I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Best Years of Our Lives

tn_bestyearsofourlivesTHE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is the earliest movie I’ve seen about veterans coming home from war and having trouble readjusting, and very different from the other ones. If it was made after Iraq and Afghanistan it might’ve been a sun-drenched support-the-troops true tale of sacrifice like AMERICAN SNIPER. If it was after Vietnam it might’ve been a dark but entertaining genre tale, like ROLLING THUNDER or FIRST BLOOD. But this was 1946, right after World War II, so it’s a beautiful black and white ensemble drama directed by William Wyler (BEN-HUR) and shot by Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE).

It’s the story of three men fresh back from the war. Army captain and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews, GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) can’t get a flight back to his home town of Boone City, but a woman at the airline desk points him to where he can catch a ride on an army plane. He has to wait around for hours, but ends up in the nose of a bomber with sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, INSIDE MOVES) and infantry sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March, …TICK …TICK …TICK). They marvel over the view of America and bond over what they did in the war, and who and what they’re coming back to.

They get home and we follow each of them as they return to their families, try to find jobs, try to make regular life work again. For the most part their loved ones are thrilled to have them back, and will do anything they can to support them. And many people see their medals and treat them as heroes. Al is welcomed back at the bank where he worked, to almost an uncomfortable “we want to show off that we have a veteran on staff” level. Fred not as much. The drugstore has been taken over by a chain who will only hire him back as assistant to his old assistant when he was a soda jerk.

They never say it, but we can see on their faces that nobody understands them. They’re constantly running into people who are shameless about their distance from the sacrifices of war. Fred can’t get on a flight, but some asshole with a black servant to carry his luggage comes after him and gets on because his secretary called ahead. Some dick at the soda counter wants to lecture Homer about the pointlessness of the war, because he read an article about it. Fred’s wife wants him to just get over the war. But also she wants him to wear his uniform when they go out. “Now you look like yourself.” He looks so sad when she says that.

This is a nearly 3-hour movie, but it’s not an epic. It’s intimate. It’s about each of them resolving their put-on-hold relationships. For Al and Homer it’s about learning to let their wife of 20 years (Myrna Loy, BEN-HUR) and girlfriend since childhood (Cathy O’Donnell, BEN-HUR) back into their emotional lives. For Fred it’s about realizing he doesn’t fit with his married-right-before-shipping-out wife (Virginia Mayo, WHITE HEAT) and figuring out what to do about his attraction to Al’s adorable, witty, adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright, MRS. MINIVER), who he first meets by drunkenly hitting on.

mp_bestyearsofourlivesIt’s about all that, and that’s great, but my favorite part of the movie is the first hour or so, which takes place over just a few days as the three of them first come home. It has the feeling of a hangout movie, where you’re just spending time with these guys and enjoying it. They have their time forming a friendship in the plane and in a car from the airport, and though they say they’re excited to be home they are clearly afraid to face it. When Homer gets to his house, knowing that his parents are inside, wondering if his girlfriend Wilma who lives next door is home, he suddenly tries to convince them they should all go get a drink together first. And Alan tries the same trick.

They’re reunited with their people and they’re happy but they are not comfortable. Watching Alan in his nice home, sitting in the living room with his nice wife, joking around with their great daughter, you get this sense that he’s been dropped out of a war zone right into a show that would be on Nick at Nite. He’s smiling and quipping but he’s itching to get out of there. And it feels sad to see him there, confined. You want him to be back to that feeling of hanging out with those guys who he’d never met before but who knew exactly where he’d been.

Suddenly he convinces wife and daughter to go out for a night on the town with him to celebrate. In montage they are able to attend a surprising number of lively spots with impressive live musicians, and he keeps drinking way past when he should’ve stopped. He’s clearly making them uncomfortable but they stick with him because hey, he’s back after years at war. Give him this. We can stay out too late and put up with this this time.

