Directed by William Wyler
Three soldiers return home after the end of World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives. The title refers to what they’ve given up as part of their service, and the film focuses on the quiet tragedy of what they’ve experienced. This is a film that idealizes the individual but otherwise deglamorizes something that, at least at that time, seemed to be regarded favorably. The end of the second world war, to me, conjures up this image…
…with nothing but people rejoicing and parading. The homecoming for Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), however is much quieter.
They will stumble across each other while awaiting a flight home. Their travel is anything but accommodating, instead having them hauled around like nothing more than cargo. Their bond will quickly become strong, but it’s all the more surprising when you recall that they didn’t meet until they had already returned stateside.
The soldiers will share a taxi home, and at each stop the one getting out hesitates, not quite ready to return home. Homer, who has lost both hands in combat and now wears metal hooks he’s quite proud of, will have to reckon with the way his family now regards him, as well as so many others in their small town. Al is surprised at how big his children have grown and even how his son talks about the war from what he’s been taught in school. Fred, the main character, will learn that his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), has moved out of the home she shared with his parents and now works at an unknown night club downtown.
They will bump into each other again after a bender one night that introduces Fred to Al’s daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright). They quickly grow smitten with each other, so much so that we know to suspect Fred’s wife of something even before we’ve ever met her.
Sure enough Marie will express frustration with Fred’s unsexy job as a “soda jerk,” and it seems to me we’re meant to see her as materialistic whereas Peggy is much more wholesome. Still, there’s a scene midway through the film in which Fred, conscious of their spending habits, orders Marie not to go out with her friends, and, well I can understand her frustration. She’s someone who has flourished in his absence, finding her way in the working world and certainly forgetting what it was like to have him around, mostly since they had only been together a few months before he shipped out.
The story of all three soldiers intersects in various ways, but it orbits Fred’s and Peggy’s growing affections. When Peggy declares her intentions to break up Fred’s and Marie’s marriage, Al will order Fred to stay away from her. It’s a melodramatic turn that we know will sort itself out by the end, and it certainly does. I’m not sure what the deal was with melodramas back then, or even now, but they seem to necessitate a sudden declaration of rules that will eventually be broken. Al will see things the way Peggy does, though this only happens after the dissolution of Fred’s and Marie’s marriage. Their distance, no matter how man-made, is a sort of Cold War of emotion that will eventually be overcome.
While most of the story surrounds Fred’s aspirations and setbacks, I found the most moving scene to be the one in which Homer opens up to his girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). It’s easily the most vulnerable moment in the film, for any character, and it makes use of Harold Russell’s actual disability. It’s a strikingly honest movie moment at a time where everything seemed so artificial, no matter how sincere.
I suppose it’s only from today’s vantage point that these older movies feel so manufactured, but either way, when we see Russell without his hooks, well it’s just quite moving. He explains to Wilma why they can’t be together, because he needs a great deal of help which he doesn’t want to burden her with. She will double down on her love for him, making it clear she means it, and he will finally look past his own limitations and accept her affections.
It’s so damn tender, and it’s a message that feels timeless, at least as far as love stories go. I think of male characters in Hollywood movies this time as being strong and defiant. They are compassionate and occasionally foolish, but they are always a ‘man’s man.’ Homer is less than, objectively. He literally has no hands and though he has something to offer, what we’re made to notice, at all times, is what he’s incapable of doing. The film then demonstrates that this is beside the point, and sure it might be simplistic, but as a message it’s never unwelcome.
Harold Russell, in fact, won an honorary Oscar for his performance, for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” and then he went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as well.
Up Next: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), Groundhog Day (1993)