During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” returns us to the subject of World War II. This 1946 film follows three returning servicemen who are back home in the United States after the war’s end. Each have difficulties adjusting back to civilian life and reintegrating with their families. Despite being over fifty years, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels poignantly current and it helped contextualize our current cultural climate in a way that no other film on this list has managed thus far.
The film follows Fred, an Air Force bombardier; Homer, a sailor who lost both his hands and now uses prosthetics; and Al, an infantryman returning to his wife of twenty plus years and his two kids who had to grow up without him. It is a hard movie to describe. At times, it feels almost like a comedy. Laughs are weaved in and out to break up the emotional tension and turmoil. Otherwise, it is a romantic drama.
There is a modernness to “The Best Years of Our Lives” that makes it feel fresh despite being a movie that neither of us had heard of before. The romantic aspects are pure Hollywood, but they do nothing to distract from the very real subject matter. Al can hardly handle being home for more than a couple of hours before he feels the need to escape from a world and family that have evolved without him. Homer, more or less accepted by his fellow veterans, is stared at by his family. Fred, the film’s romantic lead played by Dana Andrews, can’t even find his wife since she moved out of his parents’ home while he was gone.
Also contributing to its modern feel, much of the film’s subject matter is still relevant today. We both found it off-putting how bluntly some of the civilian characters commented on the veterans. Growing up in the South, here in the US we are taught to respect our troops to the point that the phrase is cliche and meaningless. To see characters openly disrespect veterans was astounding. They used the same language targeted at immigrants in the US today: they are taking our jobs!
A modern remake of “The Best Years of Our Lives” might be a good idea; that, or more attention given to the original. As I said, supporting the troops is an eye-rolling cliche these days, but this movie not only presents an era where it wasn’t, but it does so in a way that helped me personally better appreciate the sacrifices of our uniformed men and women. It gives me a context for so many of the bills and laws we have in the USA regarding veterans. For our foreign readers who may have different experiences in their own countries, in the US, when applying for a job, nearly every application asks about your veteran status because we as a society have placed more emphasis, attention, and value into making sure veterans are given equal opportunity. I imagine it is far from perfect, but it is fascinating to see some of the origins of these laws.
Another especially relevant scene revolved around a man at the drugstore. While eating his sandwich, the man notices Homer’s prosthetics and begins to strike up a conversation with him. The stranger openly states that the US fought on the wrong side and that he sympathizes with the Nazis. Though the man ultimately gets a nasty punch and a fall through a glass display for his trouble, the film plays it straight in a way that, frankly, chilled us. Until recently, the idea of anyone being pro-Nazi seemed like the fringiest of ideas. Nazis, for me, were always historical villains used to great effect in some of my favorite video games (I played a lot of Wolfenstein 3D as a kid). “Nazis are evil” is one of those ideas that comes as naturally as breathing. Hearing a character openly talk about being pro-Nazi after World War II has already been won made us both realize that this is not a new idea nor is it one that ever went away. Like chickenpox, it remains dormant in our system until we all get hate-shingles.
Speaking of Homer, it was powerful to see an actual handicapped man play a leading role in a movie. Played by Harold Russell, the real-life man lost both his hands as an Army instructor teaching demolitions work. He is one of two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award (his was for his work in this film as a support actor). Though he had limited screen time and was obviously not a trained actor, the character of Homer was one of the film’s most compelling. His arc primarily concerns his inability to accept how his family treats him and his worry that his long-term fiance will be wasting her life if he lets her marry him. His journey alone could’ve made up its own movie, and I wish it had.
Beyond Homer, the other two characters go through their own trials. Al’s involvement shrinks as the movie continues, but his position as an individual who was already financially well-off returning to an even better job at the bank offered another important point of view. As a loan officer, he is put in the position of turning down veterans who have no collateral yet who also have no way of rebuilding their lives. Despite the “good financial sense” he was hired and rehired for when he returns from the war, he believes that veterans deserve to be gambled on by his bank. The thread gets dropped without an absolute resolution, but I liked that better since it was obviously not a resolved issue culturally and Al vows to keep fighting for what he believes in.
Finally, we arrive at Fred and his romance with Al’s daughter Peggy. Teresa Wright, previously seen in “Mrs. Miniver”, returns as yet another patriotic girl next door with eyes for a soldier. Despite their story making up the majority of the film, it wasn’t my personal favorite. I did think it was a good romantic drama plot, especially when compared with some of the others we have seen in this series as of late, but its only real purpose is to entertain while I feel “The Best Years of Our Lives” works best when it does more than simply entertain.
Diane and I did have one complaint: it felt long. At nearly three hours, “The Best Years of Our Lives” is packed. There were some parts that could’ve been tightened up, but I personally thought it was shot and cut beautifully. While not my favorite movie-as-entertainment, I can easily this film as being one of the more historically interesting from a cultural point of view. It’s a shame it isn’t shown more in school. The way it handles veterans stands up well and hasn’t lost any of its importance. The only concerning scene for me was where Al gives his son a Japanese sword, but, given the time, perfectly reasonable. If you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a while, we suggest giving “The Best Years of Our Lives” a watch.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.