When The Best Years of Our Lives was released in 1946, the movie became one of the highest grossing American films and it won a total of nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The movie could not have come at a better time. The horrors of World War II were still fresh wounds and both veterans and their loved ones were just beginning to understand the permanent effects of modern war. Though the movie is over 50 years old, its message is just as relevant today as it was back then. Even when the war is over, it is truly never over for the people who have served and for their families who must learn to cope with the physical and psychological scars their loved ones endured.
The film follows Sergeant Al Stephenson, Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier, and Homer Parrish, a sailor wounded in a bombing accident. The three veterans meet on their way home from the war. Their experiences immediately bond them together. Though they come from very different backgrounds one thing becomes very clear to all three of them. No one, not even their loved ones, can truly relate to the horrors that they experienced as soldiers.
Al (Fredric March) is a middle age successful bank loan officer, married to a beautiful and grounded wife (played by Myrna Loy) with two loving children. He seemingly has every reason to be happy, but the constant high adrenaline from the war makes him thirsty for excitement. He copes by drinking. While Fred (Dana Andrews) has proven himself a highly skilled bombardier, no one at home seems to appreciate this. Even his wife, played by Virginia Mayo, offers no compassion. She likens his uniform to a status symbol and requests that he wear it when they go out so that she can brag about being married to a war hero. Fred feels out of place and struggles to assimilate back into society. Then there is Homer, who returns from the war without his hands. Before the war he was an accomplished athlete. Now he wears hooks and has to rely on others to help him. Though his parents and girlfriend are supportive, needing their help only makes him feel more helpless and depressed.
Though the film explores the terrible physical and psychological damages of war, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Through adversity the three veterans and their families discover a deeper sense of love for each other and compassion for those who fought in the war. Al, Fred, and Homer eventually learn to settle into their new life. Through their struggles, they come to discover what is most important to them. In addition to solid writing, the film had a star-studded cast, including many great actors such as Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright (who played Al’s daughter), and Fredric March. It is interesting to note that the role of Homer Parrish was Harold Russell’s first major film role. He went on to win Best Supporting Actor as well as an Honorary Award for inspiring hope to American veterans.
American composer, Hugo Friedhofer, along with the help of conductor and music director Emil Newman wrote a memorable score for the film, which earned an Academy Award for Best Music. Few soundtracks carry the emotional intensity like Friedhofer’s music does in this movie. Even without watching the movie, one could listen to the soundtrack and be swept away.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie that everyone would benefit from watching. We are seeing a rise in terrorist attacks and violence towards groups of people. Our survival depends on our ability to show compassion when the times are most dark. As Al’s son says upon his father’s return, “We’ve got to find a way to live together – or else.”