The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

directed by William Wyler

Plot Summary
Three soldiers returning from World War II attempt to readjust to life back in the States. Middle-aged Al Stephenson goes back to his loving family and successful career in the banking industry. Fred Derry was an Air-Force bombardier who returns with painful memories to an indifferent wife who expects him to be the same young soldier that left for war. Homer Parrish, perhaps the youngest of the three, has lost his hands in combat and is worried about what his family and girlfriend, Wilma, will think about the prosthetic replacements. Al's daughter, Peggy, meets Fred, and the two have genuine feelings for each other. But Fred is still married, and Al discourages their relationship. Homer gradually overcomes his awkwardness around his family, and Wilma is completely supportive and still loves him. Fred's wife divorces him, and he has trouble finding a job and considers leaving his hometown. He eventually finds work dismantling old warplanes in order to salvage their materials. Homer and Wilma are married, and Fred sees Peggy at the ceremony. The two are reconciled and look forward to a future with each other's love and support.

Commentary


A moving and effective work, The Best Years of Our Lives focuses on the readjustment period for three returning WWII veterans. It treats this important and timely social issue with much thoughtfulness and care but also manages to shape events into a conventional dramatic plot that ends perhaps a little too neatly. The entire cast shines, including non-professional Harold Russell, in bringing this poignant story to life, and the skilled craftsmen behind the camera, such as respected director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland, make the film a memorable visual experience as well. With an almost 3-hour running time, The Best Years of Our Lives has room for many insightful vignettes on postwar life, and although it often presents a troubling and pessimistic view of these experiences, it eventually affirms the ability of former soldiers to successfully readapt to American society.

In the very first scene, the film subtly begins painting a portrait of this society being indifferent to its returning war heroes. Fred is unable to secure a plane seat to his hometown because he has no reservation, while a wealthy businessman, complete with golf bag, promptly receives a ticket and pulls out his wallet to pay for his excess baggage. Already the soldier seems displaced in a system where money is the overriding and final determinant of all things. Similarly, the three veterans are amazed at all the scrapped planes grounded in their hometown; they must get used to a shifting sense of value already leaving things that were important during the war, including them, behind. Al recognizes this rapid transition when his old boss calls him back soon after his arrival home, and he cynically tells his wife, "Got to make money. Last year it was kill Japs. And this year it's make money." It seems that society has little regard for the menís past and only cares that they now perform their necessary functions, irregardless of how different these new tasks may be. Alís speech at the company banquet shows the discrepancy between business strategy and military thinking, suggesting that if the war would have been run like the bank, we would have lost the war. Yet the filmís final optimism is revealed in the way Al manages to salvage his speech after a shaky start, echoing the manner in which the veterans will eventually reintegrate successfully. He closes with the idea that although they may be gambling with the depositorsí money, they will be "gambling on the future of this country." This statement indirectly relates to the fear of another, final war that is already slowly spreading the nation, reflected in Alís son questioning him about Hiroshima. Another segment that seems to foreshadow the developing cold war between nuclear powers involves the man complaining that the US fought the wrong people, commenting on how the Soviet Union was quickly turning from ally to enemy. He also shows a blatant disregard for the veteransí sacrifices and is consequently sent through a glass case by Fredís punch.

As this incident displays, it is probably most difficult for Fred to readjust, partly because of his unhappy marriage to Marie. She seems only to remember the youthful soldier boy she married before the war and asks him to put on his uniform when they go out: "Now you look like yourself." Fred, however, is ready to leave that part of his life behind him, especially since he is disturbed by dreams of a traumatic battle experience. Marie can be seen as a representation of overseas soldiersí worst fears, perhaps being unfaithful while her husband was at war. But she also has been given independence while Fred was away and has taken a job in a nightclub; perhaps she is not ready to relinquish this new freedom and settle down with her husband, which leads to their rift. Fred advises Homer to marry Wilma as soon as possible which initially seems strange since his own marriage is crumbling; but maybe his own experience has shown him that a woman who feels the same about a man before and after the war is rare. The other women in the film behave quite differently than his wife, however, and are completely supportive of their returning men. Alís wife Milly and daughter Peggy put up with his obnoxious drinking without complaint, and Peggy tenderly comforts Fred through his nightmare. Even as Milly draws near to kiss a drunken Al goodnight, he unknowingly pushes her away, suggesting the little thanks these courageous women receive. Homerís girlfriend Wilma also proves to be a saint as she unflinchingly displays her care for Homer and works to convince him of her unshaken love. Some recent critics consider the film to belittle women, but most of the main female characters exhibit strength, kindness, and patience. A possible criticism, however, would be that they are perhaps too submissive and willing to sacrifice any of their desires to facilitate their menís comfortable return.

