Director: William Wyler
Cast: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Harold Russell
World War Two, the greatest of all human conflicts, has spawned several fine films, many ranking among the best works in cinema. It's difficult to name just one film to represent the genre, considering the breadth and expansiveness, but one that truly stands out as being particularly excellent is The Best Years Of Our Lives, the finest film made about soldiers returning home and an essential for any film lover.
Many might say that this film is dated and/or would only be relevant to an American audience, but i'd argue this, as it's theme touches all cultures that have been affected by conflict and war, and certainly, the drama presented and the first class direction makes it essential by any standard.
At the time of it's release, only six months after the close of World War Two, and the first being about returning soldiers, this was the biggest film since Gone With The Wind(1939) at the box-office. It also swept the Oscars, earning seven wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Actor Award for Frederic March.
Not every film of this period stands up very well, especially message pictures, but this one is a wonderful exception and despite a nearly three hour length(!) the film manages to be very entertaining and moving, working as both a time capsule of the period and a tribute to that greatest of generations.
The Best Years Of Our Lives follows the return of three veterans, all from different combat theaters and all having served in different branches of the military. We are first introduced to snappy Air Force Captain, Fred Derry(Dana Andrews) who wants to get home to see his wife, whom he had only met and married twenty days before he went overseas. He is able to hitch a ride in a military plane that is also carrying a Marine Sargent, Al Stephenson(Frederic March) who is waiting to see his wife of twenty years. They are also joined by Homer Parrish(Harold Russell) a sailor who had lost his hands in the war, and now has to use hooks.
All three are nervous about meeting their respective families, and all do, with varying results.
Homer finds his family, loving and accepting, but finds it awkward fitting in with his new found handicap and disfigurement. Al comes home to his wife, Milly(Myrna Loy) and is able to find the same love he left, but his children are now grown and distant. It surprised me that his son mentions radiation fallout, and an implied sympathy for the Japanese, considering the time this was made, that seems like a very ahead of it's time philosophy.
Fred, the decorated Captain, returns to his parents who live in a railway shack and cannot locate his wife, who has moved out and is working at a local club. The men all have a hard time adjusting and this manifests itself in different ways, as Al takes to drink and Homer runs away to his Uncle's bar("Butch's") and that's where all the three men meet again. Al is joined by his wife and his daughter, Peggy(Teresa Wright) and Fred and her share immediate attraction. Al and Fred get plastered and Homer is sent home, as his uncle will not allow him to drink more than a beer and Fred ends up spending the night with the Stephenson's, as he cannot find his way into his wife's apartment.
In a very poignant scene, Fred experiences a recurring nightmare of some hellish experience he had in the war and wakes up from his sleep in a fit, where Peggy comforts him, displaying her empathy and her nursing skills, that were implied earlier when Milly explains what everyone has been doing, since Al was gone.
The next morning, Fred returns to his apartment, much to Peggy's visible disappointment, and reunites with his wife, Marie(Virginia Mayo), who takes him at first, but is later revealed to be a selfish and cold-hearted person. Eventually, her vain and high-living lifestyle catches up with them and Fred is forced into taking his old job...a humiliating job as a soda jerk.
Al returns to his bank and finds himself unable to be as callous and cutthroat as a banker should be, and is into giving veterans loans with little or no collateral, while Homer remains distant from his fiance, Wilma(Cathy O' Donnell) and feels a sense of helplessness.
Various complications ensue for the three, including Fred and Peggy having a near-affair, due to his too-quick and rapidly failing marriage, and Al telling Fred that he is not to see his daughter anymore. On top of that, Fred ends up quitting his job, after a run-in with a jerk who spews isolationist propaganda at Homer, telling him that the United States should have sided with the Japanese and the Nazis. He proceeds to punch the guy out, after he gets rough with Homer.
Eventually, Fred and his wife divorce, and he finds himself in an airplane graveyard, reliving some of his past. It's a scene that proves unforgettable, and is one of the best directed scenes I've ever witnessed, a moment both nostalgic and moving. Fred, who believes himself to have such little worth, finds himself working as a junk man, helping dismantle the very machines he flew to glory, such a short time before. I confess that this scene, along with the one involving Fred's father(Roman Bohnen) reading of his son's accommodation in service, to his wife(Gladys George) always manages to choke me up.
