Directed by: William Wyler
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Harold Russell
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is one of the most powerful war films I've ever seen, and yet its story begins after WWII had officially ended. Too often in cinema, the end of the battle is considered the end of the war: a sweeping camera movement, an upwelling of stirring music, the hurrah of victorious soldiers, and suddenly everything is all right. But war doesn't end when the guns stop blazing, nor when the politicians put their pens to paper. War lingers for days, months, and years. Returning veterans, even those who emerged from conflict without a scratch, faced an uphill battle to reclaim their former lives, having sacrificed their happiest years in service to their country. In 1946, the issues faced by war veterans had only just come to public light. Two years earlier, congress had introduced the G.I. Bill, which allowed ex-serviceman access to low-interest loans with which to rebuild their lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers had previously only been explored in the film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946).
Three soldiers from different social classes, returning to their home-town after years of conflict, are united in their desire to rekindle their former lives. But things will never be the same as before. Homer Parrish (true-life war veteran Harold Russell) lost his hands in battle, and fears that his faithful girlfriend (Cathy O'Donnell) remains with him only out of pity. Working-class pilot Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds that, despite his distinguished achievements in war-time, he still lacks the necessary experience to assimilate into civilian life. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to children he barely recognises, but finds consolation in "the perfect wife" Myrna Loy. The intertwining journeys faced by each of the veterans are often uncomfortable to watch, sometimes shameful and embarrassing, but the overriding message is one of hope: whatever adversities these men must confront, they can be sure to rely upon the support of their family, friends and the grateful United States government.
Gregg Toland's crisp deep-focus photography is excellent, but the major strength in William Wyler's drama are the characters themselves. Harold Russell, who actually did lose his hands in combat, was hand-picked from a military documentary on rehabilitated soldiers, and his performance works so well because it's genuine. Russell is clearly an amateur next to the neatly-balanced dramatics of March and Andrews – he even flubs his characters' wedding vows – but the emotion is authentic, and his pain heartbreaking. Fredric March won his second Oscar (after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) for his role as a banker who lost his commercial hardness in the trenches. A little disappointingly, his character doesn't figure prominently in the film's second half, his role somewhat reduced to that of a vector facilitating Andrews' melodramatic, but satisfying, romance with Teresa Wright. I would have liked the film to have more thoroughly explored Stephenson's detached relationship with his children, but evidently there were time constraints to be considered – having said that, though, the 172 minutes flies by effortlessly.
Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
2) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
3) The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
4) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
5) The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
6) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) The Locket (John Brahm)
8) Crack-Up (Irving Reis)
9) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)
10) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall)