Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) Director: William Wyler
“I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?”
As the first film to win eight Academy Awards (including one honorary Oscar) and also the first to become dominant at the box office second only to Gone With The Wind at the time, The Best Years Of Our Lives is an endearing, honest, and patient glimpse into the complex struggles facing veterans on the home front. The idea for this well-constructed film originally came from a Time Magazine article in 1944 that was then made into a novel titled Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor. The novel is the basis for an adapted screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winning scriptwriter Robert E. Sherwood.
The film follows three American serviceman returning home from World War II to the fictional Midwest hometown of Boone City. Their names are: Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a middle-aged platoon sergeant who served in the Pacific theater, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an air force bombardier, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man who tragically lost the use of both hands, forcing him to wear steel hooks. Each man’s return home is complicated by myriad factors. Al returns to work at the bank where he was formerly employed, only now with a promotion to Vice President in order to distribute G.I. Bill loans, however he comes under scrutiny for offering loans to desperate veterans without sufficient proof of collateral. In addition, his penchant for excessive drinking gets him into trouble (his wife is played by Myrna Loy). Fred returns home to a rebellious wife named Marie (Virginia Mayo) who has taken a rather unsavory job at a nightclub. When he returns home she quits her job, but Fred has trouble securing gainful employment so he returns to work at a department where he once worked as a soda jerk. Money problems soon become apparent and his low income causes a rift with his wife. To complicate matters, following a night out drinking with Al and his family, Fred somewhat accidentally falls in love with Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), but he is forced to keep it a secret. Lastly, Homer returns home to a family who now treats him uncomfortably and delicately. As a result he feels abnormal and out of place. This causes him to behave in a wayward and distant manner toward Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), the girl next door with whom he had a romantic understanding prior to the war.
The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film that takes its time. Screenwriter Robert Sherwood leads us through subtle moments to offer a glimpse of the immense complexity faced by each man as he struggles to find a new sense of normalcy. This is not sensationalist propaganda as found in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Instead it is a nuanced portrayal of an immensely complex subject, returning veterans adjusting to normalcy at home, addressing a somewhat taboo topic for 1940s America. There are no grand flashbacks with expensive special effects, and the characters are all fairly ordinary men. The name of the game here is tight story-writing coupled with gripping and believable character development. Personally, I am drawn to a really great story with a simple and concise plot development and with this in mind The Best Years Of Our Lives delivers masterfully. The character of Fred most closely mirrors the true experiences of director William Wyler, a man who returned home from war and struggled to find work in a new Hollywood which had seemingly passed him by. Along with a legendary director (William Wyler), producer (Samuel Goldwyn), and cast, the production team was the fortunate benenficiary of Gregg Toland’s cinematography (previously celebrated for his work on Citizen Kane).
At the end of the film, Al publicly confronts his boss over his risky loans to veterans, Fred’s wife demands a divorce allowing Fred to be free to pursue Peggy but instead, after discussing the situation with her father Al, Fred leaves town to find work elsewhere. Homer finally breaks down and shows Wilma the difficulties he now faces and he tries to persuade her to find love elsewhere, but she cannot. They both confess their love for each other and soon they are married. At the wedding ceremony, Fred and Peggy are reunited –they embrace as the film ends. Of his three Best Picture winning films, I prefer The Best Years Of Our Lives and Ben-Hur to his earlier film Mrs. Miniver.
All too often in films about veterans, we tend to see harrowing portrayals that arouse feelings of pity and sadness for their struggles. However in The Best Years of Our Lives we are asked to instead consider their trials as unique to each man in the hopes of treating them fairly, humanely, and with all the dignity afforded an ordinary citizen. Returning servicemen are not a monolith and neither are their own personal dilemmas. The Best Years Of Our Lives is a most worthy film.