The very first English language film I remember watching was a war film (a farcical comedy called Our Miss Fred, which I’ve never managed to get hold of since). Over the years, and especially during my teens—thanks to a local VHS lending library which stocked mostly war films—I watched a lot more of this genre. I’ve watched violent war films, adventurous war films, propaganda-heavy films, war films that crossed genres and combined war with everything from crime and mystery to comedy, to romance. I’ve watched war films that showed the futility of war.
War seems to be a favourite subject with many film makers.
But who stops to think of what happens when war is over? The Spanish film Bienvenido, Mr Marshall! did explore this idea in a humorous way, but from the point of view of people who were mostly non-combatants in the war itself. What happens, however, to men who have spent a few years in battle, men who have actually been in combat, and that too on the other side of the world from where they usually live? What happens when men come back to their everyday lives, their families and friends, to find that their world has moved on? And that they, too, have changed?
The Best Years of Our Lives begins with the arrival, back in the US, of Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an air force officer finally back from the war. Since there are so many war veterans waiting to go back home to all across the country, Fred is obliged to go and camp out at a large hall specifically designated as a sort of waiting room for such men.
Here, after some hours, Fred hears his name called and is informed that there’s finally a plane available to go to Boone City, Fred’s destination. A stranger, a sailor sitting next to Fred, is also going to be on the plane. This is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and it’s only when he’s asked to sign and he rolls up his sleeves, revealing hooks instead of hands on each wrist, that Fred realizes just how badly injured Homer is.
But Homer seems not just very self-confident (he cheerfully brushes off the embarrassed clerk’s offer to sign for Homer), but also very capable of looking after himself. He lifts his gear himself, lights a cigarette by himself, and can pretty much manage without help.
On the cramped little plane, Fred and Homer meet a third man: Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March).
Homer is very excited at the thought of finally travelling in a plane—he’s the first person in his family to have done so—but dozes off after a while, leaving Fred and Al to get to know each other better. Al mentions that he’s been married for 20 years; Fred replies that he and his wife didn’t even know each for 20 days before he had to leave for the front; he had met and married while in training. Well, now he has an entire lifetime to get to know his wife.
By the time they arrive in Boone City, Fred, Al and Homer have been together for so many hours that they’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. It’s natural, then, that they should agree to share a taxi to drop them off, one man at a time, to each of their homes. As they drive through Boone City, savouring the sights of their hometown, revelling in the joy of coming home, they begin, too, to slowly realize what this means.
Homer, for instance, so assured about being able to fend for himself despite the loss of his hands, has to confront the fact that his family and his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), though they know about his injury, are yet to see him without hands. When the taxi stops at Homer’s house, Homer begins to insist that one of the others get dropped off first; it’s only when Al gently reminds him that they’re already outside Homer’s, does he reluctantly alight.
Al instructs the taxi driver to wait for a bit, and he and Fred sit inside, looking anxiously on to see if Homer is all right. If his family, and Wilma’s (they are neighbours) are fine. And yes, all seems well. Except for Homer’s mother, who cannot help letting out a little sob when she sees her son’s hooks, everybody accepts him back—and with much joy.
Al is the next one to be dropped off, and Fred is more than a little taken aback to see the building where the sergeant gets off: a smart, obviously upmarket apartment block. What exactly did Al do before he enlisted, he asks? A banker, Al says, with some embarrassment. And if that wasn’t enough to show what a leveller war can be, it turns out that Fred, who outranks Al by a good deal, was a soda jerk before he enlisted.
They part ways (Fred, like Homer, suddenly developing cold feet and wanting to delay his being dropped off). Fred goes off in the taxi and Al goes up to his home, where, after the initial surprise, he’s greeted with much joy by his wife Millie (the inimitable Myrna Loy, one of my favourites), his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and his teenaged son Rob. The reunion between Millie and Al, in particular, is touching: their love, affection and passion for each other is so very obvious.
As Al discovers quickly, though, Peggy and Rob are not the children he knew so well. Peggy has grown up into a smart and self-confident young woman who works at the hospital, and Rob—Rob, on being given the souvenirs his father’s brought back for him (a samurai sword and a Japanese flag) doesn’t look too excited. In fact, all he can ask Al is if he met any survivors of Hiroshima; he’s been learning, in school, about the long-ranging effects of nuclear radiation, and (even though he doesn’t say it) it’s probably made him feel somewhat guilty that his father should have been in some way responsible.