It initially seems that Homer will have the most trouble readjusting because of his age and disability. But he is helped by supportive people around him and by his own confidence and rejection of pity. He remarks about how beautiful the world is as the plane makes its way to Boone City and feels he can do just about anything with his prosthetic hooks; his only concern is what Wilma will think and how his family will treat him. His uncle, Butch, gives him some sound advice by saying that he will have to get used to his familyís delicate behavior just as they will have to get used to his new life. Homerís frustration is given memorable treatment when he lashes out at his sister and her curious friends by using the hooks to break a window through which they were spying on him. Another poignant scene involves Homer showing Wilma the procedure of removing his prosthetics that he must go through before going to bedóthe time when he feels most helpless. After he sees she is unfazed by this task and his condition, he realizes that she truly cares for him, and the two declare their love for each other. It is interesting to compare the way Wilma helps Homer button up his pajama top with an earlier similar scene that occurs between Al and his wife. Besides foreshadowing the eventual marriage of Homer and Wilma, these sequences also suggest that Al too came back with a certain disability in the form of his drinking. Yet, although Al goes completely out of control the first night back, this possible problem is not really followed up on, and he is only shown drinking again at the company dinner.

Long takes dominate the film, and Wyler prefers to stage much of the drama within one camera set-up rather than relying on editing between different shots. With this kind of direction, it helps immensely to have the deep-focus photography that Toland also brought to Citizen Kane, used to stage various events at different depths within the frame. One example is a shot of Fred and Peggy talking at the perfume counter in the foreground while the store manager can be seen prominently in the background looking out his window. Deep-focus composition is also put to use in the final scene of the film as Homer and Wilma take their vows, and Fred stares longingly back at Peggy. Unfortunately, the filmís style that works so well in earlier scenes feels a little awkward in this particular shot and renders the situation a bit contrived. The rapid montage of night clubs that Al and his family visit contrasts with the long, controlled takes utilized in showing his first visit home and points out how life will be much different now that he is back. As Al talks to Fred about the latter's relationship with Peggy, their tete-a-tete is strikingly composed against a stark white background to give the scene a weightier, confrontational feel. An earlier, poetic sequence involves Fred and Peggyís impulsive kiss between cars in a crowded parking lot that somehow conveys the randomness of this ideal couple ever finding each other and also their fleeting happiness together. Wyler infuses the film with a subtle visual realism by such unorthodox practices as having the male actors wear no makeup and dressing his cast in clothes bought from a local department store.

The concerns facing returning veterans were not new issues when this film was released; there had been previous problems after WWI, including the "Bonus Army" riot in 1932. The film recognizes this by having the main characters be conscious of the apprehension they feel about returning homeóbeing "nervous out of the service" as Fred puts it. They compare the trip home to their initial trip overseas, effectively comparing their readjustment in society to a battle. Fred is able to get back in step with things only after visiting the field of scrapped warplanes, a location that provides some incredible imagery: a man who currently feels he is useless to his country walking through the ghostly field of once proud planes, now considered worthless metal. Fred confronts his painful flashbacks by climbing into one of the planes and letting his mind take him back to the war. He is brought out of his memories by a man shouting at him from below, and perhaps Fred is able to forget or deal with these past events by summoning them up and then having them collide with present-day reality in this manner. It turns out the planes, as well as one of their former flyers, are going to have some function after all; the planesí materials will be used to build houses, and Fred is offered a job in this line. One is reminded of Fredís simple goals at the start of the picture when he told Al that all he wanted was a good job and a little house for he and his wife. Following his reconciliation with Peggy in the final scene, it seems that Fred will achieve these goals, and all of the three spotlighted soldiers have found some form of happiness in the postwar time. The Best Years of Our Lives ends on this optimistic note and gives hope that for returning veterans, the best years are yet to come.

6 of 10


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© 1999

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Producer Samuel Goldwyn, recognizing the cultural importance of The Best Years of Our Lives, made this sincere yet somehow contradictory statement about his film: "I don't care if it doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it!"