The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Reviewed on 2011 May 31
This outstanding movie did something I don’t recall any other film of this time frame doing: dealing with the stress of readjusting to life at home after seeing the horrors of World War II. If there are others from this era please let me know, but I think most films tackling post traumatic stress and serious injuries from battle were post-Vietnam. Not only was this a first, but the acting and story line are excellent.
Three veterans return from the war to “normal” life in their small town, normal being relative. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) cuts a fine figure in his pilot uniform, but he has nightmares about what he saw and now needs to translate his experience on a bomber into a marketable skill while other men are streaming home and snapping up jobs. The mentally strong Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) lost both his hands in the war, and wants nothing more than to have his family and friends treat him as though nothing had changed, yet he’s seen having sleepless nights. Al Stephenson (Frederic March) seems the most adjusted, superficially, but when he gives his son a Japanese flag and samurai sword he doesn’t talk much about it, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly what he saw over there.
The initial joy of being home soon gets nudged aside by the pain of settling back down and trying to get back to living as though they hadn’t been through hell. Fred’s high-maintenance wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) can’t understand why her husband can’t just “get over it”. Al is married to Milly (Myrna Loy), one of the coolest wives in the Western Hemisphere, but he has no real excitement at going back to work at a cold, bloodless bank. Homer is afraid his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) views him with pity instead of love and has difficulties relating to his warm, loving, but heartbroken family, who in their love for their son tiptoe around his changed body.
After I read the synopsis I honestly wondered if I wanted to see this, or if it would just send me running for the Kleenex®. I am glad I watched it, because while parts of it did make me tear up, the story just pulled me in completely. Harold Russell deservedly took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his role as the almost unbelievably strong Homer and Frederic March got Best Actor as the newly-cynical Al. What impressed me about this, besides the fact that it even tackled this topic, is it showed the men as very human and very sympathetic in their struggles, keeping them likable while still flawed and human. It would make quite a Memorial Day double feature with From Here to Eternity.
Four chocolate morsels.