The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
At the end of my long and movie-filled holiday break, I finally got around to seeing director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that had been on my “to watch” list for many years. Talk about ending my vacation on a high note! The film is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of three WWII veterans who return to their midwestern hometown after the war, and their difficulties readjusting to life with their families, friends and jobs after years away.
Fredric March plays a middle-aged banker who served as an infantry sergeant in the Pacific and returns to his lovely, understanding wife (Myrna Loy) and two children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) who’ve grown up in his absence. In spite of all he has, he struggles to acclimate to the life and career he knew before. He feels he no longer knows his children, chafes against the rules and regulations of the bank at which he works, and copes with his post-war trauma and uncertainty by drinking a great deal more than he should.
Dana Andrews gives a charismatic and nuanced performance as a guy who was a soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks prior to the war, but who in the service became a captain and a decorated bombardier. All he wants is to return to his wife (Virgina Mayo), find a good job, and move to the suburbs. Unfortunately the shallow woman he married after a brief wartime romance is unimpressed with him now that he’s not a glamorous army flier, and jobs for men with the skills he gained in the service are hard to come by now that planes are being decommissioned and nobody’s dropping bombs. That Dana Andrews wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award for this role is an absolute travesty. To me his was the most fascinating character in the film – a man whose wartime opportunities allowed him to escape a poverty-stricken upbringing and become a success, however briefly. Seeing him come crashing back to earth when post-war realities set in is heartbreaking.
Harold Russell, a disabled WWII veteran who’d never acted prior to this movie and turns in a memorable and touching performance, plays a sailor who lost both hands in an explosion and fire. Although he’s learned how to cope with the physical side of his injuries quite well, lighting matches, dressing, and even shooting targets using his new prosthetic hooks, the emotional repercussions of his loss are harder to shake off. He can’t stand to be pitied by those he loves, and pushes his family away in an effort not to be a burden.
Every performance and storyline in the movie is pitch-perfect and honest. It’s not melodramatic or emotionally manipulative, and it doesn’t particularly try to be a tearjerker. The emotion comes from seeing these decent if imperfect men deal with displacement, awkwardness, and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the war, and from seeing their loved ones also come to grips with their return and the fact that the men they’re welcoming home aren’t quite the ones they sent away years before.
There are many memorable scenes in the movie: the three vets flying home in the nose of an army plane, looking down at the country they fought for; Fredric March reuniting with Myrna Loy; Teresa Wright gently and matter-of-factly calming Dana Andrews after a nightmare; Harold Russell letting his sweet, girl-next-door fiancee (Cathy O’Donnell) see just how helpless his disability has made him; Dana Andrews walking through a graveyard of decommissioned planes, climbing into one as he tries get the past out of his system. The movie is full of moments that are honest, warm, heartrending and hopeful, and the characters are such real people that you grow to love them.
In spite of The Best Years of Our Lives being on lists of the greatest movies ever made, a winner of multiple Oscars and starring actors I like, I’d put off watching it for years. For one thing, I knew it would make me cry, and for another it’s almost three hours long and these days my attention span isn’t what it used to be. I shouldn’t have avoided it for so long, though! The tears I shed were worth it, and the movie was so engrossing that three hours sped by in a flash. In fact, I watched it a second time later that week and felt I got even more out of it with a repeat viewing. I can’t say enough good things about this film.
The Best Years of Our Lives is available on DVD and airs on TCM February 26th and March 19th. I highly recommend checking out this very special movie if you haven’t seen it before. Don’t wait years and years like I did!