In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
The Best Years of Our Lives 
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), MacKinlay Kantor (from a novel by)
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Running Time: 172 minutes
Reason for inclusion: This is on a whopping 24 lists at icheckmovies.com.
Accolades: Won 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Writing) + one more nomination (Best Sound), won BAFTA Film Award, Golden Globe Best Picture, National Film Registry, #179 on IMDB Top 250
At the time of its release, The Best Years of Our Lives was a monster hit. It won an impressive seven Oscars (plus an additional honorary award) and raked in the cash at the box office, second in revenue only to Gone With the Wind (which I will be reviewing later this year). The film was also released just one year after the conclusion of World War II, offering a fresh view of what life was like for returning veterans.
Perhaps most amazingly, it is still incredibly relevant over 60 years later.
The film focuses on three servicemen who form a friendship on their flight home to the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City. Each man is coming back to a completely different scenario, and all three struggle to come to terms with an America that is vastly different than they remembered.
Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a respected Army Air Forces captain in Europe, and he returns to a beautiful young wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). He attempts to get his former job back as a drugstore soda jerk, but the pharmacy is now under new ownership, forcing Fred to earn his way to a better position. His wife, apparently now interested in the luxuries of life, is not thrilled with Fred’s low-paying job, causing significant problems for their marriage.
Homer Parrish (the real life veteran, Harold Russell) lost both hands in the war and now has metal hooks in place of them. He tries to make the best of his disability, but struggles when confronted with tasks that he can no longer perform. It doesn’t help that his parents are now treating him differently either. At least he still has his fiancee, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who eagerly loves him even though Homer continually tries to distance himself in order to not be a “burden.”
Al Stephenson (Fredric March) might have it best out of the three veterans, though he still has his own issues. Al has a nice family, including wife Milly (Myrna Loy), older daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a college freshman son, and he even gets his old job back as a bank loan officer. Better yet, the bank is pleased with his military background and offers him a promotion. However, Al is a bit too lenient in granting loans for other veterans, at least in the eyes of his superiors, and this presents a moral dilemma for him.
All three men have to deal with people treating them differently, and it sometimes seems that their only real sanctuary is gathering together at the local watering hole, Butch’s saloon. There they get good and drunk in the company of each other, the only people who can truly understand what they went through.
Nowadays, it’s discouraging to hear of veterans treated poorly by those who don’t believe in the wars they are fighting in. Shockingly, there is even an example of this in The Best Years of Our Lives. I couldn’t believe it when I heard a customer at Fred’s pharmacy ranting about how Hitler and the communists were actually the ones doing good in the war. Apparently Fred couldn’t either — he beat the living tar out of the man!
Perhaps most impressive about the film is that it doesn’t really have an agenda. I was worried that it would be a bit too heavy-handed, but thankfully that’s not the case. These veterans and their stories feel exceptionally authentic, aside from a love story that perhaps wraps things up too nicely. The performances from the three men are terrific, including the non-actor Harold Russell. He was so good that the Academy felt it necessary to grant him *two* Oscars — one for Best Supporting Actor, and one honory award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”
The Best Years of Our Lives runs a bit long, and the conclusion may be a little too optimistic, but it’s still a damn fine piece of cinema. Given the story behind it and its year of release, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit back then. It’s just a shame that so many of the difficulties it presents are still relevant today.