And they end up at this little place for “one last drink, I swear” and suddenly who should walk in but both Homer (he already mentioned it was his favorite local spot and that his uncle owns the place) and Fred (he’s trying to find his wife, who he’s been told works at some night club). And Alan lights up, like this is the best reunion of the day. He shouts in delight and puts his arms around them and excitedly introduces them to his family. Millie and Peggy definitely have an “oh geez, I thought we were almost ready to leave” look to them, but again, they’re willing to hang. And it’s fun hanging with them. Alan has a mix of I’m-worried-about-him level of intoxication and I-just-can’t-be-disgusted-with-him charisma. And Homer’s uncle Butch is played by Hoagy Carmichael, the famous bandleader and songwriter who wrote “Georgia On My Mind,” among other things. So he’s playing piano there, that makes it a pretty good bar.

(There’s a scene later where he and Homer play “Chopsticks” together. And that’s kind funny because “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” are the two cliche songs for beginning piano students to learn – and Carmichael actually wrote “Heart and Soul”!)

Late at night, when Fred is too drunk to find his way home, the Stephensons take care of him at their house, so this night of fun continues into the hungover next day. It has a very authentic feeling of being out too late and getting too drunk and it being worth it for the company.

This is a three and a half hour movie, but it’s not an epic, it takes place maybe over a few months total. It’s very intimate, but takes its time getting into these relationships. Even the ones that get less screen time are very moving. I was interested in how much Fred clearly doesn’t want to be around his parents, who seem very nice but are lower class than everyone else we see in the movie and live in a small place. They seem very proud of him but don’t know how to connect with him. He just stops by for a minute and takes off.

I have not even really gotten into the best and most unique aspect of the movie, which is the fact that Homer is played by an untrained actor and actual war veteran who is a double amputee. He always wants to prove that he’s self-sufficient, likes to light his own (or other people’s) cigarettes, and even play a little piano. It’s kind of amazing to see him do it and makes it very powerful because even more than struggling with the helplessness that he can fall into when he has to take off his hands, he has to deal with how people look at him with horror or pity. Or his assumptions that they will, even if they don’t. You can imagine them doing this story with an actor faking the injury and it could be very emotional, but the authenticity of the more unusual way they chose to do it goes a long way.

Russell was given an honorary Oscar for “Special Award for Best Non-Professional Acting,” which turned out to be unnecessary because he also won the actual Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Obviously styles have changed in 70 years, and this looks like an old timey Hollywood confection, but it was very natural and realistic for its time. That’s not just because one of the leads is a non-actor with a non-Hollywood face. Wyler had the actors buy their own clothes so they would look like people, not actors with backlot costumers. He had the men not made up and the women only wearing the makeup they normally wear. He insisted on hiring WWII veterans for much of the crew, which must have had the extra benefit of putting some pressure on the actors to get it right.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn hired MacKinlay Kantor, a war correspondent who had flown on bombing missions and been present during the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and would soon write the Joseph H. Lewis movie GUN CRAZY, to write a treatment. His work became a novella called Glory for Me, which was adapted by World War I veteran and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood (REBECCA, ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, THE BISHOP’S WIFE).

And their work did not go unnoticed. It won nine Oscars including best picture, and has held up longer than I imagine some of the newer best picture winners will. I don’t know, I haven’t revisited CRASH. But the in my opinion THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is probly better.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 20th, 2016 at 9:29 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Best Years of Our Lives”

  1. One of the great American movies. I remember being a little flabbergasted when the guy who was against the war started telling them about the war’s pointlessness. We always think of WW2 as “the one good war” but even then there were protesters.

  2. You touch upon one of the problems I have with this movie; in that the first half of it’s run-time focuses on their first 24 hours back.Everything is very detailed and subtle. But from there, it starts jumping ahead months and months in order to get to the ‘big moments’. It’s jarring almost to the point where it’s like watching a different movie. Which is a shame because I feel the first movie is so much better.

