Who in their right mind would make a film like this today? I mean it’s nearly three hours of incessant talking and character development. There are no explosions or special effects. There are not even any war scenes! And yet it is pure gold from William Wyler. He forces us to get to know these characters — all the details about them — and it is a pleasure.
In a year that boasted the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is not simply a testament to the post-war sentiment, but also the power of this film, that led it to garner so much praise including a Best Picture Oscar.
Like Capra’s film, WWII plays a role here without actually focusing on the fighting. The effects of such a cataclysmic event were enough on their own. The Best Years of Our Lives chooses to focus on the point of view of three returning servicemen. However, it would be selling the film short to suggest that is all the film is about. It revolves around deeper issues such as family, camaraderie, patriotism, and of course romance. Over the course of the film each man must navigate his own path, and much of those pathways have to do with their romantic relationships.
Al (Fredric March) has been married 20 years and yet he returns to a home with a wife and kids who seem more foreign than the battlefronts he fought on. His loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) patiently allows him to become acclimated and stands beside him as he stands up for his convictions at his bank.
Then there is Homer (Harold Russell), the double amputee, who is bracing for the worst as he returns to his family and the girl next door named Wilma. His way of dealing with the situation is to avoid those he loves because by not letting them get close he thinks that will allow them to move forward with their lives. However, Homer completely misjudges just how much his girl loves him. Wilma is the real deal, and she is prepared to remain faithful to Homer no matter the circumstances.
The final relationship is perhaps the most complicated of the lot. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is the complete antithesis of Al. He has little work experience, and he was a young man who only knew his wife for a handful of days before he went off to war. Now it is all coming back to bite him because Marie (Virginia Mayo) is not ready to patiently wait around while the former soda jerk tries to find a job. She wants money, nights on the town, and good times. Sparks fly and Fred finds himself drawn more and more to Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) since his marriage is a loveless one. This relationship is perhaps the most agonizing to watch as Fred is torn apart, but he ultimately gets the girl who will accept him for who he is.
“The best years of our lives” may have been during the war for some, but that really does not matter, because with the right attitude humanity is able to move forward to make the best of the future. That is one of the merits of this film, it exudes hopefulness and despite their different lots, each character is able to find a little slice of joy.
No one personality outshines any of the others, but on the contrary, all the players add up to the perfect combination. I will shamelessly acknowledge that Teresa Wright is one of my favorite actresses and over the last few years I have come to really appreciate Dana Andrews. They really do deserve more credit and I hope this film continues to get the praise it deserves. It is a delectable slice of cinema and Americana.