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‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ at 75

The film about a trio of soldiers returning to a small hometown delivers a nuanced portrayal of the hardships of war.
Scene from The Best Years of Our Lives

From Homer’s Odyssey to the Bible’s parable of the Prodigal Son, few narratives are as compelling as those of homecoming, and few homecomings play on our emotions quite like that of a soldier returning from war. In the last century, countless books and films have revolved around the peculiarly poignant predicament of a soldier who, having beaten the odds to keep himself alive amid a foreign conflict, makes his way back to an eagerly dreamed of but inevitably changed home.

“I don’t want no medals,” says a character in the 1943 film adaptation of Richard Tregaskis’s popular World War II memoir Guadalcanal Diary. “I just want to get this thing over with and go back home.” Key films from the Golden Age, among them Fred Zinnemann’s The Men (1950) and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), reckoned with the lasting toll, physical and psychic, of having served overseas. By the Vietnam War era, a subgenre had been born. During the late 1970s, a single 14-month period saw the release of John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), each of which sketched, with greater or lesser degrees of sanctimony, the trials of Vietnam veterans pushing onward with their lives.

As widespread interest in Vietnam faded, so did the genre, though it survived in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and a pair of late-career masterpieces by Clint Eastwood, the grievously underestimated Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and the justly celebrated American Sniper (2014). Perhaps the genre endures because the plight of a returning soldier reinforces one of life’s basic truths: things change.

In 1946, just a year after the end of World War II, producer Samuel Goldwyn brought out the greatest of all returning-soldier dramas: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, adapted by playwright Robert E. Sherwood from MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Glory for Me. Wyler’s film tracks a trio of soldiers who would have stayed strangers but for the chance that each was traveling home to the same small town.

There is a certain schematic quality to the superficial differences between the three men: Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an upwardly mobile family man; Air Force bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), formerly a drugstore soda jerk who got hitched in haste just before deployment; and Navy petty officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), an earnest everyman with an impossible-to-ignore injury, his lower arms amputated and replaced by harness-supported hooks. (Russell actually suffered this injury while serving in World War II.)

The outward diversity of these characters—older, younger, well-off, just getting-by, physically intact, physically scarred—seems engineered to offer a representative picture of war’s toll, but, thanks to the nuanced, specific performances of the three actors, none emerges as a mere type or caricature. What’s more, Wyler’s direction emphasizes not the surface-level distinctions among the men but their deeper common experiences.

The way Wyler films the homecomings of Al and Homer suggests correspondences between them. Collaborating with Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland, Wyler adopted a detached, deep-focus visual style, with the camera hanging back artfully and carefully meting out big, emotive close-ups. When Homer is deposited on his parents’ front lawn, he is instantly flocked by kith and kin. Because the camera sits at a remove, for a fleeting moment we might forget about his hooks. So, seemingly, do his loved ones, who have heard of his disability but have never seen his prostheses. We are only jarred back to the grim truth of the situation when Wyler finally cuts to a close-up of Homer’s bride-to-be, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), as she wraps her own arms around Homer and then to a corresponding close-up of Homer as he stands ramrod straight during the embrace. Homer declines to return Wilma’s hug because—it hits him and it hits the viewer—it would mean exposing his hooks, which he does, at last, a moment later when he waves so long to Al and Fred.

One scene later, when Al marches into his family’s tony apartment, Wyler adopts a similarly distanced approach. When Al is greeted by his grown daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and teenage son Rob (Michael Hall), he shushes them for fear that they will spoil the surprise for their mother, Al’s wife Milly (Myrna Loy), who, in fact, takes the sudden household silence as a sign that her husband has returned. In a justly famous long shot, Al and Milly catch a glimpse of each other at either end of a long corridor. As their children—miniature versions of Mom and Dad—look on with gladness, the parents hesitantly, tentatively approach each other before sprinting those last few steps. Wyler understands that obsessed-over reunions are often shot through with melancholy when they finally happen. Assessing the film’s visual style in The Nation, critic James Agee wrote: “I can’t remember a more thoroughly satisfying job of photography, in an American movie, since Greed.”

These early scenes set the stage for a film that, again and again, plunks the returning veterans in places they longed for but no longer comprehend. “I tried to stop them, to keep them just as they were when you left, but they got away from me,” Milly says to Al about their children, with Loy’s sweet, singsong voice disguising the sentiment’s sadness.

Fred, whose prewar marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo) proves ill-judged, seeks employment commensurate to his wartime prestige but is unable to advance beyond perfume-counter clerk at his old drugstore. Marie wasn’t counting on this diminishment of his station in life. Everywhere civilians pay lip service to these uniformed intruders but they do little to advance their prospects. Fortunate for being able to slide back into a contented family life, Al keeps working at his bank, but after he is asked to supervise loans, he is surprised to find that his superiors do not look kindly upon extending extra measures of generosity to fellow veterans. Alcoholism plagues him; family squabbles follow. Ironically, it is Homer, who plainly faces the most daunting prospects, who seems blessed with the best support system. His father becomes his uncomplaining caregiver, and though she is given every opportunity to flee, Wilma proves a true-blue future spouse.

At certain moments in the film, Al, Fred, and Homer seem to long for each other’s company more than that of their own households. Here the film teaches a cruel lesson: that the forced friendships of military service can be more lasting than organic relationships. By no rights should men who become acquainted on a plane ride home feel closer to each other than their wife, child, or best pal, but when men are plucked from their families, their careers, and indeed their homes, the end result can only be alienation.

Is The Best Years of Our Lives an antiwar film? Surely the answer is no. The film takes it as a given that World War II had to be fought. When Homer is condescendingly pitied by an isolationist townie who points to his hooks as an example of the pointlessness of war, the two men end up in a brawl. Like Homer, the film will simply not accept the idea that America should have remained on the sidelines. At the same time, Wyler never engages in the sort of supercharged patriotism typical of productions of this era. The filmmaker’s complex, equivocal position honors veterans and validates their service, but profoundly regrets the need for that service. It’s as if the film is asking: America had to enter World War II, but couldn’t it have gone on without these particular people—Al, Fred, and Homer?

Yet Wyler is too secure in his sense that these characters will power through their problems to indulge explicit antiwar sentiments. Over the course of a nearly three-hour running time, the soldiers steady themselves and the film ends, gloriously, with one wedding and the promise of another. Vows are said by Homer and Wilma, and long, lingering looks are exchanged by Fred and Peggy, the daughter of Al and Milly. To reinforce the point, Wyler even shoehorns both couples—the actual couple and the prospective couple—into the same frame. Life’s possibilities reemerge. Peggy earlier joked that she was actually her dad’s mother, and in contemplating her life with Fred, one sees her as much as mother or minder as lover—a woman to mend the wounds of war and its aftermath.

Only at the very end of The Best Years of Our Lives, then, do we see what these soldiers were really fighting for: for friends and family, the newly married and the soon-to-be married. For Hoagy Carmichael at the piano pecking out “Here Comes the Bride.” For the minister who says the bit about for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Finally, Wyler delivers these men to the place promised in the lines by Stevenson: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea / And the hunter home from the hill.”

Peter Tonguette writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.