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Posted on Feb 13, 2008 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Best Years of Our Lives – Overview

By Wyatt Kingseed

This is a special and memorable film. Still the best of Hollywood’s Coming Home films and among the greatest American produced ensemble pieces, there is good reason why The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay.

Part of it was timing. Released just after the Second World War in 1946, it perfectly captured the nation’s jumbled mix of emotions: relief, angst, hopefulness, and confusion. But most of the explanation for its acclaim lies in its superb craftsmanship.

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Dana Andrews and Fredric March contemplate what it will be like at home while Harold Russell sleeps in the foreground.

The story centers on three ordinary veterans. Recently discharged, they form a bond as they share a flight back to their Mid-western hometown, Boone City. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) share something else—the uncertainty all veterans face when trying to readjust back into civilized society, and the frightful question: are the best years of their lives behind them?

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The men are from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, and except for the common experience of war and their fears of the future, none of these people would likely have become friends. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of the film. Circumstances have thrown them together, for better or worse. How Director William Wyler makes them interact—together and with family and friends—and what’s in store for them in a post-war world, is the heart of the story. And Wyler tells that story in a lean, honest style that surely touches every viewer, be they a veteran themselves or someone who has lost sleep praying that a family member return home safely from some overseas conflict.    

Homer has the most difficult task, having lost both hands when his ship was sunk. He now wears two hooks. “I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in the jukebox. I’m all right,” he explains, “but… well, you see, I’ve got a girl.” Homer doesn’t want to be a burden to Wilma, the girl he planned to marry, and at first pushes her away. Feeling self-conscious, he imagines he only engenders pity. Russell, a true vet with no previous acting experience, is remarkable in a sensitive performance.

In a film loaded with great dialog, one of the best exchanges occurs shortly after the men arrive home. Fred and Al watch expectantly from a cab Homer’s uneasy reunion with Wilma and his family. They see Wilma rush to hug Homer, but he stands stiff and awkward in her embrace. Fred doesn’t notice and merely shakes his head, saying, "You gotta hand it to the Navy. They sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al, more observant, catches the moment and replies, "They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair."

 

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