The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

War is always a popular subject for film. However, most war films are interested in the battles and the fighting, the action at the front lines or in the skies or under the sea. The Best Years of Our Lives is a sequel to war, an exploration of what happens when the war is done and the men are sent back to their loved ones, trying to pick up their lives, or simply find a way to live a civilian life once more.

As three veterans take a plane right back to their hometown after WWII ends, they share their unease at the prospect of returning home. Each has their own mystery waiting for them, uncertain how home will greet them. For Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the eldest of the three, it’s the prospect of returning home to children he hasn’t seen in years. For Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), it’s returning home to a wife he married just days before he was drafted, a wife he wonders if he ever actually loved. And For Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), it’s returning home to a girl as a lesser man than he was before, his hands now replaced with hooks.

In the opening minutes of the film, the stories of the three troops elicit great sympathy. For them, returning home is a whole other front, faced with the prospects of returning different than they were. The three fear that people will try to change them, try to go back to the place they were before, a place they can no longer return to. The war is spoken of in bits and pieces, in passing, but it’s often what is unspoken or unsaid that is far more revealing and telling.

The reactions from the small town community to the soldiers vary. From some, there is great sympathy, patience and understanding as these men try to readjust their lives and are almost complete strangers in their own homes. But others simply ignore it, acting as if nothing has happed, perhaps because they don’t know how to react or behave. These people often hurt the three veterans the most, insulting them with their behavior and making their attempts to return to society even harder.

Therefore, the three men from three different walks of life, three different generations and three different social classes bond from a mutual understanding. As their relationships evolve throughout the film, they help one another along,and hinder each other from making big mistakes. But even thing mistakes happen, tempers are lost, rash decisions are made and the trio find less and less people around them who understand.

Therefore, that makes the people who do, or those who at least try, all the more special. As these three discover that special someone in their lives, a fantastic picture of love emerges. Not the gooey eyed sentimental sap of many a film, but a deep empathy, selflessness and understanding. It also provides for drama as each character has a flaw they must overcome in order to receive the acceptance of another person who hasn’t experienced the trials they have.

There’s no plot sustaining The Best Years of Our Lives, it’s a purely character driven vignette, giving the audience glimpses into the lives of these three veterans as they try to come back to grips with domestic life again. The film skimps a bit of the Homer story, which is the most compelling given that he’s lost the most but also has the most to gain, and yet even then it provides a much richer and compelling tale than even some of the best dramas.

In movies, it’s hard to make people deeply care about characters. At best, most films can elicit an emotional reaction, but more from clever tricks and cheap musical cues. The Best Years of Our Lives does it in the first five minutes, no trickery involved. And from there, the audience is along for the journey because they’re attached to the characters. It’s a long film but it never feels dull because being around these characters and watching their lives is more than enough tension and drama to sustain this fascinating look at life after war.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing