The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). 172 minutes. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Frederic March (as Al Stephenson), Myrna Loy (as Milly Stephenson), Dana Andrews (as Fred Derry), Teresa Wright (as Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (as Marie Derry), Harold Russell (as Homer Parrish), Cathy O’Donnell (as Wilma Cameron), Gladys George (as Hortense Derry), Roman Bohnen (as Pat Derry), Hoagy Carmichael (as Butch Engle), Ray Collins (as Mr. Milton), Minna Gombell (as Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (as Mr. Parrish), Dorothy Adams (as Mrs. Cameron), Don Beddoe (as Mr. Cameron), and Michael Hall (as Rob Stephenson). Cinematography by Gregg Toland. Music by Hugo Friedhofer and Emil Newman.
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three servicemen returning to their Midwestern hometown after World War II and the difficulty with which they adjust to life as civilians, family members, and husbands or boyfriends. It is notably rather frank about the challenges involved in their re-immersion into domestic life, presenting their experiences with honesty and subtlety, even if that means sharing unpleasantness and real pain. Coming after years of bombastic Hollywood films tinged with direct or indirect propaganda about the glory of war, The Best Years of Our Lives is distinguished by its quieter take on what it is like to come home after years abroad in a military campaign. It was an enormous success upon its initial release, both critically and commercially, and remains one of the most important movies ever made about the Second World War.
The story begins just after the conclusion of the war as Captain Fred Derry attempts to get home from the front to Boone City, a fictional Midwestern town. He manages to get a place on a plane along with Al Stephenson and Homer Parrish; the latter has lost both of his hands in a naval catastrophe and now uses two hooks in their place. When they land in Boone City, none of them seems eager to return to domestic life. Homer is greeted awkwardly by his family and his girlfriend Wilma; Al passionately embraces his wife Milly but has trouble relating to his two children, Peggy and Rob, who are now grown up; and Fred struggles to find his wife Marie, whom he married in a whirlwind romance in the days before he left for combat and who he learns has taken up singing in a nightclub to survive in his absence. All three of the servicemen end up in Butch’s tavern on their first night back, and Al and Fred become grossly intoxicated. Fred spends the night at Al’s apartment, where he is cared for by Al’s daughter Peggy. She hears Fred yelling in the middle of the night and attends to him; he is reliving some traumatic event from the war that will never be fully revealed to us. Peggy and Fred develop feelings for each other.
Soon Al is summoned back to the bank where we he worked prior to the war and is tasked with scrutinizing loan applications from GIs. He finds, however, that the bank wishes for him to be more critical of prospective loans to servicemen than he thinks is appropriate, and he struggles with the pressure to deny people who have experienced what he has the opportunity to have a good life now. Fred discovers that Marie was interested in him as long as he wore a uniform and sent her a military check, but now that he is working as a soda jerk again, she finds him repulsive. Fred wants a relationship with Peggy, but Al compels him to call things off with his daughter. We then learn that Marie has asked Fred for a divorce. In the meantime, Homer behaves coldly towards his girlfriend Wilma, who becomes convinced that perhaps Homer does not love her any more, even though she was faithful to him while he was away. Homer invites her to his room one night to see if she can really accept who he is now, but when he shows her how he removes his claws and prepares for bed, he is surprised to find that she is willing to help him do both with love and enthusiasm. When we see them next, it is their wedding day. As Homer and Wilma exchange vows, Fred and Peggy stare ardently across the room at each other. As soon as the ceremony is over, the two approach one another. Fred tells her that life for them together would be difficult, both financially and in other ways, but she clearly does not care, and they embrace.
The movie’s title points to the richness and complexity of the narrative. We might think at first that the phrase “The best years of our lives” is the sort of expression that veterans might use to reflect positively on their service in World War II. I will always remember watching a television profile of Joseph Heller and his novel Catch-22 that interviewed both Heller and a group of veterans on their take on that war. The veterans took umbrage with Heller’s suggestion that the war was, for him and his characters, the worst thing that had ever happened to them, full of horror and trauma. In contrast, for the veterans in question, the war was about forming strong male friendships and performing courageous deeds while being unified in a singular cause; those were in fact the best years of their lives.
Yet interestingly, in this movie the only reference made to the expression comes from Marie, Fred’s wife, who in her final scene with him uses it to deride him. She gave up the best years of her life as a young, attractive woman waiting for him to come home from the war, she says. It is a civilian, in other words, who claims the term, and in her perspective, those years are the years that went by while the men were abroad and that they could have been living at home: the domestic lives they sacrificed, the relationships they forfeited, the days living and working and loving with their full selves intact, without the psychic or physical damage that would come later. The best years are what they gave up, in other words, not what they gained by being in the service. This is a fairly radical re-envisioning of the phrase, emphasizing what is lost, particularly on the home front during war, and while this perspective may come from a character whom we do not admire, nevertheless, her point is relevant to the protagonists in this story.
