The Best Years of Our Lives

AFI Rank: #37
Year Released: 1946
Director: William Wyler
Actors: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo

In modern times we are very familiar with how hard it is for veterans to return from war. We understand about the post traumatic stress, the challenges they can have adjusting to civilian life, and so on. But in 1946, this sort of knowledge was far less well known. Returning vets were often told to "get over it" and just forget about what they'd seen. The Best Years of Our Lives is a powerful look into how three soldiers returning from WWII deal with their new lives. As it came out in 1946, right when this was happening, it was quite timely, and helped audiences realize just what was going on around them.

First we have the air force captain who is used to the high life. He had been elevated from soda jerk to idolized man and won awards along the way. He expects to come home to his brand-new beautiful wife and continue his upward progress. But instead he's back to being a soda jerk and his wife loses interest in his non-uniformed look.

Next is the solid, older family man with a wife and two kids. He finds it hard to cope with his banking job, potentially turning down loans for GIs who want to restart their lives.

And finally there's the navy man who lost both hands in a tragic accident. The actor who plays him was in fact a vet who lost both hands, which makes the scenes with him quite powerful and compelling. This isn't CGI at work. He really has dealt with what is being described.

What makes this movie even more involving for me is that they tell not just these men's stories but also the stories of those who love them. The girlfriend of the navy man adores him with all her heart. She doesn't mind the loss of his hands. She wants to be by his side. She feels frustrated and shut out when he repeatedly turns away from her.

So many classic movies have a nearly all male cast, and it might have been accepted here since the movie is about war's aftermaths. But the writers created a fantastic screenplay which won an Oscar; one which showed how so many others - mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters - were intricately affected as well.

It's a shame that, while most people have seen Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and other classics, few have seen this one. Maybe it's the 3 hour running time. Maybe for some reason it doesn't seem as "exciting" as a movie about war times. But there's a lot of powerful discussion here, and the messages are just as powerful in modern times as they were then.

Interestingly, it's a woman who says the line in the movie about losing the best years of her life. It's the blonde who married her fly-boy husband 20 days before he headed off to war, and then who apparently lived it high at home while he was off at war. She complains to him, when he comes back and needs to settle down on a tight income, that she's lost the best years of her life waiting around for him to get back.

Highly recommended.

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Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100