' view for a certain length of time. The close-up is a tricky business and must be done in silent agreement with the audience, because if they don't want to look at a specific face or object at the precise moment you want them to do that, then it's no good.''