It was 1946 and the men were returning home from the war. To some extent, they were expected to just come home and return to their former lives as if nothing happened in between. But the world and every man has changed, some more than others. The challenge of coping with their new world or new lifestyle can be just as heroic as the battles they have just returned from. The Best Years of our Lives tells the story of three different men as they return to their hometown.
Fred (Dana Andrews) is a young man who married his girlfriend quickly just before he left for war. His job was to drop bombs, he was good enough to receive medals for it, but now that he is back home he has no real job skills and finds himself back working at the same pharmacy before he left. It seems that his wife was more in love with his money and uniform than him and they both begin to think about other people.
Al (Fredric March) is a middle-aged man who returns home to his children suddenly grown. While he brings his teenage son a sword and flag from Japan, the boy is quite intelligent and asking questions about the effects of radiation on the Japanese. His daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) is old enough to go out on the town with her parents and be the designated driver. At his old job at the bank, Al realizes he isn’t the stingy bank man he once was and approves loans that get him in trouble.
Lastly, young Homer, played by real life amputee WWII veteran Harold Russell, has lost both his hands in the war. While he has already informed his family of his condition, seeing it in person is still a heartbreaking experience. Throughout the film, Homer is constantly trying to prove his worth and abilities, showing that his hooks can do anything hands can. His little sister and her playmates find Homer and his hooks fascinating, this just infuriates him and makes him feel less confident.
Homer’s girl next door girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), still loves him, but poor Homer is afraid to ask her to marry him. He does not want to tie her down into his crippled lifestyle. The scene where Homer shows Wilma how he has to take his hooks off every night is especially moving. Once his hooks are off, he is completely helpless. Men returning from war are supposed to be a strong and capable, to show that level of vulnerability is such a high level of honest bravery. To thank Russell for sharing his condition and bringing an understanding of other amputee veterans, the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar for his role.
I completely understand why The Best Years of Our Lives won for Best Picture. This was the story of the nation’s lives at the time. A film illustrating the hardships of coming home in an honest way was exactly what the people of 1946 needed to understand each other and know they are not alone. Unfortunately for today’s average viewer, it can miss its mark and comes off as melodramatic. If you want to appreciate this movie, think about how the WWII generation was affected by this film. Perhaps watching it with a grandparent would be a good idea.
“He used to read me lectures on the curse of drink, now it’s different. I’m a veteran.”