War can often bring out the best that cinema has to offer.
A brutal, vicious but often necessary act, war can be traumatic, heartbreaking, yet at the same time uplifting and can show us in our better nature. Many filmmakers have capitalized on this, which has led to many of the most influential movies of their time, form the subtle yet graphic “All Quiet On The Western Front,” to the gritty and heart-pounding “Zero Dark Thirty,” even to my personal favorite film of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
An interesting era for war films was the 1940s, especially in the years following World War II. There was very little grey area about the depictions of war at that time. The majority of films were about the Americans saving the war or being triumphant heroes who beat down the baddies, usually depictions of Nazis or the Japanese.
One year after the end of the war, William Wyler released his interpretation of harshness and brutal conditions of the aftermath of war, in “The Best Years Of Our Lives.” Unlike any other film that came out at the time, this film didn’t try to sugarcoat anything or make the soldiers look like heroes, but instead as normal people attempting to readjust to society after being away for so long.
The film follows three officers returning to their routes of Boone City. First is Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an infantryman who returns to his job as a banker while realizing that his kids have grown up and things have changed. Then there’s Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a bomber pilot married to a dancer unsure of what to do with his life now. Finally, you have Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who lost both of his hands in an explosion and now has hooks for limbs.
While nothing extraordinary happens over the course of the film, that’s the strength of this piece. It goes against every other type of war movie which came out at the time and just tells the story of three victims of the war and their average lives. Nothing over-the-top or forced, no added conflict to make events matter, just these three men coming home after three years at war and the results that come from that physical and mental absence.
To punctuate this effect is the stellar cinematography of Gregg Toland, who is most famous for his work on “Citizen Kane.” Much like Kane, there is a distinct spotlight on the deep focus, making everything within the shot, even something far in the background, clear and easy to see. There are several scenes that take advantage of this, especially when multiple conversations and focal points are in one shot. Instead of the camera cutting away, our eyes are drawn to where these characters are looking and we see everything they do.
What really sells “The Best Years Of Our Lives” though are these three gentlemen and their adjustment to not being apart of the war any longer. For Fred, things came so easy to him during the war, yet when he returns it seems like he can’t do anything right with his wife and getting a job.
With Al, everything feels too different for him. His kids have become adults who don’t need his help anymore, and he gets a promotion at his job where he more relies on his heart, much to the dismay of his superiors. The only thing that seems to remain consistent is his supporting and loving wife, who watches on with confidence and a smile as her husband begins to drink way too much.
But the real crux of the film is Homer and how he has to readjust, not just to society, but to living without his hands. The film makes it a point early on that, while Homer was recuperating, the Navy taught him how to do many tasks with his hooks, including how to drive and light cigarettes. But one thing they could never teach him is how to hug his fiancee upon his return.
Homer’s character is just as much about the people around him reacting to his situation as it is about Homer learning to live with the hand he has been dealt, especially his girlfriend. Homer doesn’t want people to take pity on him just because he’s different. If anything, he wants to be looked at like any other guy, but that’s just not going to happen. He tries to have dinner with his family, but even his father tries to hide his own hands in the presence of Homer.
Homer is made even more impressive when the actor playing him never had any acting experience before this film, and was hired by William Wyler himself after watching a documentary featuring Harold Russell. Still, among actors like Fredric March, Russell gives the most heartfelt and emotional performance of the whole film. Through his simplicity and sincerity, Homer is the standout character.
Overall, “The Best Years Of Our Lives,” manages to breakout of the traditional system of war films and tells a story about three average lives without overdoing it on the drama or message and just lets these men be themselves. Combined with breathtaking cinematography and outstanding performances all around, the film still holds up incredibly well today and will continue to entertain audiences as long as war exists.
Final Grade: A