William Wyler was born in the disputed territory of Alsace on the Franco–German border, and his work has occupied disputed territory ever since.
Taking advantage of his familial connection to the head of Universal Studios, young Wyler moved to the USA in 1920 and worked his way from errand boy to assistant director, working on epics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923) and Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1925). Promoted to director, he built a body of work that swiftly grew from short westerns to prestigious A-pictures.
In his early work Wyler already showed a tendency to hop from genre to genre, presiding over John Barrymore’s most controlled film performance, in the taut legal drama Counsellor at Law (1933), and an early comedy script from Preston Sturges, The Good Fairy (1935).
Spreading his wings away from Universal, Wyler developed major collaborations – with producer Sam Goldwyn, cinematographer Gregg Toland and star Bette Davis. This work cemented his reputation in America as a maker of serious and intelligent films where thematic concerns were roped to entertainment by strong dramatic values and cinematic artistry.
The Second World War energised Wyler still more, inspiring the mercilessly emotive propaganda flick Mrs Miniver (1942). This was followed by two documentaries, Memphis Belle (1944) – tense and impressive – and Thunderbolt (1947) – chillingly honest. Returning to civilian life Wyler made a film about this, the celebrated The Best Years of our Lives (1946).
Wyler’s work in the 1930s and ’40s earned him the praise of André Bazin, but he was never a favourite of the Cahiers critics and Ben-Hur (1959) acted as a nail in the coffin: “Cahiers du cinéma never forgave me for the picture.” (1)
Though Wyler himself took a humorous view of his relegation from the heights of critical acclaim, for the sake of a fuller appreciation of great cinema, we should take this critical oversight more seriously.
Wyler, along with his good friends John Huston and Billy Wilder, represents a school of Hollywood filmmaking that put the script first, moved between entertainments and serious social commentary according to whim, and won too many damn Oscars to ever win the approval of many auteurist critics. I too believe that the Academy is wrong about pretty much everything, all the time, so it’s necessary to overlook Wyler’s popularity with the wrong people if we’re going to appreciate his work.
I considered launching an attack on the many misconceptions and criticisms Wyler has fallen prey to, but I’ve had trouble finding anything substantial enough to attack. There’s really no reasoned critique of the Wyler oeuvre that’s logical enough to argue against. It must be allowed that everybody is entitled to his/her own opinion. But I think failing to “get” Wyler can be seen as comparable to a failure to respond to Keaton or Welles. We can’t all respond to all the great films – we all have blind spots – but we shouldn’t blame the filmmakers for our limitations.
What seems more useful is to run through the seemingly modest virtues of the work, until their cumulative effect can be seen, while citing a few examples of the wondrous artistry of Wyler’s direction.
One argument should be put forward first, however. Try as I might, I can’t claim that Wyler’s strongest films fall into Manny Farber’s category of Termite Art. They are not small, modest, cunning genre films. Wyler’s films tend to be big, they often tackle Important Themes, and feature big emotional scenes for great actors. They sound a lot more like White Elephant Art, don’t they? So I have to argue that there needs to be a third category, which can contain all the big, ambitious, meaty films which happen to be GREAT. If we can allow such a category as Mammoth Art, Wyler can be admitted, and will find himself in good company with Lean, Fellini, Ophuls, Chaplin, Welles, Murnau, Minnelli, Kurosawa… Small is not the only virtue.
My big claim for Wyler is that he is dramaturgically the finest director ever. I think his command of dramatic form, of the screenplay’s structure and substance, of casting and directing actors, is second to none. He’s also strong at presenting this material, framing it, editing it, revealing it through the medium of cinema, but the crux of his success is his commitment to emotional truth. To make this large claim hold up, I’m going to nibble around the edges of Wyler’s work with smaller claims, until hopefully the outline of the mammoth is revealed.
A masterstroke: In Carrie (1952), Laurence Olivier concludes an innocent conversation with Jennifer Jones, and she walks away. And we watch, with Olivier, for a long time, as she disappears from view. Then he turns away and we know that he is in love. We recognise the sensation and feel his elation (along with a slight sense of dread, due to our privileged position as viewers of the tragedy). What is astonishing to me is not just the wordless revelation achieved through framing and pacing – holding the shot long after it should have become “dead time”, but the fact I am sharing an emotion with Laurence Oliver, a clever actor who has never before moved me in the slightest. Later in the same film I shed a tear at his impotent rage (again, his back is to the camera) as he cries “How can I wear a patch?”
