The story concentrates on the social re-adjustment of three World War II servicemen, each from a different station of society. Al Stephenson returns to an influential banking position, but finds it hard to reconcile his loyalties to ex-servicemen with new commercial realities. Fred Derry is an ordinary working man who finds it difficult to hold down a job or pick up the threads of his marriage. Having had both hands burnt off during the war, Homer Parrish is unsure that his fiancée's feelings are still those of love and not those of pity. Each of the veterans faces a crisis upon his arrival, and each crisis is a microcosm of the experiences of many American warriors who found an alien world awaiting them when they came marching home.Written by
William Wyler, who served as a major in the Army Air Force during World War II, incorporated his own wartime experiences into the film. Just as Fred Derry did in the movie, Wyler flew in B-17s in combat over Germany, although rather than being a bombardier, as Derry was, Wyler shot footage for documentary films (his hearing was permanently damaged when an anti-aircraft shell exploded near his plane while on a bombing raid). Additionally, he modeled the reunion of Al and Milly, in which they first see each other at opposite ends of a long hallway, on his own homecoming to his wife, Margaret Tallichet. See more »
There are many scenes in the movie where Al's bangs change as the camera angle changes. See more »
The character played by Ray Teal (the Axis sympathizer whom Homer Parrish attacks at the soda fountain) is listed in the credits as "Mr. Mollett". However, the character's name is never mentioned or otherwise alluded to. See more »
The film was modified to play on a wide screen and reissued on February 3, 1954. See more »
Highly structured but flawless and really moving drama about returning G.I.s
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The whole point of this film when it was released still makes perfect sense today, though I'm sure it doesn't have the same impact it did in those first years after World War II ended. Returning servicemen, with all kinds of backgrounds before and during the war, hit a wall coming home: wives who no longer loved them, jobs that had dried up, a culture that was foreign to them and that found them, these men, to be foreign themselves.
It wasn't a crisis to take lightly. These were the guys who were drafted to fight the enemy, and in going overseas they lost some of the best years of their lives, if not their lives. The country knew its debt in the abstract, but it also knew it in sons and husbands who really did come home and who had to face it all. This movie was both a reckoning for the sake of national healing and a brilliant drama that would be beautifully pertinent and therefore successful. And what a success, then and now.
The consummate Hollywood director William Wyler shows in this fast, long movie just what a master he is at working the medium. With Gregg Toland at the camera, Wyler makes a highly fluid movie, visual and dramatic and weirdly highly efficient. With the three main plots interweaving and depending on each other, the drama (and melodrama) build but never beyond plausibility. Wyler knew his audience wouldn't put up with pandering or cheap mistakes. Casting Harold Russell as Homer, knowing the audience would hear about how Russell really was a soldier who lost both hands in the war, was a huge step toward creating both empathy and credibility. It even practices a key theme in the move--to go beyond your bounds to make a difference, to give these guys a break and help them assimilate.
It's interesting how singular this movie is, trying to show the truth in these kinds of situations. The other post-war films about army and navy men fall into two large and dominating categories--war films and film noir. And it is film noir that comes closest to getting at the problem of the G.I. not reintegrating well, making it a whole style, brooding and spilling over with violence. "The Best Years of Our Lives" has a highly controlled and even contrived plot structure, but it aims to be honest and representative.
That it's remarkable formally--the way it is shot and edited and acted, top to bottom--is not surprise, given the heights that Hollywood had reached by then, and given that Wyler is easily the slickest of them all, in the best sense. That the movie makes such beautiful sense and really works as a story, a moving and heartwarming story without undue sappiness, is a whole other kind of achievement. A terrific, rich, full-blooded, uncompromised movie.
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