The Best Years Of Our Lives

WILLIAM WYLER

Bil’s rating (out of 5):   BBBB.  USA, 1946.  .  Screenplay by , based on the novel by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by .  Music by .  Production Design by , .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  Academy Awards 1946.  Golden Globe Awards 1946.  

Returning home after serving as a sergeant in the second World War, Fredric March is delayed in his travels back to the fictional town of Boone City and meets two other servicemen going his way, Air Force captain Dana Andrews and a sailor who served on an aircraft carrier, played by first-timer Harold Russell. The three men strike up an instant rapport that brings them back into contact with each other throughout this deeply moving post-war drama that has as its narrative strands their three experiences readjusting to being back home. Andrews has to go back to being a lowly soda jerk after having achieved so much as a bomber, unable to get a better position thanks to the country’s indifference to its veterans, while March is returned to his position as a successful bank manager despite having not had so high a rank in the war. Russell, whose injuries were in real life actually sustained in an accident involving TNT while training paratroopers, has lost both his hands and does not believe that the girl he left behind (played with indelible tenderness by Cathy O’Donnell) could still possibly love him, while Andrews finds it impossible to reconnect with the wife of only a few weeks that he left behind (played by Virginia Mayo) and finds himself falling in love with March’s daughter (played by Teresa Wright). William Wyler directed this film after himself coming back from photographing battle, intending it as a more honest and contoured look at the war years than the morale-boosting sentimentality he delivered in Mrs. Miniver four years earlier. His expertise as director makes the film’s impressive three hour running time go by very quickly, but looking back at it this many years later it’s hard to appreciate the inroads it made at examining the psychological fallout for the men and women trying to return to civilian life. The nightmares that these men suffer when trying to sleep, and the impossibility of appreciating a daily rapport with the women who kept the homefires burning all those years is a very touching subject that is quickly ignored in favour of the soapy romance between Wright and Andrews that is given too much screen time; given that we did not even have the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the time, let alone deal with it in mainstream films, and considering that the army had just recently suppressed John Huston’s Let There Be Light, which gave its full attention to the subject, this is not too shocking or even something that should be held against this beautiful movie, but it is the aspect of it that now feels dated. The fatigue in March’s eyes, and the generosity that Wyler gives to every single character no matter what their personality (like never treating Mayo’s selfish survivor like a bad person), puts it leagues ahead of its time.

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