    That said, I still think it’s pretty great movie. Just something that’s always bugged me…

  3. Always loved this one and is on the list of “old” movies I recommend to people who insist that old = safe awful shit that is also old and thus not as good as TRANSFORMERS and THOR. I mean they never EVER take my advice on such recommendations (even though they ask for them) but I figure it’s me fighting a good losing battle. It’s been years since I’ve seen this one but just about all the scenes with Homer have stayed with me, particularly the bedroom scene.

  4. Anyone interested in this film, or this era of film, would do well to read Mark Harris’ incredible FIVE CAME BACK. It follows Wyler and a few other directors (including John Ford and Frank Capra) through their WWII experiences.

    Fun Fact: When US was ramping up involvement, Wyler was recruited to make propaganda movies for the Army, including one targeted at African-Americans. Wyler did a research project by travelling through the South to see what life was actually like for black Americans, and after the trip he told the Army there was no way he could make a movie encouraging black people to fight for America because it was just that fucking horrible.

  5. PT Anderson’s THE MASTER owes a lot to this movie, especially its first act. Joaquin Phoenix plays a similar War Vet not fitting in at his Soda Jerk job.

  6. Love the Master. PSH. Could have handled about 40 more years of him crushing it.

  7. Great film. As Sidney Lumet, a veteran himself said, he expected to see some Hollywood “bullshit” but instead dealt truthfully with the hardships faced returning soldiers. Civilians not understanding what they went through, either too much adulation or too little respect, and constant PTSD. The scene where Homer comes home always makes me cry. Theresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses of the period and she’s great in it.

  8. Theresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses of the period and she’s great in it.

    She fucking kills it in Shadow of a Doubt. It makes me sad that she never got a role as meaty ever again.

  9. Great, great movie; should be better known than it is. It’s kind of a strangely exact, alternate-universe (if we consider 1946 as a parallel universe to 1998, which we might) version of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, in that it’s a kind of ostentatiously-frank, masculine drama whose basic point is “despite what you may have heard, WWII was not all fun and games.” Both films even peak in their first acts with simple, yet hair-raisingly suspenseful setpieces. It would make a great (if very long) double feature.

    Harold Russell is incredible in this. It’s apparent that he’s a new actor, but he does well, even in the midst of an acting style that seems much more affected than we’re used to (or affected in a different way). Like Vern said, he’s the only guy to win two Academy Awards for the same performance. IMDB says that he only had six roles total in his career, which must give him the best awards-to-performance ratio of any actor who ever lived.

  10. A number of 1930s, pre-code, Depression-era films such as GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, HEROES FOR SALE, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and James Cagney’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY dealt at least in part with veterans re-adjusting to American society. Later in the decade THE ROARING TWENTIES would make it a plot point as well.

  11. “She fucking kills it in Shadow of a Doubt. It makes me sad that she never got a role as meaty ever again.”

    I love her in Shadow of a Doubt. She was perfectly cast as the “girl next door” but with intelligence. Her last big film was in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s THE RAINMAKER as “Miss Birdie”, Matt Damon’s eccentric client and landlady.

  12. She was perfectly cast as the “girl next door” but with intelligence

    With sexiness, and a very deep dark streak. I love how she perfectly and subtly conveys the idea of the “other” Charlie without ever hitting the nail directly on the head. It’s a role that easily could have been straight up corny in the hands of a lesser actress, But Wright is so subtle it ends up working almost subconsciously

  13. As superb movie with not only unforgettable performances, but incredible cinematography (the scene of Fred at the air plane junkyard and insode the bomber is stunning!)/

  14. AnimalRamirez1976

    October 1st, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Ayn Rand hated this movie.

  15. I see that the book was mentioned above, but there’s a documentary based on Five Came Back out now on Netflix, and it’s really worth your time if you haven’t seen it already. In the third episode, it goes into how William Wyler’s time as a documentarian for the army (all the directors actually enlisted) impacted this film.

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