In the end, Wilma ultimately accepts Homer for his handicap, as she has said all along(another tearjerker moment) and they get married, with all the principal characters present. Al is still on the wagon, probably a way off from full recovery, but is helped by his family and friends, while Fred and Peggy find each other, and while we know the road ahead will he tough, it's an inevitability that these characters have come to accept and are ready for.
The Best Years Of Our Lives is not just one of the greatest movies, but an important film as well. Few films have been able to capture in essence, what the average serviceman and their families went through after the close of that conflict, or any war, for that matter, in such honesty and conviction. Director William Wyler was wise in utilizing a more gritty and realistic vibe for his picture, depicting a world as one seen by the average citizen, and offering a glance into a changing time. Much of what is presented appears ahead of it's time, such as the already mentioned discussion between Frederic March and his son about radioactive fallout and the lack of work and respect for servicemen, even though many may have been instrumental in saving the world. The scene with the irate man at the Pharmacy, ranting about how America fought for the wrong side, was actually believed by some at that time, and even some today. It's a credit to the director that it comes off as well as it does, without the threat of being perceived as being too heavy-handed.
This is more than mere nostalgia, though and Wyler is able to create fully realized characters that have stood the test of time. March won the Oscar for his role of Al Stephenson, though in hindsight, he probably had the easiest part. This is not to disservice his performance, which is excellent, especially in the subtlety of returning to civilian life and reconnecting with his family.
March gains much sympathy throughout, as a man apart, but it really shocks me that Dana Andrews was not likewise nominated. He really has the toughest part, infusing various unspoken of issues, like the ego and importance that is built up by being an officer, and how hard it is to readjust to being an ordinary man, especially when one was at the bottom. Fred Derry is a young man who has made rash choices and like many, just wishes for an opportunity and a chance to leave his past. His recurring nightmares are probably the collective terrors of many men who had witnessed so many unspeakable horrors in combat. That walk through the airplane graveyard is a scene like no other, working at allowing the character to properly say goodbye to his past, while also weaving a nostalgic chord for the audience, witnessing the dismantling and awesome sight of the machines that helped preserve their freedom.
Harold Russell has come under attack in recent years for appearing too wooden, but this a faulty argument, when one considers his lack of acting experience, and the fact that he actually does a commendable job in this film. Russell actually won two Oscars, one for Best Supporting Actor and another special one for the courage that he gave many such disabled veterans. His character's good-natured spirit and likability made him a hero in the eyes of many and his scene of acceptance with his fiance, has to be one of the great tear-jerker moments.
Everyone is fine in this film, though. Myrna Loy was billed first, because of her status as the highest paid and biggest female box office draw, even though it seems bizarre today. She's the very image of the perfect wife(remember The Thin Man?) and has remarkable chemistry with March, and we believe that they have been together a life time. On the other hand, Virginia Mayo is the very definition of a bitch, a role she often played to perfection, and is particularly horrible here. We know almost instantly that Fred made a big mistake and jumped into this relationship too soon. Teresa Wright is clearly the saner choice and even if the ending appears to be very "Hollywood", it works well and it's doubtful that it should have ended any other way. Wright is just excellent here, so warm and kind, the sort of person so crucial to rebuilding men such as Fred, who have undergone such trauma. Ditto, Cathy O' Donnell, a lovely, underused actress, who is sweet and affectionate as Homer's fiance, knowing the man that left for war, is still the same one that returned home, even if he may not.
At various times in my life, I have claimed this to be the finest war movie ever made, even though there is not a single scene of combat. That opinion, admittedly, fluctuates with time. Other masterpieces, such as All Quiet On The Western Front(1930), The Longest Day(1962), The Big Red One(1980) and various others, may take the crown, though few are able to carry the emotion and impact of this film. The American Film Institute, in one of their few lucid moments, called this one of the 100 Greatest Movies, and while people may argue that It's A Wonderful Life, should have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1947, I wonder how many knew what the winner was and how good it truly is. For this critic, this is one of America's finest movies and one that has aged remarkably well. In an age of rampant cynicism and irony, this film "Filled with all the love and warmth and joy. . .the human heart can hold!" still has the ability to offer reflection on an important time in history, while bringing a dose of entertainment and genuine warmth that few films have matched.
Fewer taglines have been truer.
*This review was written on Memorial's Day and is dedicated to the veterans of all nations.