If “the best years of our lives” as a phrase does not apply to the years the men spent in combat, it also does not refer to the time after their return home. The lives of the three protagonists back in Boone City are marked by alcoholism (Al), financial deprivation (Fred), and physical disability (Homer). All three men also experience strife in their relationships with women. Although the movie gives the impression that life on the home front was pretty straightforwardly held together while the men were away—real life was probably more complicated—it also suggests that the lives of veterans coming home from battle were filled with a great deal of sorrow and dissatisfaction. It does this, incidentally, without particularly offering us scenes of the men recounting their greatest horror stories, or their greatest accomplishments, from the war. The most it shares with us of horrors is the brief explanation of how Homer’s hands were destroyed, a tattered Japanese flag belonging to a Japanese soldier that Al presumably killed (a token from the war that makes Al’s son uncomfortable when it is presented to him), Fred’s cries in the night (which presumably pertain to an episode of the war), and Fred’s visit to an airfield in Boone City, where he climbs into the nose of one of the discarded planes and starts to re-live a wartime memory—but not one that we can see. In other words, this is not a movie of flashbacks or long heart-to-hearts about what the characters saw overseas. As a result, The Best Years of Our Lives is much quieter than other stories about people who suffered in the war and probably more honest.
Homer’s story offers the most externalized manifestation of war-related suffering. Dependent on a pair of claws since he lost his hands in a disastrous fire at sea, he seems to dread returning home the most. His family’s response to their initial sight of his claws is devastating: awkwardness on the part of most of them, and sobs on the part of his mother, which his father attempts unsuccessfully to suggest are tears of happiness. Homer quickly comes to feel that everyone at home feels uncomfortable around him at best and is afraid of him at worst; there is an awful scene where the neighborhood children collect in the background to sneak a peak at his claws, and he reacts by smashing the glass windows of a tool shed. In spite of his girlfriend Wilma’s efforts to convince him that her feelings for him have not changed, he sees her as one of the children who view him as a monstrosity.
One night she propositions him: her family wants her to go away because they believe he does not love her anymore, and she wants him to tell her whether she should stay or go. He invites her up to his bedroom, where he shows her how he wriggles out of his claw holster at night and slides into his pajamas. He explains that after doing that, he is extremely vulnerable: he cannot button his pajamas up, turn out the light, tuck himself in, or reattach his claws. “This is when I know I’m helpless,” he says. “My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” He seems to think that seeing him in this state will make her leave, but it has the opposite effect. Wilma instead tenderly helps him to prepare for bed and pours out her love for him.
I must admit, this scene made me tear up. It reminded me that sometimes the people who habitually need our help become convinced that they are unlovable because of that need. The beauty of this scene is that it shows Homer that his belief that he is unlovable is wrong and demonstrates that love can come from a place of deep significance as an expression of compassion and caring, not just of romance. Scenes like this one make the movie more than just a film about men returning home after the war: Homer’s situation could be the situation of anyone who has experienced trauma or developed a disability and feels alone because of it. One of the most wonderful things about The Best Years of Our Lives is that it argues that compassion can overcome loneliness, even if the person who is offering that compassion cannot share in the deep personal suffering of the person being helped. After Wilma turns out the light and leaves, we see tears trickling out of Homer’s eyes in the moonlight. It is deeply moving.
The actor who played Homer, Harold Russell, was a real serviceman who lost his hands during combat, not a professional performer. Russell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in this movie but was considered a long shot, so the Academy created an honorary award for him that year to thank him “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” The idea was to offer Russell something in the way of an appreciative note so that he would not walk away prizeless, but Russell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor anyway, making him the only actor in the Academy’s history to have received two awards for the same performance.
The film is also notable for the work of Gregg Toland, the director of cinematography, whose characteristic use of deep focus is on full display here. Used in other Toland movies such as Citizen Kane, deep focus brings clarity to both the foreground and the background, so that we can both see things that we would not otherwise be able to and also can choose to focus on whatever we please in any shot. Roger Ebert points to the scene in Butch’s tavern as a characteristic example of Toland’s use of deep focus, where Al and Fred have just agreed that Fred will call things off with Al’s daughter Peggy. Fred moves to the background to call Peggy from a phone booth and tell her he cannot see her anymore, while in the foreground Homer calls Al over to the piano and demonstrates how he has learned to play “Chopsticks” with his claws. We feel uncomfortable watching Homer in part because we can see what Fred is doing in the background; we see Al squirming and feel the incongruity of the lighthearted performance of the song with what is going on in the phone booth. Without deep focus, we would not be able to register both moments at the same time, and the tension would be decidedly less impressive.
Deep focus always brings into question whose experience in the movie is most important: is it the people in the foreground or the background? The stars or the supporting characters, or perhaps even the extras? Here thematically, Toland’s deep focus also heightens our sense that what will dominate the men’s lives is also up for grabs. Will it be the action the men saw abroad or the experiences of the families that remained behind in Boone City? The loneliness of war-related trauma or the compassion and empathy of loved ones? The memory of what has been lost or the possibility of a rich and meaningful future? The choice of what to focus on is something that everyone in the film, and also the audience, is freely given, and so there is a sense that in the end, the best years of the characters’ lives are not the years abroad, nor the years they could have spent at home instead of fighting the war, but are perhaps years that are yet to come—even though, as Fred says at Homer’s wedding, they will not be easy.