“The Best Years of Our Lives” was made in the first year of the Baby Boom, and now the first Boomers are preparing for retirement. Their parents’ generation could be no better represented than by Harold Russell, who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, and later lost his hands. Two of the many Academy Awards won by that film were won by him. As a senior citizen, he sold them both in 1992, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Retirement, as the Boomers may learn, also has its horrors.
We can only imagine what lay in store for the characters. There is no hint of the space race, the Civil Rights movement, or Vietnam, and perhaps it is just that very perspective knowing what we know now about the peace after the war, where we have succeeded as a nation and where we have failed, that adds a certain eeriness of hindsight that matches Hugo Friedhofer’s music.
There are no sure happy endings in this film. We are never told if Al is going to get a grip on his reaching for a drink in an awkward situation, but we know Milly will be there to support him. We see Homer marry his sweetheart, but his triumph in adjusting to civilian life is tempered by the real knowledge that he will never be able to turn a doorknob or button his own shirt. He will always need a little help with some things.
We are never clearly told when the “best years” were, if it was before the war, during the war, or the years yet to come. The title is ambiguous. There is no fairy tale ending for Fred and Peggy, either. Fred is the last one of the three to take off his uniform, when a job offer in construction is finally made to him, and he symbolically puts the war behind him by stripping off his bomber jacket to go to work.
When Fred and Peggy finally embrace at the end of the film he tells her that it won’t be easy, that they will have to work, “get kicked around.” It is the last line of the film, and not very romantic. She beams a radiant smile, wondrous at only the positive side of his double-edged declaration, completely ignoring the warning. We see the warning. We are still imagining their uncertain future sixty years after the first year of the big peace.
This ends a four-part series on "The Best Years of Our Lives." See you on Monday.