Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Robert E. Sherwood
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo
Soldiers fight in wars in order to protect their nation from different threats but rarely do they come back to a nation that shelters them in the same way. An unfortunate pill they have to swallow and in the 1946 masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, it shows the return of three different soldiers and their struggles to adjust.
Al (Fredric March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell) meet each other as they set to return to the United States after serving in World War II. They each left a life behind when they served and they jump right back into it with the scars and memories they have accrued from their time overseas. Nothing happens to be the same for them as they try to pick up where they left off to different results.
I’ve never enlisted for the armed forces or ever fought in a war so I could never express what it feels like to come back from such harrowing conditions to everyday life. However, the struggles presented in this masterful film exhibit the pain and trouble that manifests when you’ve seen some terrible things and have to return to a society that has managed to operate with your absence. A realization that hits each of the three characters this story follows. Each of them has their own arc, which gets interconnected because of their meeting and the happenstance that they live in the same town. The way they mingle with each other and share a bond that no one else can share makes for a beautiful camaraderie that gets them through the harshest moments when they get back home.
Their shared experience becomes one forged from protecting their country, as they held different roles in their time overseas and never crossed paths until their flight home. Fred was a bombardier, Al was an infantry platoon sergeant, and Homer served as a petty officer. They did not need to be bunkmates to know that the war was over and they could finally return to some sense of normalcy knowing that they’ve accomplished some semblance of peace in the world. They were not prepared for what would await them once they landed back in the United States.
As mentioned before, each of them goes through their own arcs and obstacles they must fight. Al comes back to a loving wife, daughter, and son that await him with excitement. The return of Al presents a rekindling of love between him and his wife as he has a new license in life. His daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) drives them around to different clubs to celebrate his return to the nation. He certainly has it the easiest out of them all even though he struggles with his responsibilities as a parent since he’s been gone so long and in the workplace.
Fred comes back to a marriage that was set up for failure. He married Marie (Virginia Mayo) a month before shipping out and came back to someone who no longer has the same flame for him. Part of the extinguished fire results from the constricted job market and how he needs to resume his job as a soda jerk in a convenience store for employment. While it brings in some money, it does not have the status or earning potential Marie wants from a husband at this point in her life.
Homer lost both of his hands when they got burned from his ship sinking during the war and must confront a society that will look at him a certain way because of his disability. He feels lesser because of it, especially when he returns to his fiance, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who loves him unconditionally and he pushes her away because of the burden he does not want her to take on.
All of their struggles feel unique to them, but I’m sure veterans from all eras can relate to them. Everyone at home was able to move through life with not much change in life while they experienced hell and needed to simply readjust to normal life. It’s a tough ask, especially with the way veterans are treated. You would think that for the service these soldiers provided, there would be more appreciation by the government and society, but The Best Years of Our Lives shows the bitter reality. Just like in the 21st Century, veterans struggle through various mental health issues, employment, and access to resources, the men of this film see the gross treatment of their fellow service members.
Al witnesses it in his job where he works as the Vice President of loans for a company, because of his experience with servicemen. The president of the company thought the military experience would assist in servicing the veterans that applied for loans. Al finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to decide whether he could loan money to a young veteran looking to jumpstart his life. Through policy, he cannot loan the money because of the lack of collateral that the young veteran cannot provide because he’s been at war for so long. Even when Al attempts to help the guy, he gets chastised by his superior for attempting to assist in that manner. Additionally, Homer needs to put up with a civilian who tells him that the entire war was pointless because America should have never gotten involved. The man looks Homer in the eye and refers to the prosthetic hooks he now has for hands and tells him that America had no business getting into a fight with Japan and the Nazis. A horrifying thing for him to say, especially when the man in question stayed at home while Homer watched several of his brothers perish for the cause of ending the Nazi regime.
Beyond the hardships, there’s such a beauty to the connection that these three men share and how their lives forever get connected because of their service. It’s truly excellent work by director William Wyler, who’s no stranger to war films and how it impacts family units. He also directed the Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, which focused more on the war currently happening. With this feature, he decides to show the aftermath, which must have resonated so much seeing as this film was released in 1946, one year after World War II concluded. In a way, it shamed the country for the way it treated the veterans so soon after they returned to the nation. The pacing of this film is simply outstanding, as it has a hefty 172-minute runtime but it doesn’t feel that way at all. It moves at such an incredible pace with the way each of these three men experiences their return.
The narrative had me so invested in the fate of these characters because each of them feels so well-rounded in their issues. The large ensemble of actors certainly helped as they humanize the larger problems these characters face. I could list off each actor and the beautiful sympathetic performances they put forth to solidify these tremendous characters and folks you want to succeed. Whether it be the romances they deserve or the foundation around them trying their best to comfort them with the issues they came back with. I adore the amount of love that exists in this film and it comes through with this case in the way they take the cynicism of their situations and bring a bright light of positivity to move forward and create a better life that existed before the war.
I love every second of The Best Years of Our Lives. The beauty that comes through the dark moments for these characters makes them feel tangible and real. They have their faults and their shortcomings but try to make the best out of their situation. Truly an exceptional masterpiece and one of the greatest American films ever made.