The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.
At the end of World War II, three men meet hopping a military plane back to their home, a fictitious mid-western metropolis called Boone City. The officer in the group, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is returning to Marie (Virginia Mayo), a wife he barely knows, since they were married less than 20 days before he shipped out. Although he was just a soda jerk before the war, his heroism as a bombardier in the Air Force brought him up to the rank of Captain. Fellow passenger Al Stephenson (Frederick March), is a former banker who served as a Sergeant First Class in the Army. The oldest and by far the wealthiest of the three, he is returning to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, Peggy (Theresa Wright), who is in her early twenties, and Rob (Michael Hall) who is a freshman in college. The third member of their party is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man who lost both of his hands when his aircraft carrier went down in the Pacific. A former quarterback, he now uses two hook prosthetics that he is quite deft with, but when he left for the service, he was engaged to his childhood friend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and now he worries how she will accept his apparent disability.
Although all three men are looking forward to their return home, there is also a deep feeling apprehension. They’ve all seen intense action, watched friends die, and suffered the many tortures of war. How will their civilian loved ones receive them? Will they ever be able to relate to anyone who hasn’t experienced battle?
Taking a cab together, they look around their old home town and Homer tells them about his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) who runs the best bar and café in town. Attempting to avoid the reunion with his family, he suggests that they get a drink first, but the others agree to meet at Butch’s some time for a drink. As Homer expected, his family is hyper-sensitive to the loss of his hands and he feels estranged from Wilma, although she shows him that she still loves him. He is haunted by the feeling that everyone is ether staring at his hooks or purposely looking away–he is different and he feels that difference intensely.
After checking in with his parents (Gladys George and Roman Bohnen), Fred goes looking for his wife, but she is not at her apartment, having already gone to work at her nightclub job, so he ends up at Butch’s.
Al has a difficult time adjusting to the fact that his children have grown up while he was away and he is nervous and edgy. When Milly finds that they are out of liquor, Al decides to go out on the town with her and Peggy. During the course of the evening, Al gets progressively drunker, but they finally end of Butch’s and find Fred, who is already pretty well tanked himself. After Homer spills a glass of lemonade in front of Wilma and the two families, he leaves in frustration and also ends up at the bar. The three of them are like people out of time and out of place and getting drunk seems the only way to deal with having to face this return to civilian life. Peggy takes a shine to Fred, even though he is pretty well gone. They take him back to his wife’s apartment building, but there is no answer when he rings the bell and he passes out in the doorway, so Milly and Peggy load him into the back seat of the car with Al, who is passed out.
Back at Al and Milly’s apartment, Peggy puts Fred in her room, loosening his tie, taking off his shoes and tucking him in while Milly does the same with Al in their bedroom. Peggy sleeps on the couch, but during the night she hears Fred calling out in his sleep. He’s having a nightmare, reliving the loss of a friend’s life. Peggy wakes him and calms him, wiping the sweat from his face and he falls back into his drunken sleep. In the morning, he can’t remember where he is or that Peggy is Al’s daughter. She enlightens him over breakfast. When Milly joins them, Peggy gives Al a ride back to his wife’s apartment and Milly busies herself with trying to salve a very hungover Al.
Marie is a gorgeous blond and obviously lives in a completely different world of nightlife, money, and men, but when Fred tells her to quit her job, she agrees and tries to support him, even though he can’t find a job. When the money runs out, however, she can’t stand the idea of being poor and their relationship begins to suffer. Finally, he takes a job working in his old drug store, spending part of his day at the perfume counter and part of it as a soda jerk.
Meanwhile, Al receives a call from his former boss at the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins). They not only want to take him back, but to promote him to Vice President in charge of handling GI loans. Al is uncertain about going back to work at the bank, but the offer is too good for him to pass up. Early on, he receives an application from a former Navy officer who wants to buy some land to begin farming. Although he has no collateral, Al approves the loan and is then counseled by Mr. Milton that they simply can’t do business that way. Al tells him that the man’s collateral is in his heart, in his guts, and in his patriotism, but they part ways each seeing the situation differently.
