The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Robert E. Sherwood

World War II was and is one of the biggest events in American History. When one takes a step back to look at the twentieth century, it is abundantly clear that this country went through quite a lot, including 4 major wars. With that type of hardship placed on the men and women of this country it is a wonder the American psyche remained as strong as it did, with the “Greatest Generation” leading the way after World War II. But history has more than one side to it. There is the military side of World War II, which is perhaps the most popular, but then there is the domestic side to the history, one that gets overshadowed when in reality it was just as compelling and important as the military history.

When three service men, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), return home to Boone City from the war, they strike up a friendship as they struggle to cope with the differences between military life and domestic life, the home they knew before the war. Al gets his job back at the bank, but clearly has a different mindset than before. Fred accepts a job at the local soda fountain where he worked before the war, but for less pay, which puts strife on his loveless marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo), which complicates when he meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Homer, who lost both hands in the war, tells people he feels no shame or difference, but when around the people he loves, including his girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), it is clear he feels different than before.

What first struck me with this film was its immediacy. Like I said, it is about soldiers who came home from World War II, not knowing what to do or where to go next. Well it was released in 1946 just a year after the conclusion of the war, so all of this type of struggle was going on in America upon the films released. It must have been an extremely touching and pertinent film to see when it was originally released, which makes its reputation stand up to this day. And what is perhaps most important is that the film seems to hit all the right notes, the right chords, with everything for which it is attempting to communicate. And that all starts with the screenplay and the acting.

The screenplay was inspired by a TIME article seen by producer Samuel Goldwyn, who prompted war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay. His work became a novella which was adapted by Robert E. Sherwood into the screenplay. I think it is important to see the manner in which the story came to fruition because it certainly makes it more credible. The hard luck nature of the returning soldiers is extremely heartbreaking. These men fought and won the war, witnessed horrors I can only imagine, yet were treated like foreign invaders upon their return, not by all, but by those who felt they missed the “best years of their lives”. And all of this is translated so well by the cast. Each and every one of them are brilliant. Dana Andrews delivers perhaps the greatest of the three, but Harold Russell, who received an honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance”, deserved every accolade he received for, while his acting style may not be as polished as the others, the heart and soul in his performance is greater than that of any in the film.

The long runtime, clocking in at just under 3 hours, is certainly forgiven for its length because the longevity of the film will certainly last forever. It was a film that slowly built, with small episodes into the troubled home lives of these three men, until it culminated in a great 3rd act, which utilizes the great character development from earlier to just tug at the heartstrings. The drama and romance is evoked brilliantly by the cinematography by Gregg Toland, which wasn’t even one of the 7 Academy Award nominations it received, and the direction of William Wyler, whose steady hand gave justice and a great deal of humanity and hope to the story and characters. A film that will certainly be remembered.



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