While Al is settling in, Fred goes home—to a ramshackle hovel on the other side of the tracks. This is where his parents live, and they’re very happy to welcome him back. Fred, however, is eager to see his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo): where is she? It turns out that Marie left a long time back, and now lives in an apartment of her own while she works at a nightclub. Mr and Mrs Derry have been diligently passing Fred’s letters on to Marie, so she knows he’s coming.
Fred hurries away from his parents’ place to the address they give him, but he isn’t able to even get into Marie’s apartment: he keeps ringing the bell, but has to eventually give up because it seems she isn’t at home. Desperate to meet her, Fred goes on a round of all the nightclubs he can find (his parents don’t know the name of the nightclub where she works), with no success. He ends up going to Butch’s, a bar that Homer had pointed out when they were driving through Boone City after their arrival. Butch is Homer’s uncle, and Homer had suggested that he, Fred and Al meet up at Butch’s sometime to catch up with each other.
Now, accidentally, Fred and Al do catch up—because Al (who is a bit of a tippler) has decided to go out on a round of just about every bar and nightclub he can find to celebrate his homecoming. Not alone; he’s dragged along with him an initially indulgent Millie and Peggy, both by now rather tired and wanting to go home. They land up at Butch’s (having stopped en route to pick up Homer) and find Fred there. Al happily introduces his womenfolk to Fred. Fred explains what’s happened, and Al invites him to join the party and have a couple of drinks with them.
By the time Millie and Peggy finally manage to prise Al loose of Butch’s, both Al and Fred are pretty plastered. They take Fred to Millie’s apartment (he’s able to guide the taxi there), but when there’s again no response to Fred’s somewhat inept ringing of the doorbell, he sinks to the floor right there, outside the building. A longsuffering Millie and Peggy go fetch him, get him into the taxi, and take him, as well as Al, back to their own home.
Here, Peggy manages to plonk Fred onto her own bed, while she goes off to sleep on a couch outside. Fred wakes in the middle of the night, mumbling and getting increasingly panicky because of a nightmare in which he’s back in the Airforce, in a plane that’s doomed… Peggy goes and soothes him, but Fred, though he quietens down, is both still too traumatized and too drunk for it to register.
What baggage have these men brought back from the war? Their nightmares, their fears, their insecurities: these will take some overcoming, some getting used to, both for the men themselves and for those who are close to them. And it is not merely their personal lives that Fred, Al and Homer have to get in order; it’s also their professional lives. For Homer, there’s a disabled pension; and Al’s merit as a fine banker means that it’s just a matter of days—fewer days than he would have liked—before he’s summoned back to his former workplace.
But what about Fred? From being an officer, a decorated war veteran, much respected and admired, can he ever go back to being just a soda jerk again?
What I liked about this film:
So much. So very, very much.
First, the scripting (by Robert E Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor) and the direction (by William Wyler), which makes this a gripping, extremely engrossing film, and one that succeeds in dealing faithfully with several aspects of post-war problems. How people ‘back home’ change, how men at war can stay in a state of limbo (as happens in the case of Al, who is a bit shocked to find that the children he’d left behind have now grown up and are strangers to him). How the urgency of war can numb the senses, leading people to make rash decisions that they regret later (a problem we see in Fred’s marriage to Marie; even before either of these two admit it, it’s obvious that their hasty wedding was a result of fascination: he fell for her beauty and vivacity, she for his uniform and the prospect of being married to a well-paid officer). In Fred and Marie’s case, it’s only as they start living together that they realize just how divergent their paths really are.
Secondly, the deep understanding of human nature that comes through, best exemplified in the interactions between Al/Millie/Peggy on the one hand, and Homer on the other. Homer’s case, in particular, touched me a good deal. It’s not as if his family or Wilma reject him—far from it—but Homer’s own agony at having lost his hands makes him miserable, makes him push people away because he imagines that they see him as a freak.
Plus, the acting is superb: Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Myrna Loy are brilliant, and I was struck with how very good Harold Russell was as Homer Parrish (he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). I was even more impressed when I discovered that Russell is only one of two non-professional actors to have won an Oscar—he was a WWII veteran who had lost both his hands when a bomb detonated while he was holding it).
There was nothing about the film I didn’t like, so I’ll leave it at this: do watch this film. It’s a heart-warming, emotional, and interesting look at the aftermath of war, and at human relationships.