Saturday, November 11, 2017

Movie about veterans: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Director: William Wyler
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

In The Best Years of Our Lives, three men return home from WWII and struggle to adjust to civilian life. Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell) live in the same city, and though they've only just met on the plane home, their lives intersect in important ways throughout the movie.

Although they each enjoy happy or hopeful endings, the movie shows the ways in which their lives could have derailed (or still could derail after the closing credits). Al is welcomed back by his loving family, and the well-paid position he held at a bank remains open to him. However, he has taken to drinking heavily and isn't at ease either at home or at work. Fred can't find a good job, and his marriage is strained. He's also suffering from post-traumatic stress. Homer lost both his hands during the war and fears that his fiancee is sticking with him only out of pity. He also begins to isolate himself after receiving pitying and uncomfortable looks from family and friends. (Harold Russell actually did lose his hands during WWII, and this was his first movie role.)

Throughout the movie, they hear that people respect their service and sacrifice, but that it's time to move on already. Quickly, without fuss. Few people want to think much about the war or confront its lingering effects. However, there are some people whose response goes beyond platitudes and bland compassion - for example, Peggy (Teresa Wright), who is Al's daughter and Fred's love interest, works as a nurse and isn't fazed by the fact that Fred has nightmares.

In the movie, much of the men's stability depends on the unstinting devotion of the women in their lives. Peggy and her mother, Milly (Myrna Loy), look after Al, and Peggy gives Fred hope that he can have a good life in spite of his hardships. (There's good chemistry between Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright.) Homer's fiancee, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), strives to convince him that she isn't settling for him out of pity and that she won't despise him in the coming years. Although the men struggle with doubt about themselves, the women never seem to. The only woman who expresses dissatisfaction is Fred's wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). She's portrayed as consistently shallow and selfish. There's no middle ground between her and the other women, who help infuse the movie with optimism.

Is the optimism realistic? A number of WWII veterans went on to marry, start families, own homes, and land well-paying jobs. The movie, made soon after the war, wanted to show the hopeful possibilities. However, it also lets in darkness and doubt. It would be easy for everything to go wrong for Al, Fred, and Homer.