Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives

Rating



Director

William Wyler

Screenplay

Robert E. Sherwood (Novel: Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor)

Length

172 min.

Starring

Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen

MPAA Rating

Approved (PCA #11972)

Buy/Rent Movie

Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

Soldiers returning home from the war face difficult changes within themselves and within the people around them. The Best Years of Our Lives follows three such men as they attempt to settle back into the lives they once knew.

Fredric March, long removed from his Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde makes the most of a trying character. Al Stephenson was a loan officer at a local bank before leaving for World War II. Myrna Loy as Al’s wife Milly puts on a brave face for her husband. Though it’s clear she has missed him terribly, she fears life for him may never be as it was. She serves him breakfast in bed, coddles him every step of the way trying to help cushion the blow of an altered post-war United States.

Unable to take up residence with his wife the first night of his return, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) seeks shelter with the Stephensons until he can find Marie (Virginia Mayo). Andrews, whose work in various popcorn flicks carries little weight in such a hefty vehicle, performs admirably herein. Mayo fits herself well into the guise of a caring wife at her wits end. Having been married only a short time before Fred went off to war, Marie has taken to living off his military salary and upon his return, comes to the realization that the money won’t support them both and pressures him to return to work before he’s emotional ready and into a position that is far below the capabilities given him by his military training.

Nevertheless, as the money fails to come in by the handfuls with so many men returning from the front, Marie becomes bitter, having an affair that will give her the style of life she feels she deserves. Feeling betrayed by her actions, Fred begins rationalizes his feelings for the woman he though the loved and begins to consider the love he has for the Stephenson’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

Meanwhile, the third soldier, played by real life amputee Harold Russell, tries to reconcile his varied emotions. Filled with self loathing and anger at his condition, both arms amputated above the elbow, Homer Parrish realizes what he will never be able to do with them and spirals towards a dangerous depression that tears him away from the girl he loves and the family that loves him. Having already come to terms with his condition, Russell fails on many occasions to convey the depth and sympathy the film demands. We believe him only because he is an actual victim of the horrors of war. His hooks for hands act as a symbol of both his loss and his courage to persevere without help.

Director William Wyler paints a vivid picture of the decimation of war far from the bloody battlefield. With The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler appropriately parallels war and its reconstruction. Lives permanently changed by a dreaded but sometimes justified conflict. Though the flaws are readily apparent, Robert E. Sherwood’s adaptation of MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Glory for Me is a gripping look at the blood and sweat shed by the men and women of the armed forces even after the last rifle is fired.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows us the side of war that is often commingled with actual footage of war. We’ve seen movies that glimpse the lives of the soldiers of war both before and after but traditionally during. Wyler doesn’t need the audience to know what war looks like because those who have never seen it up close can’t begin to fathom the realism of what they are watching. We must use only the performances and the situations the characters face to understand. It is through their struggles we comprehend the sacrifices they made when they became soldiers.

Review Written

October 23, 2006

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