Originally published September 11, 2013 at 10:54 pm
If there was ever a heyday for war movies, particularly, WWII, it was the 1940’s. While many can now be seen as propaganda (which isn’t a slam by the way, it was Hollywood’s part of the war effort, orchestrated at times by the government), there was one that stood head and shoulders over the others. It wasn’t done with scenes of combat, nor was it taking you to the frontlines in Europe or Asia. Instead it takes it lofty place in history by virtue of its story. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES tells the story of three servicemen who meet as they return to their home town of Boone City.
Sergeant First Class Al Stephenson, played by the brilliant Frederick March, is set to return to his job as a banker, and a wife and two kids who seem as alien as the land he just left. Dana Andrews portrays Captain Frank Derry, a soda jerk in his former life, who strives for something greater on his return, but gets in his own way. And then there’s Petty Officer Second Class Homer Parrish, acted with astonishing insight by Harold Russell, whose hands were burned off in the war, nervous his fiancé will leave him because he has hooks for his missing hands.
Based on a novella by MacKinley Kantor, director William Wyler weaves the tales of the three with such finesse and compassion, we feel attached to the characters immediately. Even with a running time of 172 minutes, TBYoOL never feels padded; instead we wish we could see more. These aren’t stereotypical characters we’re used to seeing. They’re real people: they could be a relative (in my case one of two Uncles who were WWII veterans), they could be you. Or me.
What makes the film such a breakthrough is how it deals with the veterans as they try to reintegrate back into society. They’ve fought one war, only to come home and fight another. We watch as Frederick March drinks more and more, alienating those he loves most; Dana Andrews frustration of not being able to provide a life any better than what he had. Add to that, finding his wife in the arms of another man, and Andrews is sent spinning out of control and leading into one of the movies best scenes in the graveyard of abandoned airplanes.
Perhaps the most poignant and gut wrenching is Homer Parrish’s story. As played by newcomer and real veteran Harold Russell, his fears and insecurities are palpable. His pivotal moment comes when he invites his fiancé Wilma up to his room-not to get frisky, this is 1946 after all-but to show him what it would like living with, and taking care of him day in and day out. Her response and his relief at her acceptance is absolutely real and heartbreaking at the same time.
There have been many movies since that have dealt with the after affects of war, but none have done it with the artistry of William Wyler. Winner of seven Academy Awards, it managed to beat IT’S A WON DERFUL LIFE for Best Picture. The Academy, certain that Harold Russell would not win the Best Supporting Actor category gave him an honorary award for the role: when he did win, he became the first person to win multiple Oscars in the same year for the same role.
In spite of being 67 years old, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, doesn’t feel dated, and in fact is just as relevant today as it was in 1946. As Samuel Goldwyn said: “I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel, as long as every man, woman and child sees it.”