It’s not uncommon to see modern war movies dealing with issues like PTSD and the difficult adjustment combat veterans face coming home to people who have no idea what war really is. True, there are a lot of movies like that now, suggesting we as a society have a greater understanding for how war affects the human mind. Heck, sometimes there’s even a Best Picture winner in there as seen with The Hurt Locker.
But the subgenre of the post-war movie isn’t new, and one of the best would be the 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives which also won Best Picture. And it’s a damn good film too.
The film opens with Army Air Corps bombardier Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) trying to return to home to Boone City. Flights are full going everywhere both civilian and military, and a number of servicemen are waiting around airfields waiting for flights home. Luck is on Fred’s side, though, as he gets a military flight home with two other servicemen, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and a sailor named Homer Parish (Harold Russell). The three men couldn’t have less in common aside from all of them being from Boone City. Fred comes from a poor background. He was working as a soda jerk and married a girl just before he left. Al is an older man, a well-off banker with an adult daughter and a teenage son. That son disappears early in the narrative, so don’t get too attached to him.
And then there’s Homer.
Homer lost his hands in combat, and much of his drama comes less from adjusting to the fact he now has hook hands. The Navy did teach him how to use his hooks to do most if not all everyday tasks, and the film does even show him doing a number of things that would seem to be difficult like feed himself, light a cigarette, and shoot a shotgun. As it is, happy-go-lucky Homer’s biggest weakness isn’t in taking care of himself, but in the belief his longtime girlfriend, a literal girl-next-door, shouldn’t be stuck with a man who will need assistance for the rest of his life. As it is, Wilma still loves Homer, and I’ll even give the film a lot of props for showing Homer’s stumps.
Yeah, that’s the thing: Homer is played by a fellow who wasn’t really an actor, but an honest-to-goodness World War II veteran named Harold Russell. Russell actually had lost his hands in the war. He didn’t do a good deal of acting, working more as a wounded veterans advocate than anything else. He actually won one of the two acting Oscars for the film (March won the other), and then late in his life controversially sold the award while claiming he needed the money for his wife’s medical expenses. That actually angered the Academy, and Oscar winners post 1950 are actually forbidden from ever selling their Oscars.
But for what it is worth, Homer’s issues are the most associated with his wartime experiences. On the other end of the spectrum, Al seems to readjust to life as a civilian just fine. He gets a promotion at the bank and rather easily justifies giving another veteran a loan despite a lack of collateral. On his first night back, he insists on going out on the town with his wife (top-billed Myrna Loy) and daughter, gets rip-roaring drunk and…aside from some comical hangover stuff the next day seems fine.
And as for Fred, well…
Here’s the thing: I am not sure how much of this film really needed to be about returning veterans. Fred’s problems deal with his wife, a woman he married without really knowing her very long just before he shipped out. And it turns out all she wants to do is spend money and live the high life that he can’t afford because despite being a highly decorated combat veteran and an officer at that, the best he can do in terms of work is as a clerk at a drug store, only earning about $32 a week. I sure hope that’s a living wage in 1946. It looks like it is, but it isn’t enough for his superficial wife Marie. Over time, he and Al’s daughter Peggy gradually fall in love.
And that’s the main conflict in the film for much of the film. Peggy realizes Fred is stuck in a loveless marriage and decides to break them up. She tells her parents as much, and that leads to Al to talk to Fred about the right thing, putting a strain on the friendship between the two men until the end of the film when Marie has left Fred because he’s too poor, Homer marries Wilma, and the three are friends again with the implication that eventually Fred and Peggy will settle down together.
But the idea of the war’s ending seems more like a background thing, Sure, Fred loses his job for punching out a guy at the drugstore who claimed the United States should have been helping the fascists instead of the British and the Soviets, and that was only because Homer couldn’t, and there is a beautiful shot of Fred wandering a junkyard full of bombers being disassembled, played as tragic somehow with the background music despite the fact the country didn’t need that overabundance of bombers anymore. Really, I get that it’s meant to symbolize the fact that Fred feels like he doesn’t fit in anywhere as a relic of the war, but wouldn’t not needing a lot of bombers be a good thing after a war because peace broke out?
Ultimately, The Best Years of Our Lives might be one of the best post-war films ever made, but that doesn’t change the fact much of it is the story of a love triangle demonstrating the truth behind the old axiom “Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”
NEXT UP: Two men try to survive in the less reputable parts of New York City in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy.