STUDIO — Samuel Goldwyn Co.
CAST — Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Cathy O’Donnell
DIRECTOR — William Wyler
NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)
Over the last few years, there have been occasional news stories about combat veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who encounter difficulties when making the transition back in “The World” (a term sometimes used by service members deployed overseas when they talk about the U.S.). We hear about spikes in divorce rates, domestic violence, and (sadly) even suicide among combat veterans. This isn’t a new problem, as illustrated in the Best Picture of 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives.
With World War II still fresh on everyone’s mind, The Best Years of Our Lives paints a picture of the hardships of three veterans returning from combat. First, there is Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated captain in the Army Air Corps who wants only two things: a good job and quality time with his wife (whom he married before he shipped out). Next is Al Stephenson (Best Actor Fredric March), a banker with a loving family (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Michael Hall) who became an infantry sergeant in the Pacific Theatre. Finally, there’s Homer Parrish (Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell), an athlete who joined the Navy right out of high school, but lost both of his hands in a fire on his aircraft carrier. These veterans from the (fictional) town of Boone City meet up early on in the Air Transport Command terminal and share the flight home in the nose of a now-decommissioned B-17. One by one, each man reunites with his family, but the real stories begin after the last tears of joy have been shed.
Fred encounters trouble finding work, while at the same time he discovers that his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is more interested in money and socializing than she is with building a new life together. Meanwhile, Al is welcomed back with open arms by his family, and he is guaranteed a promotion at the bank he had left years before, yet he is uncomfortable and starts drinking heavily. But the most moving story is that of Homer’s difficulties, both internal and external, because of his disability. On the surface, he’s all smiles and eager to demonstrate what he can do with his prosthetic hooks, but on the inside is a man reeling from the pain of being perceived as some sort of freak.
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this is a movie about veterans made by veterans. Wyler (who had served as a film documentarian during the war) made sure the entire film crew consisted of returning veterans, thus lending a perception of authenticity. The lighting, the sound mixing, the costuming, even the editing were all done by veterans, and their combined effort shows in the movie’s overall “feel”. This is especially evident in a key scene toward the end of the movie, in which Fred wanders through the town’s “boneyard” and crawls inside the dusty hulk of what used to be a B-17. Words cannot describe the flood of emotions in this scene, and taken out of context, it is nearly pointless to do so; it is something you will need to see for yourself by watching this movie from the beginning.
Here is a not-so-commonly known fact about this movie: Harold Russell, who had lost his hands in a training accident, is the only actor in the history of the Motion Picture Academy to receive two Academy Awards for the same role in the same movie. As mentioned earlier, he was the Best Supporting Actor of 1946, but he also received an Honorary Oscar “[f]or bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. Russell, who passed away in 2002, went on to become a voice and face for disabled veterans since World War II by helping to create AMVETS, an organization he had led on three different occasions.
After the euphoria of the fall of Nazi Germany and the surrender of Japan, America (and the entire world) needed to heal from this gaping wound with scars buried deep within its soul. The Best Years of Our Lives showed us a society on the mend and, in the right hands, the hope of a better tomorrow. It is emotional and sometimes painful to watch, even 64 years later, and its themes have a new-found relevance to today’s combat veterans. If you or someone you know has served in the Armed Forces (which should be just about all of us), then I strongly recommend this movie. And guys, it’s okay to cry with this one…