I have no idea why it took me so long to see the 1946 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Best Years of Our Lives. I, like many movie-lovers, went through a classics-phase, watching swoon-worthy black-and-white films from the 1930s and 40s. This movie should have fit right in there. But it seems almost forgotten, except by die-hard movie buffs. This is a crying shame, as the film is an outstanding, and unfortunately timeless portrayal of soldiers and the families who love them.
The film begins with an end: World War II is over, and three military men hitching a ride on a military transport are headed home to Boone City. Fred (Dana Andrews) was a captain on a bomber, Homer (Harold Russell) survived the sinking of a Navy ship, and Al (Fredric March), the oldest of the three, was a sergeant in the Pacific. They speak with excitement and a bit of nerves about what awaits them when they are finally home: a wife and kids for Al, a fiancée for Homer, a frisky new wife (that he married just before leaving) for Fred. But when they share a cab on the way home, you can see their hesitation about being thrust right back into civilian life, despite all of their horrific and unexplainable war experiences.
Al has a fabulous, supportive wife (saintly Myrna Loy), and teens are now young adults–with his spirited daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright, the crush-worthy, independent modern girl) taking at first a protective, then more romantic interest in Fred. Fred, on the other hand, barely remembers his wife, and doesn’t even know where she lives or works. Homer, perhaps, has the toughest homecoming, as he lost his hands in the war, and now survives (quite ably) with two hooks for hands. No matter the acceptance of Homer’s family (who can’t hide their initial horror), and the jovial “It’s all good, I’m fine!” attitude of Homer, he has a spiral of depression, convinced his girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell) will no longer want him.
There are several images from this film that will always stick with me: Homer, after removing his prosthetic hooks for the evening, patiently lets his father button his pajamas while Homer takes the last drags from a cigarette; Fred, sees his past in an airplane graveyard of bombers, literally covered in dust, waiting to be disassembled as though they didn’t exist; Al, going against all instructions at the banks where he works, gives a veteran a good-faith loan that he knows full well the customer can’t pay back.
This film is haunting, moving, and uplifting, and so real. It is a shame that films about war veterans coming home will always be relevant, but The Best Years of Our Lives is still a completely-timely, must-see film that remains powerful and fresh, like a wound that is hard to heal.
The few special features (holdovers from the 1998 DVD release) include an introduction by Virginia Mayo, an interview with Virginia May and Teresa Wright, talking about the film and the impact on their careers, plus a theatrical trailer.