The Best Years of Our Lives Movie Review: People Are Playing Golf…Just As if Nothing Had Ever Happened

Director William Wyler’s best picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), deftly interweaves the stories of three men just returned from World War II to the fictional Boone City. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was married quickly to Marie (Virginia Mayo) just before the war. Marie has spent her time enjoying the extra money coming in from Fred’s commission and hasn’t grown past her party days. Fred has PTSD from his time being shot at while flying airplanes. Will Fred and Marie find a way to turn their 20-day whirlwind romance into a life-long match?

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Technical Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a wealthy banker before leaving for the war. While there, he did not get promoted very quickly and constantly surprises his friends and coworkers with his “low” rank. He will need to learn how to re-navigate his long marriage with his wife, Milly Stephenson (Myrna Loy), and his relationship with his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). All this will be hard to do because Al has begun to drink too much every day. Will Al be able to cut down on the booze and focus on his career and family?

Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish (real-life double-amputee Harold Russell) lost both hands in the war but is adept with his harness and prosthetics. He left behind his gal, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), the next-door neighbor who expected to marry Homer the moment he returned home. However, Homer is afraid Wilma doesn’t understand the full extent of life with an amputee and is worried he will lose her. Will Homer get together with his high school sweetheart even though he has lost both his hands?

This is an ensemble cast with what feels like eight leading roles: the three men, their respective partners, Al’s daughter Peggy, and, to a lesser extent, Homer’s love interest, Wilma. The acting is top level from everyone. It is especially fascinating that Harold Russell, who had never acted before, won two Academy Awards for the same role (the only actor to have done so) – an Academy Honorary Award and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The direction and editing are excellent throughout, wending their way through various, and complex, stories. There are times when the film comes off as a bit jingoistic which is to be expected from the period. However, The Best Years of Our Lives does a decent job of walking the middle of the road until very close to the end when it becomes quite obvious that participating in World War II will mostly have heroic outcomes for all involved. And, considering how vested we become in these characters, it is a nice ending to have.

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Greg Hammond

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