When you send a man to war for years, you are forever altering the relationship he has with his loved ones back home.
The greatest WWII movie does not show a single act of violence. “The Best Years Our Lives” explores the challenges that veterans faced as they tried to build a new life in their old homes.
The three lead characters – Al, Fred, and Homer – meet each other on the flight home and become fast friends.
Al has the least difficult situation. He’s in his 40s, with a family and a lucrative job waiting for him. When Fred sees Al’s ritzy apartment complex, he asks: “Hey, what are you? A retired bootlegger?” “Nothing as dignified as that,” Al chuckles. “I’m a banker.”
But the transition from killing people to making money is a jarring one. Al has trouble settling back into the corporate routine. He also finds that his teenage son has become a stranger during their years apart.
Al copes as best he can by drinking every day. Director William Wyler does a spectacular job of showing us Al’s drinking habit without commentary or melodrama. He isn’t an alcoholic and he isn’t a jerk when he’s drunk. Al simply can’t handle his new reality sober.
Fred doesn’t have a good job and he doesn’t really have a partner. He was one of the many GIs who eloped before shipping out. And now that he’s home, he discovers that he and his party-girl wife don’t like each other.
Fred’s boss reluctantly gives him his old job back. But after being a military officer, fixing ice cream sodas for kids feels ridiculous and humiliating.
Not nearly as humiliating as not being able to work at all, though. Homer has the hardest time adjusting to civilian life because he lost both his hands in the war.
Uncle Sam gave Homer a pair of hooks and they work surprisingly well. He can light a cigarette and grab a glass of beer.
What they can’t do is restore his dignity and self-esteem. Homer can’t look his fiancée in the eye, and he certainly can’t imagine her still wanting to marry him.
There will never be a more heart-rending portrayal of a wounded warrior. To be clear, this isn’t some Lieutenant Dan CGI bull crap: the man who played Homer was a real veteran who lost his hands.
The scene where Homer finally has the guts to show his fiancée how physically and emotionally vulnerable he is, is powerful and bittersweet.
Calling the film a success is like calling World War II a minor victory. “The Best Years of Our Lives” was the biggest box office hit since “Gone With the Wind.” It swept the Oscars. And it is an emotionally satisfying drama. You won’t just root for the returning veterans, you’ll cry for them and miss them when the movie is over.
I can’t believe how much I loved this movie.