The Best Years of Our Lives

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I definitely underestimated just how good The Best Years of Our Lives was going to be. While, at three hours, it is on the long side, it has enough genuine feeling and pathos to sustain that kind of running time. The film definitely has its heart in the right place, discussing issues in 1946 that are still very relevant today. Dealing with the struggles of veterans returning from World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives turns out to be an understated and heartwarming classic.

After World War II ends, three soldiers find themselves on the same plane back to their hometown of Boone City. Al Stephenson (Frederic March), and infantryman is headed back to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children, and a comfortable job at the local bank. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a bombardier, is returning to his wife Marie (Virigina Mayo), whom he married in basic training and now barely knows. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is coming home to his mother, father, and little sister, and the girl next door Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), whom he is supposed to marry. However, during his service in the Navy he lost his hands in a fire and now only has prosthetic hooks. He’s worried that Wilma won’t want to marry him anymore. They’ll all worried about readjusting to home life in one way or another.

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It’s not easy. What proves the biggest stumbling block to Homer is not necessarily that he’s missing his hands, is that he can’t quite get used to everyone’s reaction to it. Fred at first can’t even find his wife; she’s not living with his parents as he though she was, but has taken a job in a nightclub and moved into an apartment in town. When he goes “home,” he’s locked out. He has to spend the night at Al’s, where he falls in love with his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). He also struggles with returning to his old job as a soda jerk, where he has to work under a man who was previously his trainee. Al, meanwhile, struggles with his job at the bank granting, or not granting, small loans to veterans and takes to the bottle a few times too often.

The Best Years of Our Lives represents classical Hollywood filmmaking at its best. For the most part, the emphasis is on the actors and the characters’ conflicts, and everything else is great support. It’s hard for me to really call William Wyler an auteur because I don’t think I would be able to tell this was his film had I not already known, but nevertheless I’ve come to really appreciate his movies. I’ve seen nine of his films at this point without even realizing it, and they’ve all been really good. Here, he tackles some issues of social importance straightforwardly without over sentimentalizing them, and does so admirably economical way. Working with legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland and using deep focus almost on the level that it was used in Citizen Kane, Wyler manages to put the characters first.

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I’m often not of fan of those movies that show real people struggling in normal circumstances, because they are sometimes just too normal and ordinary to make a movie I want to watch. The Best Years of Our Lives is not one of these though, because it shows normal people not quite in normal situations. Everybody is trying to behave as best they can in the difficult circumstances they have to come back to; these are people who got used to being at war and aren’t quite how to come home. The film confronts the physical, mental, and social cost of the war, and suggests that the way to overcome it through greater love and understanding between those who fought and those who were left at home.

The Best Years of Our Lives might not exhibit the flashiest kind of filmmaking, but it’s well acted, well shot, and deals with its issues with heart. It’s the type of Hollywood movie that is sometimes easy to take for granted, but is a really great film all the same. Back ’46, the Academy sure didn’t take it for granted. It was nominated for seven awards, losing out on only one and winning an Honorary Oscar for Harold Russell’s performance as Homer. It brought home Best Picture, Best Actor for Fredric March, Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell, Best Director for Wyler, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Original Score. It lost out only on Best Sound Recording. There’s no way I can begrudge the Academy’s choice, but I do regret one of my favorite films of all-time losing out: It’s a Wonderful Life.

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“The war is over, Derry.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review 
The New York Times review

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