BACKSTORY: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the most beloved movies of its time. It was directed by the acclaimed William Wyler and released in 1946. Wyler had earlier done the famous documentary “Memphis Belle”. Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie about returning veterans so it is set in the period immediately after WWII. It is based on a blank verse novel by MacKinley Kantor and was adapted into the screenplay by Robert Sherwood – two heavyweights. The movie was a box office smash in America and was actually even more popular in England. It won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. AFI ranked it as the 37th best motion picture of all time. The movie is famous for the casting of Harold Russell a a disabled vet. Russell had lost his hands due to a faulty fuse setting off some explosives during a training session. He is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same performance. The Academy felt he would lose for Best Supporting Actor so they gave him an honorary Oscar. Besides Russell, Wyler insisted on the film crew being veterans.
|Homer, Freddy, and Al|
|Al wonders if he's the same man|
|the ladies are Peggy and Milly|
Freddy gets fired from his perfume job when he punches a customer who is spouting about how the war was a waste because we were fighting the wrong countries. Huh? Shaky plot development. This seems too early in the Cold War for him to be talking about the Russian communists. This opinion would have been bizarre for 1946 so it seems like a weird way to advance the plot. Why not punch him because he is deriding chumps who went off to war when the economy was booming?
|Homer tickles the ivories|
Part three: marching into the future Freddy catches Marie with another man. She wants a divorce. Problem solved! And she comes off as the bad guy. Mission accomplished. Freddy plans to leave and start a new life. While waiting on his flight, he wanders into an airplane graveyard (symbolic of the vets?). The contractor that is going to use the planes for materials for building homes offers him a job.
CLOSING: Homer and Wilma get married. He screws up the vow, but they get through the ceremony. (Russell actually flubbed the lines and Wyler left the take alone – very nice!) Freddy and Peggy rekindle with a kiss. It looks like everyone will live happily ever after.
Acting - 9
Action - N/A
Accuracy - N/A
Realism - 8
Plot - 8
Overall - 8
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Absolutely. It is not a typically macho war movie. It even has some romance. The female characters hold their own. Myrna Loy and Virginia Mayo were highly respected in their day. The film has just the right dose of smoochiness. The ladies will have their hanky moments and the guys will be able to tolerate them.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue here. The story is fictional. However, the three main characters do fit many of the returning veterans.
CRITIQUE: It is easy to see why “The Best Years of Our Lives” is so beloved. It was the perfect movie for its time. It really struck a chord. People were making the transition from wartime to peacetime and the adjustment was difficult. Millions of veterans were returning to lives that were not only different from Depression-era America, but drastically different from their military experiences. Some came home disabled and wondering about their place in society. Some came home to stable families and jobs, but found that boring and unfulfilling. Some came home to faulty wartime marriages and unclear occupational futures.
The movie is very well made. Wyler is at the top of his craft and used his experience filming “Memphis Belle” to get a realistic veteran vibe. The movie has a different look to it. Wyler insisted on a type of cinematography called “deep focus”. When you watch a scene, everything in the background and foreground is in focus. It gives the scenes incredible depth. The framing is also nicely done. Many of the scenes feature doorways like in “The Searchers”. Although Wyler did not like the score, it matches the moods well.
The cast is all-star. The acting is top notch. Just the facial expressions alone are amazing. Russell is the standout because of his background. He does real well for a rookie. (Wyler insisted he not take any acting lessons.) Of course, it helped that O’Donnell is a poor actress and anyone would look talented opposite her.
The movie holds up surprisingly well considering it came out right after the war. You would expect a good bit of patriotism and sentimentality. It keeps those elements to a minimum. The way characters in the movie behave is true to life. The one problem is the tidy ending is not true to life. It is asking too much of 1940s Hollywood to have a depressingly realistic ending. All three story arcs portend positive futures. That’s 100%. It would have been nice if 100% of actual WWII veterans had bright post-war lives.
CONCLUSION: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the best of the small subgenre of post-war home front movies. It is an excellent companion to all the good American WWII movies. Many of the survivors in those movies would have had experiences similar to Al, Freddy, and Homer. It’s almost like a sequel to many of those movies. It is definitely a must-see, but a bit overrated because of its overly optimistic ending. Contrast it to the second half of “The Deer Hunter”. But then again, perhaps that movie was too pessimistic. "The Best Years of Our Lives" seems to be appropriately placed in the Greatest 100.
THE FIRST STOP