PG | 2h 50min | Drama | 1946
The Veterans Administration (VA) estimated that, in the late 1940s, about one-tenth of America’s population and a fifth of its workforce were veterans of World War II. For the next quarter of a century, America would depend on that beleaguered group of about 20 million (as large as present day New York) to raise families and pay bills and taxes.
Naturally, many films of the era examine how returning veterans cope with civilian life. “The Best Years of our Lives” (1946) is one such film, but instead of grand political or economic themes, it dwells on simpler matters.
Coming HomeThree World War II veterans return to their hometown to find that some vets are blessed with loving families and opportunities to flourish socially and financially. Others are less blessed, but all struggle to readjust to civilian life.
Sgt. Al (Fredric March), a former banker, returns to his wife of 20 years, Milly (Myrna Loy), and his grown daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright), and son. Although Al now battles stress by drinking excessively, his bank welcomes him back, and promotes him with authority over loans to vets under the 1944 G.I. Bill.
Petty Officer Homer (Harold Russell) returns after losing both arms in battle, but is already trained to use fist-hooks instead. His high school sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) hopes they’ll soon marry as they’d planned to, but armless Homer feels too inadequate and too much of a burden to accept her love.
Capt. Fred (Dana Andrews), a former soda jerk, returns to his wife of a few days, Marie (Virginia Mayo). Although decorated for valor and outranking the other two men, he remains jobless on the street and struggles with PTSD during sleep. As Marie’s dollar-crossed eyes wander from Fred, he looks for love in Peggy’s less judgmental arms.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler were anxious to personalize the war for civilian audiences yet, in a masterstroke, they treated the war as a symbol of disruption, not as the main event. After all, disruption of civilian life can hit even families in peacetime through the sudden disability of a breadwinner or joblessness forced by a recession.
It’s why Wyler’s film resonated so strongly and why it won seven Academy Awards.
Returning home, the three men can’t wait to see their families. One camera angle from within their taxi shows us their expectant faces in the rear-view mirror. Yet, each finds excuses to delay reaching home because they worry about whether (and how) they’ll be welcomed back. Their separation from family has been so prolonged and traumatic, they feel like strangers to their own, even to themselves.
A Woman’s RoleThankfully Wyler didn’t focus only on the men and their internal battles, but also on women like Milly, Peggy, and Wilma, who put up with the men’s nonsense. In many ways, these women are braver and wiser than their men, who imagine they’re brave just because they’ve been to war, or wise just because they’re back from war.
These women show no sense of “rank” or entitlement. They don’t fuss about having to endure years alone as brides or mothers. They get on with it, tucking drunks into bed, comforting them when they have nightmares, conjuring home supplies out of nowhere, fixing meals, sending children to school, and holding families together by sheer force of will.
Wyler was deeply alive to these undecorated “soldiers” and paid these women rich tribute.
Fred tells Peggy that he wishes someone would mass-produce her so that other men could benefit from her kindness. Al worries about his fellow vets who haven’t got a caring wife like Milly. Overwhelmed by the affection he receives in Al’s home, Fred tells Milly to remind Al just how lucky he is.
Adjusting to PeaceSo the film asks: what if these post-war men and women hadn’t met doubt, humiliation, insult, and embarrassment with stoicism? It answers: Millions of families would have been torn apart. If these men and women had thought only of themselves, baby boomers and Gen-Xers might have grown up differently, and some, not at all.
The film argues that self-loathing isn’t an answer to crises. When Wilma hugs Homer, he doesn’t hug her back, because he has trouble accepting how he can, now armless, still be loved.
Decorated pilot-bomber Fred walks amidst a scrap-heap of once glorious fighter-planes, brooding over how unwanted they (and their pilots) have become in peacetime. He stares at plane wings, shorn of their engines, much like Homer’s shoulders, shorn of his arms.
Wyler’s cast honestly portrayed these internal struggles, reminding us that sometimes our disabilities are visible, but too often they’re hidden, and it takes guts to rise above them cheerfully.
Witness the smiling Russell, a real-life vet who lost both arms in the service. He made history when he won two Academy Awards for the same performance; for Best Supporting Actor and an Honorary Award for inspiring and comforting “disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures.”
Andrews and March gracefully play off Russell’s convincing turn. As they’re flying home, both the senior officers silently admire young Homer (you can tell that Andrews and March are admiring Russell, too) as he chirpily uses his hooks to do everything for himself: wield a pen, carry his bags, light his cigarettes, and theirs.
They laugh, embarrassed at their own full-bodied blessings, as Homer reassures them that he can dial telephones, put nickels in a jukebox, and drive a car!
The striking Myrna Loy is the obvious star, rightly, topping the credits, both opening and closing. A mere 41 years old at the time, Loy plays wife and mother with charming, understated wisdom.
When Peggy complains that her privileged parents can’t possibly empathize with the “trouble” that ordinary folk like Fred go through, Milly corrects her. She explains how “trouble” plagued her marriage with Al all along. She recalls countless times they’ve said they’ve “hated” each other and had to fall in love all over again.
With barely any conversation, Milly convinces her daughter that all marriages are imperfect because we’re all imperfect. But love demands that we keep trying to become better spouses instead of wanting our spouses to become perfect.