Again and again Wyler’s choice of angle reveals character and nails the necessary emotion to make the story work. A modest claim – he’s not inventing anything, he’s not using extraordinary angles or elaborate long takes. He’s selecting from the traditional palette of long shot, medium shot and close-up as the mood of the scene requires. He’s just doing it better than everybody else.
A masterstroke: in The Good Fairy, Wyler uses a rare close-up when Herbert Marshall rejects Margaret Sullivan. It’s a bog-standard rom-com second act curtain moment, the lovers’ quarrel. But this one shot of an anguished Sullivan, using the visual language of tragedy in a light romantic comedy, gives the story the emotional weight needed for the audience to care about the outcome. Remove it, and the continuity will still work, but we will not care.
One is hard-pressed to find a bad performance in a Wyler film. Even unpromising actors achieve striking effectiveness. Merle Oberon in These Three (1936) is three-dimensional and moving as well as beautiful. When she’s in danger of seeming too decorous, Wyler has her deliver her lines through a mouthful of sandwich. My whole childhood was haunted by the incessant appearance of Chuck Connors on television – his lumpy, charmless face turned up wherever I looked. In The Big Country (1958), Wyler uses all Connors’ most unappealing attributes to their full and makes them work for the story (he also makes him victim of a great put-down: “You wanted me, pa?” “Before you was born I did.”) More astonishingly, he finds sympathy for the great lunk, and makes of his death a moving and pathetic spectacle.
If Wyler could do this with a pretty girl who found fame sleeping with Alexander Korda and a gruesome thug whose continued employment baffled me even as a child, imagine what he could do with the cast of The Heiress (1949).
A masterstroke: Olivia de Havilland turns her face away, squeamish, as a fishmonger decapitates her dinner. And Wyler cuts straight in on her face, emphasising her reaction. By this unconventional cutting strategy, he not only makes sure we notice that the girl is delicate, he makes sure we realise this is important. It’s not that Wyler is over-anxious to be understood, just that he grasps the perfect tool to make a comment on the character impossible to achieve any other way – he says, “See!”
Wyler, like James Whale, makes something of a habit of cutting from medium to close shot without changing angle, “jumping straight down the line.” Later in the same film, he jumps in on Montgomery Clift’s face as Clift ponders abandoning his fiancée. We know something crucial is happening inside this man’s head – we don’t know what – and an uneasiness is produced that will stay with us for several minutes of screen time until we discover what was at the root of it.
Wyler’s approach to actors was flexible, enabling him to extract superior work from experienced pros and beginners alike, most famous among the latter being Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953) and Harold Russell in The Best Years of our Lives, the one being a fresh face for a role that demanded freshness, the other being a real disabled soldier where fakery would not do. Wyler would spring unscripted business on his ingénues to get spontaneous reactions, like having Gregory Peck pretend to lose his hand in Rome’s “Mouth of Truth”. Here is a director who switches from being Kubrick the meticulous to Loach the improviser when the occasion demands it.
When I was a kid there was a show called “Tales from the Riverbank”, featuring real animals as stars. I later learned that the director would control Hammie the Hamster’s performance by putting furniture and props around him to make him move in the direction required. Wyler appears to do the same with script and co-stars to channel Bette Davis’ lava-flow performances, preventing her from sweeping the whole movie away.
Even in weaker Wylers there are performances of élan or oomph to sucker-punch the unwary. His last film, the troubling racial drama The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), sees the director, old and sick, struggling with the basic mechanics of ’70s film (the zoom lens, Lee Majors). But actress Lola Falana, offered only one dimension by the screenplay, and a rotten dimension at that (variations on a bitch), attacks her scenes with such commitment she threatens to tear through the screen and take the audience off at the knees with her fearsome dramaturgical machete.
Where Wyler fan Spielberg seems to coax emotions from his audience like a conductor facing an orchestra (no condemnation is intended), Wyler coaxes the film. The emotion is on the screen; we have still some choice as to whether we partake of it.
Though Wyler tackled a broad range of subjects, his work is highly distinctive. His cutting patterns, his use of deep focus and his mastery of fluid camera movements marks him out as a stylist. Nothing more would be needed to prove this than a glance at the opening of The Letter (1940).
Embellishing a simple description in the script, Wyler sets both the scene and the mood, with two languid crane shots though the Chinese rubber plantation. One shot melts into the other by means of a beautiful, fluid dissolve, until the viewer is lulled into an exotic and alien landscape – and the mood is shattered by the pistol shots fired by Bette Davis, dispatching her lover with robotic determination.
