After the end of World War II, three American veterans from different military branches and different social backgrounds return home to try and reacclimatise themselves back into society, but the world back home isn’t quite how they remembered it.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that, prior to cracking open the 1001 Movies book, I’d never heard of and, despite having had it written down on a spreadsheet for over a decade, I couldn’t have told you a great deal about before watching it. I’d heard it recommended, but even then only a couple of times by a couple of people, and I think I’d pegged it as one of those instances where the Oscar Academy had blundered and handed a Best Picture award to some easily forgotten drama over the presumably far superior and more impactful likes of It’s A Wonderful Life. However, my endeavours with Deep Blue Sea: The Podcast have begun to integrate me within the Movies by Minutes community, a group of podcasters who have opted to spend their free time discussing films in tiny segments, predominantly minute by minute, and their latest group project is a by-the-minute breakdown of today’s subject film. I jumped at the chance to partake, which meant tracking down and watching the film in question (it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime, the first time it’s been available to me for a while), and I’m very glad I did. The podcast episodes Mark and I recorded won’t be published for a fair few months yet (we drew one of the final straws), so for now you’ll have to make do with this very positive review.
I’m generally a fan of war films, or more specifically I like a good action movie, and a wartime setting often provides for large scale action sequences alongside many opportunities for dramatic scenes. The Best Years of Our Lives is technically a war film, in that it’s about the aftermath of World War II, but this is a drama through and through, with the closest we get to an action sequence being a couple of dramatic PTSD nightmares and a fistfight or two. Oh, and it’s almost three hours long. It’s one minute longer than Saving Private Ryan, a film I’d place very highly on my list of favourite war films (alongside The Great Escape, itself two minutes longer than Best Years) but those films contain a lot of action and derring-do, but deal far less with the aftermath and consequences of war. In fact of the war films I’ve seen I can only really think of The Hurt Locker as touching on the post-war ramifications, and even then it’s in a relatively short scene.
So if you’ve not been scared off by the prospect of a 170-minute long post-war drama with few-to-no action sequences, then welcome to the rest of the review! The story follows three men returning from war. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is a bombardier, returning home to his flash-in-the-pan marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo), who has had to take a job working in a nightclub to make ends meet whilst Fred has been away. Now he’s back, Fred intends to make a name for himself and provide for his wife, and the last job he wants is his old profession of soda jerk at the local drugstore, especially now the former store lackey would be his manager. Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is happily married to Milly (Myrna Loy) with two grown children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall), but he takes to drinking a little too easily. His career at the bank is safe and waiting for him, and he’s even given the job of reviewing loans requested by other returning veterans. Finally, naval Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is heading home to his loving parents and sweetheart next door (Cathy O’Donnell), but he’s concerned how everyone will treat him after he lost both his hands at war.
I won’t go into detail of the various hardships these men endure attempting to reintegrate themselves into their old lives and progress them into something new, but it’s all very engaging, and shows a side of the war stories that is rarely covered in film. From the off, when we first meet the guys they’re just trying to get home to the fictional Boone City (apparently based on Connecticut), but there’s just no flights available for any of the military men, instead the seats are occupied by wealthy businessmen returning home from golfing vacations. Al’s son is disappointed his father knows nothing of the effects of radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and Fred’s wife Marie seems only interested in parading her husband around in his military uniform, which he’s probably desperate to never wear again. Meanwhile Homer has fully adjusted to life with prosthetic arms, but he can’t help second-guessing how everyone else might be seeing him, and doesn’t wish to inflict a life of helping him on his girlfriend Wilma.
Harold Russell, the real WWII veteran portraying Homer, is the film’s true success story and one of the more famous behind-the-scenes details of the film. Before filming he was not a professional actor, but he had appeared in a US propaganda film, Diary of a Sergeant, after Russell lost both his hands when a defective fuse detonated explosives he was handling. The short film focused on how Russell trained to use his new prosthetic hooks after the explosion and, upon seeing this, William Wyler cast Harold as Homer. It’s so much more effective having Russell playing this role over a non-disabled actor who would’ve had to learn to use the prosthetic limbs for the film, as Russell is seamless with them, to the point that he had to act worse with them as Homer than he was in real life. It’s captivating just watching Homer light a match or sign his name, and he’s so naturalistic in the emotional scenes too. Russell would go on to become the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role, picking up both the Best Supporting Actor award and an honorary award for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans. However he’s also the only actor to have ever sold their award at auction (supposedly to pay for his wife’s surgery, but allegedly perhaps to instead take her on a cruise), causing the academy to force all future winners to sell their awards back to the academy for $1 before going to auction.
So Russell’s acting is great and he legitimately deserved the award, but he’s not alone in the cast. Fredric March also took home a statue for Best Actor for playing Al, which is a little surprising as Dana Andrews’ Fred felt more like the lead to me, but Al has a little more to do in terms of acting range. Andrews is no slouch here either, and in fact the whole cast is fantastic with no weak links. I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright all stand out amongst the supporting cast with better female characters than I was expecting, and Hoagy Carmichael is a lot of fun as Homer’s bar-running, piano-playing uncle Butch. Interestingly enough, Carmichael was amongst the inspirations for James Bond, with Ian Fleming having described Bond as looking like Carmichael in two of his novels.
Outside of the acting, Gregg Toland’s cinematography is stunning (the scene where Homer is showing Al his piano skills is perfectly framed and tells so much visually), there’s surprisingly more comedy than expected (Al’s drunken lolling whilst his wife tries to dress him for bed) and some emotionally wrenching scenes, with Homer’s final display to Wilma being up there as one of the best. Also I’m always a sucker for videos of soldiers returning home to their families, and given that’s basically all this film is then it’s fair to say I was a wreck through a lot of this.
Basically, this is an incredible film. The fact that it took so long for me to even hear of this, let alone watch it, is awful. I can understand why it’s not shown on TV as often as other more crowd-pleasing fares from the time, but it should be. At the very least it should be shown in history classes. If you’ve made it this far and haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour, block out 3 hours from your diary and give it a watch.
Choose Film 9/10