The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
One of the most famous photographs of the last century features a young sailor just having gotten home on the day Japan surrendered, grasping a girl by the waist in Times Square and giving her a passionate kiss. Several men claimed to be the sailor, and two women claimed to be the girl — we don’t know. The square was thronged with people, including a lot of servicemen, and there’s a lot of evidence that the city was bursting out in celebration.
How do you thank the men who have come back from war? And how do the men themselves fit back in to an ordinary life, after what they have seen and done? Even after that great war, when everybody in America believed in the justice of the Allied cause, and the men were hailed as heroes, those were not easy questions to answer, and it’s to the immense credit of director William Wyler and screen writer MacKinlay Kantor, that The Best Years of Our Lives gives us nothing easy, nothing to flatter everybody all the way around. For the men who came home weren’t standard-issue soldiers. They were unique human persons, with all the passions, the love, the doubt, the sadness, and the joy that go along with that; and they were leaving a life of military order in the midst of chaos, to enter a life of a very different kind of order, and a different kind of confusion, too.
The film tells the story of three soldiers returning to the same good old midwestern town. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a banker before the war, the wealthiest of the three, but he turns to drink to allay his troubles, and his relations with his wife Milly (played by Myrna Loy with her usual quiet intensity) are not marked by a steady and confident love, but by the need to fall in love again and again, after the war as before. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is a blue-collar worker whose house, literally, is on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, and his wife (Virginia Mayo) is impatient with him because he doesn’t make enough money, as he can only land a job sweeping a broom at the druggist’s. Such are the thanks he gets both from his wife and from the Americans he fought for. But the most remarkable of the three soldiers is Homer Parrish, a chubby young man whose hands were burnt off in a fire. For Parrish, Wyler didn’t choose a professional actor at all, but a man named Harold Russell, who lost his hands in an accident with TNT while he was training paratroopers in North Carolina. Russell had to learn to use metal hooks for his hands, and we see those hooks, and how they work, what they can do and what they can’t do — they can’t touch, they can’t feel. And Homer is worried that his fiancee Wilma (fresh-faced Cathy O’Donnell) is going to marry him out of misplaced gratitude and pity, rather than for love.
The stories of the three men are woven together with great skill — and each must come to some kind of resolution. I won’t give out any spoilers here, except to say that Al’s daughter Peggy — was there ever any actress who could portray innocence, passion, and earnestness better than Teresa Wright? — sees what Fred’s wife is doing to him, and that Al’s boss at the bank (Ray Collins) is going to have to learn that guts and integrity are collateral just as sound as money and property are, and that even when happiness does not seem to be within our reach, the decision to love, to be grateful, always is. Watch then this most honest of films, and give thanks to God and to your loved ones for all the good things you have known!
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