Director William Wyler shows the problems of three veterans: of Homer’s prosthetic hooks; of Al’s restless dissatisfaction with his bank job and his ready relief in drink; and of Fred’s disillusionment that the wife, home in the suburbs, and good job he thought would be waiting for him after the war have fizzled out, one by one. Dana Andrews plays Fred, spending much of the movie lugging around an overstuffed army suitcase, trying to find “home.”
Wyler’s treatment of Homer, played by amputee Harold Russell, was sensitive and straightforward. Homer pulls his hooks out into view early in the film when he signs his name on a paper. We see Homer shaking “hands” repeatedly through the film, knocking on doors, drinking, eating, handling money in a billfold, never hiding his hooks but using them as naturally and as often as he would his hands, even playfully banging out “Chopsticks” in a piano duet. Wyler forces us to look at the hooks. In one splendid scene, Homer visits his uncle’s bar, and feeling at home with his pals and away from the nervousness of his family, proceeds to hold a conversation while pushing his sailor hat back farther on his head, handling a beer in a pilsner glass, shaking “hands,” and slamming his hook down on the bar as a man might slam his fist to make a point. It is stupendous for its very naturalness and simplicity.
It is left to the minor characters of Butch and Al’s son, Rob, to introduce the post-war world for us by discussing the atom bomb. The central characters are too preoccupied with jobs, and fitting into their families, and fitting into their civilian clothes to care about the new geopolitical realities. Rob refers to the recent enemy as “Japanese” with a delicacy that eludes his veteran father, who persists in referring to them as “Japs.”
Wyler, with subtle observation even manages to put a toe across Hollywood’s color bar by training the camera’s eye on the African-American ex-GI who waits to go home just as Al, Homer, and Fred must wait at the ATC depot. A black soldier brings his family into Fred’s drug store and is seen buying candy for his two children. The man standing in line next to Fred at the unemployment office is an African American. It is as if Wyler hints there is a parallel story here to the one of Al, Homer, and Fred, but we only get a peek.
Another legacy to us comes from the man with the flag pin on his lapel who challenges Homer to consider that a left-wing conspiracy brought the nation to war. Al, played by Oscar winner Fredric March, chides the stuffy bankers at his welcome home banquet of their suspicion of “do-gooders” and “radicals.” Today, these salvos between right and left have been diminished to a toxic cliché about blue states and red states. We are a nation fighting a nearly 20-year-old war today, and many of us wear flag pins on our lapels, but the civilian population has not been called upon to make sacrifices. Only civilians who have loved ones in the military have made sacrifices. The rest are untouched and uninvolved. It was not so in World War II.
In this film, the women the three men have come home to are not diminished; is it their story, too. Al’s wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy, and his daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright, display heartsick fears and frank desires. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Fred’s nightmare, when a drunken Fred is put to bed by Peggy, a young woman he met only hours before, suffers a nightmare from what today would be called post-traumatic stress, and is comforted by Peggy, in her bed, yet there is nothing sensationalized or exploitive about it.
It is a movie whose musical score, composed by Hugo Friedhofer did not produce any catchy pop tunes, but captured each moment of conscience the way a shadow follows a body. The otherworldly sensation of Al’s first waking in his own bed after years of jungle is punctuated by the musical score; the delicate strains of the refrain that opens the film and reprises through every moment of tenderness or tension, a piece of music unnamed but unmistakable, captures the moments and meanings that makes mere lyrics inarticulate. The astonishing burst of brass ripple that begins the airplane engine noise as Fred sits in the nose of a trashed plane, experiencing a wartime flashback, all these musical incidents are by turns touching and devastating.
The Best Years of Our Lives was made in the first year of the Baby Boom, and now the Boomers are retiring, those that can. 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 are learning, 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 more than seventy years after the first year of the big peace.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.