Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946)
Release Date: November 21st, 1946 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William Wyler Actors: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell
tilizing the Air Transport Command for a ride home, three military men take a trip in the nose of a plane, returning from World War II. Bombardier Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is anxious to see his wife, a woman he barely had 20 days with before shipping out; infantry Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) will be coming back to his wife of 20 years; and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is to rejoin his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), literally the girl next door. Homer’s situation is perhaps the most challenging, as both of his hands were lost during the sinking of his ship, now replaced with metal hooks. Although he can perform most tasks, the Navy couldn’t train him to be completely comfortable around his loved ones, who will also inevitably struggle with the change.
All three heroes live within the area of the picturesque small town of Boone City (fictionally near Cleveland, Ohio), presenting all of the general, diverse situations on the homefront, adjusting seemingly as much as the soldiers themselves. Derry’s parents live in poverty in a dilapidated shack under a bridge; the Stephensons live in an upscale apartment – fragile wife Milly (Myrna Loy) attempts to preserve the household normalcy, with son Rob more interested in education about the atomic bomb than in the souvenirs from his father, and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) taking up catering to the family like a mother-in-training. The Parrish group is noticeably disquieted by their son’s transformation, although not nearly as much as he feels intrusive to their routine. While Wilma stays faithful to her man, Homer can’t acclimate as easily, judging his family’s apparent guiltiness over still possessing hands or purposely staring away from his prosthetics. Fred’s wife has gone away to work in a nightclub, leaving the soldier to wander the city in search of her. And Al’s wife can’t keep up with his rambunctious yearning for celebrating his homecoming and reacquainting himself with the carefree, partying lifestyle that he encourages his return to signal.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is the ideal, paradigmatic anti-war sentiment, enacting the expectations and difficulties of warriors trying to rehabilitate themselves back into commonality. It’s as if they were samurai or gladiators, an extinct species of combatant with no place in the present. The military men note that some people play golf as if nothing ever happened, while friends of the family have rotated, and standard jobs must now be contemplated. Careers outside of the service will never be the same, and on the other side of the fence, regular civilians feel threatened from the influx of servicemen looking for work – with some employers being more sympathetic to medal-adorned uniforms than awkwardly discomfited others.
The film is a heartfelt, emotional, rousing project full of a sad melancholy that surrounds the lead characters as they inescapably become depressed about their sudden environmental shifts (perfectly visualized by Fred’s lonesome, tormented stroll through an airplane graveyard). Dwindling patriotism and politically corrupted Americanism join with burdensome social conformance and financial complications. But they can’t stop the life-affirming messages of hope and the powerfully stirring romances (both Milly’s ceaseless devotion and Peggy’s newfound love) from winning over an epic tale of a dynamic country.
Perhaps its most enduring quality is that the love stories are so universal and timeless that they easily transcend the postwar setting. As the lead trio sorts out their places and remembers the men they used to be, the supporting characters follow suit, demonstrating not only a superb script but also an unforgettable cast. It’s an astounding triumph, and one that was honored with seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Russell, who provides a stunning performance despite not being a trained actor.
– Mike Massie