Wyler’s ability to recognise the opportunity for a coup de cinema when it presented itself caused him to defy schedules and budgets, expanding half-page sequences such as the ball in Jezebel (1938) into expansive and expensive set pieces, and running afoul of cost-conscious producers.
The other factor that caused him to repeatedly butt heads with the studios was his perfectionism as regards performance. Wyler’s implacable patience caused him to shoot many takes on many occasions, driving his actors to hysteria as he refused to explain what he was looking for. Like Kubrick, he would know it only when he saw it.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson suggests that Wyler achieved his modest virtues by shooting acres of coverage (2). In fact, a cursory examination of the films shows that this is not so. Most of Wyler’s movies contain the odd awkward cut, where the minimal choice of footage the director has supplied to his editor has failed to yield a smooth solution. Wyler chose his angles with care, and shot almost no coverage at all. But having selected an angle he stuck with it until the performances satisfied him – hence his high shooting ratio.
The lack of coverage results in brilliant moments more often than clunky ones. In The Little Foxes (1941) a minor character (“Miss Julia Jordan”) is introduced with a shot showing only her back, while the reactions of those in her presence become the focus of our attention. Theresa Wright becomes jealous of this character, and makes a scene. She storms out, the scene ends, and we never see the supposed rival’s face. A little later, Theresa Wright returns and apologises. Once again, the woman remains present only as a back – no reverse angle puts a face to her. The restraint is so noticeable that it becomes a very funny cinematic joke – the character so unimportant that it is unnecessary ever to show her, even when film grammar almost demands it.
A masterstroke, and one using the same technique: in Dodsworth (1936), Wyler plays most of the climax of the film as an over-the-shoulder shot. We remain fixed on Sam Dodsworth’s back while the camera lingers, to our immense frustration, on Ruth Chatterton as Mrs Dodsworth, demonstrating yet more of the pretension and arrogance that have driven a wedge between herself and her husband. She’s so appalling in this scene that we long to see Dodsworth’s face, to see if he’s affected as we are. Will this tirade shock him into finally leaving her, before the ship they are on sets sail? The answer should be obvious, and would be if Wyler allowed us to see what Dodsworth is thinking. Since Sam is played by Walter Huston, one of the greatest film actors ever, we can be sure he’d be able to show us exactly what this man is thinking as his wife shows once again why she’s not the woman for him. Seconds trudge by like hours as she prattles on, and our anxiety to see his face reaches cardiac arrest proportions…
Ben-Hur (1959) marks the exact moment the French critics – those of them who had appreciated Wyler to begin with – lost all tolerance for him. André Bazin inserted footnotes into his books explaining that of course the Wyler he admired was the Wyler who made The Little Foxes, not the later incarnation. Wyler himself joked of his Oscar-winning Christian epic “It takes a Jew to do this stuff well.” (3) And if Wyler is selling something he doesn’t believe in himself, this seems to preclude artistic credibility. It’s a christsploitation film – but it’s still great drama and spectacle.
Wyler’s stated goals in taking on the project were to have fun with the visual possibilities, and to make a lot of money. He succeeded in both. Apart from the disappointing studio tank sea battle, the film delivers a glorious series of climaxes. The scene where the galley slaves are forced to row ever faster for the pleasure of their commander, Jack Hawkins, is a breathtaking bit of homoerotic montage, Eisenstein in Cinemascope. The chariot race still thrills, of course. The grand miracle at the end is a splendidly kitsch plot twist, well prepared for by the screenwriters’ use of a water motif throughout the story.
But in between these high points is a surprisingly well-realised story; with good actors playing satisfying scenes; a far stronger, more substantial drama than the average biblical epic can boast. The hints of a homosexual relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala are subtle (of necessity), slyly amusing, and ultimately somewhat moving. Stephen Boyd’s death scene is perhaps the most convincingly agonising and horrible ever put on film. Charlton Heston is actually good throughout.
Far from being a millstone around the neck of Wyler’s critical reputation, Ben-Hur should be seen as further proof of his visual power, his versatility, his commitment to dramatic cohesion, and his ability to shape sometimes unpromising or difficult material into compelling and populist cinema. Of course, these are all qualities that should have endeared him to the French. But Wyler resists definition: he isn’t an obsessive explorer of a personal world; nor is he an impersonal craftsman. He is interested in human experience in its entirety. The male-female relationships explored in Wuthering Heights (1939), Detective Story (1951) and The Collector (1965) could hardly be more different: but they are all perfectly credible and consistent with Wyler’s compassionate but unflinching observation of everything human.
