THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
a commentary by Tony McRae

There are critics who see this William Wyler 1946 Oscar winner as falsely upbeat (an "evasive and cozy little tale," Michael Wood, America in the Movies), its three returning veterans having only to put their wills to the task and work and rehabilitation will follow, the women little more than helpful appendages. These critics see a patently feel-good movie with a too-easy resolution.  This is not the movie I see, not by a long shot.  There is an underside to Best Years (the title itself is ironic), an uneasy subtext that subtly shades and enriches this story.

Three servicemen return from the war.  Their military ranks reflect not at all their pre-war places in civilian society:  Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an air force officer, comes from a family that is literally from the other side of the tracks; Al Stephenson (Frederic March), an Army sergeant, is a banker; Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor, comes from a typical middle-class family. 

In the nose of a retooled bomber (picture above) taking them back to Boone City,  Al tells Fred, "The thing that scares me most is that everybody is going to try to rehabilitate me."  But isn't that what is supposed to happen, a return to normalcy?  Al appears to have it all:  a supportive family, a good job waiting for him, an assured place in the community.  What's to rehabilitate?  We get some subtle and not so subtle clues.  On his first night home he insists on taking his wife Millie (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright) bar hopping.  Al, we quickly surmise, has a drinking problem.  At one point in the evening, plainly in his cups, he grabs Millie and hauls her onto the dance floor.  
     "You're a bewitching little creature," he tells her with a leer.  "In a way you remind me of my wife."
     "But you never told me you're married," Millie coyly replies, going along with the charade.
     "Oh yeah, I got a little woman, two kiddies back there in the states."
     "But let's not think of them now."
     "Oh you're so right.  This night belongs only to us."
On one level this is comic repartee straight out of a screwball comedy, but we get the feeling Al has used this line before.  And by the film's end we are still not so sure all will be well with the Stephensons.

The most starkly visible change among the men is Homer's loss of his hands.   While he can joke with Al and Fred about his new-found ability to open beer bottles, dial a telephone, and drive a car with "these things," he cannot force himself to show his feelings to the people he loves, especially to his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell).  The film pulls no punches here.  Certainly one of the most touching and heart wrenching scenes in all of American cinema occurs when Homer brings Wilma up to his room in order to let her see how dependent on others he really is, this to set her free to lead her life without him.  Here too, we are not sure of Homer's future at the end of the film.  Though the film ends with the marriage of Wilma and Homer, there is no assurance that they will go on to the best years of their lives.  

And what of Fred whose job search seems an exercise in futility?  He has no apparent skills; all he was taught was to drop bombs.  In America in the Movies Michael Wood criticizes the way the movie handles Fred's landing a job:  "(Y)ou pull yourself together...and magically a job appears."  But Fred does not pull himself together, certainly not prior to landing a job.   He wanders around the empty hulks of bombers, not sure what he's  looking for.  We've learned earlier that he suffers from nightmares brought on by the war's horrors he experienced first hand.  In a dramatic sequence in the grave yard, Fred climbs into his "office," the bombardier position in the B-17; he again relives his horrendous combat experiences (picture at left); the foreman of a crew disassembling the planes yells for him to get out of the plane; Fred asks for a job and is offered one.  Is this a forced sequence to get Fred his job?  I think not.  Rather I see Fred at the end of his rope when he walks out to the acres and acres of soon-to-be-scrapped planes.  This is where his nightmares began and this is where they will end.   There's no magic to it.

I suspect that many critics see the final scene of Homer and Wilma's marriage as a neat resolution to everyone's problems.  The famous shot of the three couples (Al and Millie, Homer and Wilma, Fred and Peggy) shot in Gregg Toland's deep focus is carefully constructed, for some too carefully constructed,  too obviously a happy ending metaphor.   But is it?  Just prior to the wedding vows we see Al sampling the punch; Fred admits freely to Peggy that his future is far from secure; Homer, as far as we know, has no job prospects.  What these three couples have going for them is their interdependency, which I take not as a weakness but as a sign of growth.  Al's fear of rehabilitation is a fear of losing the independence he enjoyed away from family, but of course that independence was illusory.  Certainly Homer views his dependency as a liability--until Wilma shows him otherwise.  Let's face it--the women in this film are sounder, more mature than their male counterparts.  I see this story as a journey of these three men to reach this wholeness.

What are the "best years" for each character?  Fred's wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) claims she's given up her best years waiting for her husband's return from the war.  But the fact that she is the only character who refers to this tells me something about the film's underlying implications.  There are no "best years" except perhaps in retrospect.  The best years are those at hand, and while nothing is assured, this film shows dramatically and poignantly how three couples have a chance to get on with their lives and perhaps invent their own best years.

A comment about Gregg Toland's deep focus photography.  This technique allows the audience to examine the movie as a more leisurely pace:  our eyes have the luxury of wandering about the frame, making our own connections, detecting relationships.  In Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Toland and Welles wanted especially to show Kane amidst his possessions.  In Best Years the intent was to show the relationship between people, the need for interdependence.  We have only to look at the stills on this page to see how effectively this works. 

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