“The Best Years of Our Lives”

Some films are so well made that it makes you feel as if you are eavesdropping on people’s real lives.

Such is the case with the 1946 classic “The Best Years of Our Lives” produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler.  

Released before Thanksgiving a year after the end of World War II, the film focuses on three soldiers—Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell)—who return home and struggle re-entering society.

Every time I come across the film airing on TCM, I’m hypnotized and end up watching it again no matter how much I may have missed.

Whenever a film seems as real as this one, credit goes to all the principals in front and in back of the camera:  the writer, the director, the cinematographer, the actors, the music composer, and the art and set decorators.  You need all of these elements to be working on all cylinders to pull off such a feat.

The film ended up winning seven of eight Academy Award nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer); the only nomination unawarded was Best Sound.

Interestingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Russell a special Oscar not expecting him to win the Best Supporting Actor award—which he did.  Years later, he auctioned that Oscar, but kept the special one.

The two most overlooked individuals not even nominated whose contributions must be acknowledged are cinematographer Gregg Toland and Dana Andrews.

Toland, best known for his cutting-edge deep-focus photography which aided to the monumental stature of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” does a marvelous job of using both focus and framing to deepen the emotional nature of the characters and their situations.

While March was deserving of his second Best Actor Oscar, Andrews had the most challenging role and should have won.  In fact, Andrews never earned a nomination in his entire career.

Andrews captures the complexities of a man who was the highest ranking officer of the three returning soldiers during his time in the army’s air force, but now faces grim prospects in terms of employment and his marriage.

Though they married hurriedly before his deployment, her love gave him faith to endure horrors knowing that at least he had a woman back home waiting for him.  Sad then when he learns she has not been faithful to him.

He accepts a low-paying job at a drugstore where he used to work as a soda jerk, settling for a sales position that requires helping out with the ice cream orders.

Derry finds himself falling in love with Stephenson’s daughter (Teresa Wright) which leads to Stephenson giving him an ultimatum to call the affair off.

All the humiliation boils over in a scene where Russell sits at the counter along with a man who is critical of the war effort.  In defending Russell’s honor by slugging the man, he loses his job; however, he gains self-respect.

What truly elevates the film is first-time actor Russell portraying a soldier with hooks for hands.  In real life, Russell was an army instructor teaching soldiers how to handle explosives when an accident happened leading to the loss of both hands.

Wyler does not shy away from showing Parrish’s hooks.  The most poignant scene is when Parrish asks his girlfriend to see what she will have to deal with if they were to get married.  In real time, we watch the methodical removal of the hooks to reveal his shortened limbs.  She tenderly buttons his pajama top. 

One of the most amazing scenes ever filmed comes near the climax of the movie when Derry visits a boneyard of de-commissioned B-17s like the one he flew during the way.  There he climbs into the cockpit of a plane and relieves nightmares of his days as a bombardier.

Younger audiences viewing this scene may not appreciate the scope and majesty of the shot as the camera’s fluid crane reveals the graveyard of endless planes that were actually there.  No CGI or special effects.  It was shot in Ontario, California where 2,000 airplanes were dismantled after the war.  Sometimes movies have moments like this one which has a dual purpose:  furthering the narrative at the same time documenting the real thing.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” may be the best film about the aftermath of war for soldiers returning home.  For those like me who never experienced that period of history firsthand it is as close as we can get to the feelings of those who actually lived during that tumultuous time.