This is an extraordinary story about ordinary people. William Wyler’s 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives” is as touching as they come, a sobering account of three WWII veterans returning to everyday life after the war and the difficulties and heartache that each of them face. What’s incredible is that it came about in an era of post war euphoria in America and a barrage of highly patriotic war films; the people portrayed aren’t particularly remarkable or heroic, they’re good people who have gone through something horrific and are trying to return to life that is now all but unobtainable. Yet this is by no means a dreary story; this is a film about family, friendship, love and overcoming adversity. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, surprisingly funny and beautifully human.
The film follows three returning servicemen who meet on the plane ride home to their mid-west home town and their differing experiences as they strive to return to civilian life. There’s Fred (Dana Andrews), who served as a captain and bombadier and returns to his wife that he married twenty days before he was shipped out to war and due to the tight job market is forced to return to his job at the local soda bar. Then there’s Homer (Harold Russell, an actual war veteran and double amputee) a petty officer who lost both his hands when his ship went down and can’t handle his childhood sweetheart or his family treating him differently or pitying him now he is the way he is. Finally there’s Al, an infantry platoon sergeant returning to his seemingly idyllic world with his apartment straight out of Home Living, doting wife and two now grown up children and receives an instant promotion at the bank, yet he too struggles with returning to ordinary life and quickly develops an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
We follow the three of them and their families, sometimes as individuals and sometimes when their lives intertwine, particularly so when Fred and Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) start courting. Sometimes life is brutal and humiliating, and each of the men experience this differently. You can feel Fred’s frustration when he is told by a smartass at the local drug store that his expertise as a bombadier will be no good here and he has no reason to give him a job. Homer is ashamed and humiliated when his family tiptoe around him and offer him help at every chance they can get so as not to offend him. There’s some incredibly well written scenes surrounding Homer’s disability, notably when he talks about how sad it made him that his father had to hide his pipe when he realised that he was using his hands to light it and Homer couldn’t use his. Then towards the end of the film, Homer takes his girlfriend up to his bedroom to show her what happens when he takes his hooks off every night and how helpless he truly is, and that this would be her life too. It was so simple and understated, but boy oh boy, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room watching that.
The romance between Peggy and Fred was sweet, I’m becoming more and more impressed with how gutsy and strong willed the women in these old films are and Teresa Wright as Peggy and Al’s wife Milly (Myrna Loy) are no exception. No wilting flowers here. I probably didn’t find Al’s story as powerful, but that could well have to do with the fact that he’s an older gentlemen and it was easier for me to identify with Homer and Fred. His disconnection from his son when he first arrives was interesting to watch, especially as his boy, who used to admire him, tell him all he had been learning in school about how terrible war is and whether he had seen any of the effects of radiation on the survivors of Hiroshima. In a way this seems to be reflective of how society itself treated its soldiers when they first returned; the days of adoration and pride were gone, as the veterans readjusted to ordinary life they instead became a reminder of the war and were treated as such by the public.
This really is a beautiful film. Its a war story doesn’t glorify its heroes, but allows them to be seen as real people, flawed and scared and frustrated. This is one of those rare films I think everybody should see at some point in their lives, not only because it’s a sensational piece of cinema, but because we owe it to our veterans to remember and acknowledge what they’ve done.
By Jock Lehman