As a filmmaker myself I am in awe of Wyler’s achievement. If the job of the director is to select and present high-calibre material in a way that is as lucid and effective as possible, nobody ever did that job better than William Wyler. If directing is problem-solving, and mostly it is, nobody ever overcame problems with more grace. If we cherish the power of cinema to convey ideas visually, Wyler belongs in our pantheon right alongside Hitchcock. If the job of the dramatist can be said to be getting maximum emotion from the material within the realms of plausibility – which is one possible way of looking at it – Wyler is unsurpassed.
A masterstroke: everything that man directed between 1936 and 1959.
Special thanks to Christopher Weedman, Benjamin Malinowski, Rolland Man and B. Kite.
Crook Buster (1925)
The Gunless Bad Man (1926)
Ridin’ for Love (1926)
The Fire Barrier (1926)
Don’t Shoot (1926)
The Pinnacle Rider (1926)
Martin of the Mounted (1926)
Lazy Lightning (1926)
The Stolen Ranch (1926)
The Two Fister (1927)
Kelcy Gets His Man (1927)
Tenderfoot Courage (1927)
The Silent Partner (1927)
Blazing Days (1927)
Shooting Straight (1927)
Galloping Justice (1927)
The Haunted Homestead (1927)
Hard Fists (1927)
The Lone Star (1927)
The Ore Raiders (1927)
The Home Trail (1927)
Gun Justice (1927)
The Phantom Outlaw (1927)
The Square Shooter (1927)
The Horse Trader (1927)
Daze of the West (1927)
The Border Cavalier (1927)
Desert Dust (1927)
Thunder Riders (1928)
Anybody Here Seen Kelly? (1928)
The Shakedown (1929)
The Love Trap (1929)
Hell’s Heroes (1930)
The Storm (1930)
A House Divided (1931)
Tom Brown of Culver (1932)
Her First Mate (1933)
Counsellor at Law (1933)
The Good Fairy (1935)
The Gay Deception (1935)
Barbary Coast (1935) part – replaced by Howard Hawks
These Three (1936)
Come and Get It (1936) part – began by Howard Hawks, completed by Wyler
Dead End (1937)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
The Westerner (1940)
The Letter (1940)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)
The Fighting Lady (1944)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Heiress (1949)
Detective Story (1951)
Roman Holiday (1953)
“Producers’ Showcase” (1954) television series
The Desperate Hours (1955)
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
The Big Country (1958)
The Children’s Hour (1961)
The Collector (1965)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Funny Girl (1968)
The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923) Assistant Director
Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1925) Assistant Director
Film about William Wyler
Directed by William Wyler (Aviva Slesin, 1986)
Michael A. Anderegg, William Wyler, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1979.
André Bazin, “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing”, New Orleans Review, vol. 12, no. 4, winter 1985, pp. 47–59.
Barbara Bowman, Master Space: Film Images of Capra, Lubitsch, Sternberg and Wyler, Greenwood Press, New York, 1992.
Jan Herman, “William Wyler: Early Days at Universal”, Griffithiana,nos 51–52, October 1994, pp. 212–249.
Jan Herman, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, DaCapo Press, New York, 1997.
Axel Madsen, William Wyler: The Authorized Biography,Crowell, New York, 1973.
Christopher Orr, “Authorship in the Hawks/Wyler Film Come and Get It”, Wide Angle, vol. vi, no. 1, 1984, pp. 20–26.
Gene D. Phillips, “William Wyler” in Exiles in Hollywood: Major European Film Directors in America, Lehigh University Press, Bethlehem/Associated University Presses, London, c1998.
Andrew Sarris, “William Wyler” in “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927–1949, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
A.O. Scott, “A Director Whose Class is His Burden”, The New York Times, September 29, 2002, pAR 15 (N), pAR 15 (L), col. 4 (15 col. in.).
David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 1994.
Contains bio, news, photos and resources on Wyler.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
Josh Becker: An Ode to William Wyler
Josh Becker writes about his favourite filmmaker.
American Masters | William Wyler
Career bio on the American Masters’ website.
The Lesbian Vanishes: These Three
Article by Brett Elizabeth Westbrook, from Bright Lights Film Journal.
The Big Country
Article by Wayne Case, from Film Monthly.
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