The AFI Top 100 Films: The Best Years of Our Lives (#37)

Entertainment 150The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell and Teresa Wright
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay) and MacKinlay Kantor (novel)
Directed by William Wyler

This is a great surprise for a number of reasons. Unlike most of the other films on the Top 100 list, I had never heard of this one before. It’s odd to be this far into it and stumble across a movie you’re not at least passingly familiar with. Just on the title alone, I thought it would be some kind of domestic melodrama that served as the pinnacle of that sort of movie in its day. I wasn’t that excited to see it. I was quite wrong, and I’m very glad to be so.

The Best Years of Our Lives follows three military servicemen after coming home from World War II. Al Stephenson (March) is a banker and family man, with a quiet and successful domestic life waiting for him. Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before he became a Captain in the Air Force, and he’ll be reuniting with a wife he barely got to know before he left. Homer Parrish (Russell) was a Navy seaman who was injured in the line of duty, losing both of his hands in an explosion. While he’s gotten used to the hooks that have replaced his hands, he’s not quite used to how civilians look at them.

There are so many extraordinary things about this movie I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess we’ll start with the top. Director William Wyler served in the war as well, and strived for authenticity whenever possible. He stuffed the ranks of the crew with actual WWII veterans, and drew on his own experiences in combat to fill out details about his main characters. Al’s reunion with his wife was patterned on his own, and it’s one of those scenes that really win you over. It’s really hard not to get sniffly.

In order to preserve a sense of realism, Wyler reportedly had all of his actors buy their own clothes off the rack and ordered sets to be built closer to life-size so they didn’t look like movie sets. You don’t notice it while you’re watching, but it really lends a close, lived-in feel to the entire movie; shots are crowded with people, so you actually get the sense of intimacy in their conversations. Director of Photography Gregg Toland uses deep-focus camera-work (I admit, that meant nothing to me either until I read something that explained it) to make sure you can see what’s going on in the background and foreground at the same time. This leads to wonderfully complicated scenes, where stories intersect in the same space for a moment or two before you follow one or the other out of the door.

The movie navigates three parallel stories that offer a different perspective of post-war life. Al Stephenson probably has it the easiest; he has a loving wife and daughter, a boss who thinks the world of him, and enough money to live comfortably despite serving in the military for a number of years. Still, not everything is perfect. He finds himself distant from a son who doesn’t seem to appreciate his experiences; his job at the bank is unfulfilling next to the work he did with the military; and his neat, orderly life makes him bored and nervous. He’s also a little overly-fond of alcohol.

Derry is in a worse predicament. He doesn’t want to go from being an officer in the Air Force to being a soda jerk again, but being a bombadier doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity in peace time. His wife is accustomed to a certain standard of living and once that starts to slip they run into pretty tough marital problems. It seems like he typified the veterans’ experience post-war — going from an environment where his particular skill set is appreciated, even depended on to a society that has no use for him now that he’s back. It must be frustrating to make that adjustment, to finding your niche in a radically different world.

Homer has the most difficult time adjusting to post-war life. As a wounded veteran, he’s taken care of by Uncle Sam, but it’s hard for him to know what to do with the looks of his family and friends regarding his injury. His introduction is telling: when we first meet him, he’s using his hooks to take a match out of a matchbook and light a cigarette. It’s…actually impressive, and Fred and Al watch as he does it. Once he’s proven what he can do, they both accept that he’s fine with his injury and treat him as one of the gang. Later, when Al introduces Homer to his family, he says “This is Homer, he was injured in the war. But it doesn’t bother him, so it shouldn’t bother you.” And that’s that.

Around his family, though, it’s a different story. His parents respond with the shock and grief that Homer has already worked his way through. They try to tiptoe around the subject as much as possible and when they can’t they treat him with the utmost gentleness. It’s a natural reaction, but for Homer it’s emasculating. Their compassionate response — drawn from the best of intentions — actually makes it more difficult for him to feel like a useful, complete human being. It’s a tough situation that generates sympathy for both sides, and even though Homer saddens and sometimes frightens his friends and family with his anger you really feel for him.

The America portrayed in the movie is a far cry from the whitewashed image of perfection and prosperity you see in the 50s. There are a number of things society is trying to work out, and there’s an uneasiness that’s surprising but sensible. With veterans returning to flood the job market and production slowing down significantly, people were convinced that they were facing a return to the depression of the Thirties. Most surprisingly, people were already talking about the atom bomb and what it would do to change warfare; more than once, a character says that if there’s another World War we’d face extinction as a species.

The Best Years of Our Lives is at its best when it explores the personal costs of war, the uneasiness surrounding the returning veterans, and an America that was sputtering back to normalcy after five years of wartime. Al’s moral struggle as the new Vice-President of Small Loans is gripping; you want to see him go right by the veterans who come in asking for help to get their lives started again. Fred’s night terrors about a particularly hairy mission he lived through is something that I’ve never heard of in any other movie from the time, when there were fairly strong ideas about what soldiers were supposed to look like on screen. And Homer’s struggle to find his place with his disability is utterly engrossing, so much so that you don’t mind it when the film turns into a romantic melodrama for much of its third hour. He’s earned his happy ending, after all.

Every character is complete and charismatic, and that makes their conversations grounded, funny and human. There are still the classic movie touches — the swell of music during emotional moments, the shorthand common to the time that might not translate as well today — but for the most part everything ages well. There’s no doubt that the veterans coming home are from the Second World War, but the struggles they faced then are the same struggles our veterans face now. By painting those veterans as people trying to reintegrate into their lives, we’re stripped of the political context of what they’ve done so we can focus on their humanity.

I highly recommend tracking down this forgotten gem. It has a strong moral backbone, but it puts itself across amiably, without preachiness or treacle. Every performance is strong, the director has a sure hand on what he wants, and he keeps everything purring along smoothly. Even though the end of the movie can’t quite match what’s come before it, The Best Years of Our Lives is definitely worth three hours of your time.

Rating: 8/10.

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