World War II had barely ended when director William Wyler made and released The Best Years of Our Lives, the poignant story of three WWII veterans returning home to small town America to try to re-assimilate back to their previous lives. In the past 40 years or so we’ve seen some similar films, like Coming Home about the Vietnam War and Brothers about Iraq. Those and similar films owe a lot to The Best Years of Our Lives.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a terrific drama that explores the post war experience, family dynamics, friendship and love. Al Stephenson (played by Fredric March) returns from the Army to his grown kids and his old executive job at a bank. He is torn between his career and his loyalty to other returning vets looking to get back on their feet. Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is an Air Force bombardier who married a woman he barely knew just before he went off to war and returns home to a wife he barely knows and a very difficult job market for a man of his limited skills. To complicate things, he meets Al’s daughter Peggy and falls in love with her. Then there is Homer, played by Harold Russell, a Navy man who lost both of his hands when his ship was sunk and is unsure how his high school sweetheart fiance will receive him upon his return.
This is heavy stuff for sure, and it is so well written and acted that even at nearly three hours it holds your attention because you truly want to see how things end up for these heroes. The film took home a ton of Oscars in 1947, none more deserving than the Best Supporting Actor nod for Russell who actually did lose his hands while in the service (although not in the war but rather in an accident). Still, his hooks are part of his character and you can tell he brings his own experience to the role. Russell is actually the only person to win two Oscars for the same role since he was also given an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” March won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Al, Wyler won for Best Director and of course the film won a well deserved Oscar for Best Picture.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that shows us what the medium can truly achieve in terms of bringing issues to the screen and telling the story of the human condition. Great stuff.
Next Up: The Bridge on the River Kwai