“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Oh, I was in plenty of battles, but I never saw a Jap or heard a shell coming at me. When we were sunk, all I know is there was a lot of fire and explosions. And I was ordered topsides and overboard.”
Apart from the name of director William Wyler, I don’t recognise a single person involved with The Best Years of Our Lives. And while it won a swag of awards on release, I don’t feel like it gets talked about all that much today. I saw The Best Years of Our Lives about five or six years ago, and it’s a movie I’ve thought about a lot in the time since. The story and performances have stayed with me, and I was glad that this AFI countdown gave me an excuse to watch it again. On re-watch, all I can think is, why isn’t The Best Years of Our Lives, and every actor on screen in it, talked about all that much today.
World War II has come to an end, and three serviceman meet on a military plane, making their way back to their small, home town. There’s Fred (Dana Andrews), the suave airman who only knew his wife for a month or so before shipping off for three years fighting in Europe. There’s fresh faced young sailor Homer (Harold Russell), who lost both of his hands when his ship was sunk. And middle aged soldier Al (Frederic March), heading home to his wife and two kids who have grown from children to young adults while he was away.
While the three talk about their enthusiasm to get home and see loved ones, each hesitates to actually get out of the cab as they one by one reach their homes. As much as they have missed their old lives, they’re all obviously scared about what has changed in themselves and at home while they were away. Fred reluctantly takes back his old job as a soda jerk when he runs out of money trying to keep his materialistic wife in materials. Homer fears his sweetheart has only stayed true to him out of pity and does his best to push her away. While Al looks for answers at the bottom of a bottle.
Made only a year after the end of the war, I was surprised with how frankly The Best Years of Our Lives deals with what it was like for these guys to come home. It didn’t take long for people to stop calling them heroes, and start resenting the fact that they wanted to walk back into their old lives. No matter how deserving they were or what sacrifices they had made, their home town had moved on and figured how to get by without them for years.
And while it definitely makes sure our sympathies are with Fred, Homer and Al, the movie generally steers clear of making anyone the bad guy. The Best Years of Our Lives basically just says it’s a shitty situation, there’s no win/win for everyone concerned, and some people will have to suffer if others are going to be happy. Sure, the characters of Fred’s wife and boss are pretty one dimensional in their villainy, but the movie never shies away from the core trio’s foibles either.
Best Actor – March
Best Supporting Actor – Russell