When Peggy runs into Fred at the drugstore, he takes her out for lunch and then kisses her in the parking lot. They are in love, but the situation of his marriage is a firm impediment. That afternoon, Peggy calls Marie and invites her and Fred to join she and her date for a night out, hoping that if she sees Fred and Marie together, she’ll get over her infatuation with him. It coincides with a bank banquet at which Al is the guest of honor. Before they all leave for the evening, Peggy confesses to her parents how she feels about Fred and that she is going to use the evening to get over her feelings.
At the banquet, Al again drinks too much. Milly watches him with apprehension and when he is invited to speak, he tells the assembled that the only way America won the war was by taking risks, by stepping in even when there was no collateral and getting the job done. At the same time, Peggy is sizing up Marie and finding out that Fred is in a loveless marriage to a woman who is not worthy of him. When she gets home, she tells her parents that she is intent on breaking up Fred’s marriage and having him for herself. While all of this is going on, Homer has isolated himself, convinced that he is no longer worthy of Wilma.
This film comes with a stunning pedigree of collaborators. Producer Samuel Goldwyn got the original idea from a Time Magazine article about the difficulties of servicemen returning home. He spoke with novelist McKinlay Kantor about writing a screenplay and Kantor produced a novella in blank verse called Glory for Me, which was adapted into the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives by the brilliant playwright Robert E. Sherwood.
Director William Wyler, who flew in combat missions over Europe during World War II as a cinematographer, was signed to direct. Although he assembled a top notch cast of well-known Hollywood actors to play most of the parts, he wanted to part of Homer Parrish to seem as real as possible, changing the character from a man with a psychological disorder to a tangibly physical manifestation. It was this director’s decision that led to the casting of Harold Russell, a non-actor in the critical role. Russell lost both of his hands while handling explosives making a training film.
The film taps deeply into human emotions. Almost from the very beginning, the viewer is led into the emotional landscape of each of the three men and feels a deeply human bond with them. Wyler brings forth the best that each actor has to give in crafting a deeply felt, realistic portrayal of human being struggling with recovery after traumatic experiences.
One might think that this film is all about the men, but it is definitely about the women, too. Frederick March and Dana Andrews give deep, emotionally valid performances as Al and Fred, but Myrna Loy and Theresa Wright are both amazing as Al’s wife and daughter. Throughout the early scenes after the men return home, you can feel the women’s love and empathy as the stabilizing factors. For an amateur, which Russell must be considered, his performance is beautiful and deep. Never for a one moment does the viewer feel a false step in his acting, but the role of his fiancé Wilma has its own difficulties. To be so good and true is almost impossible to achieve without seeming false, but Cathy O’Donnell’s eyes show the heart of the little girl who loved Homer and child and still holds him dear.
The movie is full of amazing little performances. Roman Bohnen as Fred’s father is mesmerizing in his brief few minutes. Virginia Mayo gives unexpected depths to Maria, a part that might have been played as a simple tramp with no heart. All of these performances add up to a movie that is completely compelling.
In glorious black and white.
I still consider this movie one of the ten best films ever made. It was certainly amply rewarded at the Academy Awards, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederick March), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell). At two hours and forty-eight minutes, it’s a miracle that it even held anyone’s attention, but it is so well acted and directed, so well put together that time is no object here and time is something I take very seriously indeed. For any movie to keep me engaged for much over an hour and a half, it must be a truly special film and there is no doubt that The Best Years of Our Lives is a very, very special film.
The emotional engagement is a such a level that once begun, it is difficult to disengage until it is over. Emotional involvement is so important, so much a part of what makes a good movie that it is truly elevating.
This is a very special film and as important and vibrant today as it was in 1946. It should be a part of every serious film buff’s film library and it should be watched every few years, just so we never forget what a truly great film can be.