William Wyler's Love Letter to the WWII Veteran


There are few films that make me feel as much as The Best Years of Our Lives. William Wyler’s opus is heartbreaking in its honest portrayal of soldiers readjusting to life after WWII. Every scene packs some kind of a punch as you watch Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) come to terms with a world that is no longer familiar to them. Strangers at first, the three men bond during a flight to their shared hometown and their lives slowly become intertwined.

Returning to civilian life presents different struggles for these men. Irrevocably changed by the war, they find a disconnect between themselves and the people they left behind. Al doesn't recognize his now-grown children and depends on his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy) -- and alcohol -- to get him through the days and nights. Although his family and his sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) still adore him, Homer closes himself off from them due to the loss of his hands. Fred, meanwhile, realizes that Marie (Virginia Mayo), the woman he hastily married before he went overseas, is shallow and materialistic. Their resentment towards each other is compounded by Fred's inability to get a job and his growing feelings for Al's thoughtful, caring daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright).

The Best Years of Our Lives is able to take you on its very emotional journey because every second of it feels genuine. The exquisite cast's acting is incredibly naturalistic, buoyed by Gregg Toland's gorgeous cinematography and use of deep-focus and Wyler's superb direction, which includes many long takes and scenes that allow us to absorb the characters' thoughts and actions. We feel Fred's frustration when he is forced to go back to his old job at a drugstore. We sense Homer's uneasiness around Wilma and his family. Like Milly, we start to keep track of Al's seemingly endless drinks. We suffer right alongside Peggy as she tries to figure out her relationship with a married Fred.

No matter how many times I see this film, it's always a visceral experience for me. I can't help but get lost in the story and the vividly drawn characters. There are so many moments that illustrate the film's beauty, such as when Homer first arrives home. Al and Fred watch from their taxi as Homer's parents and little sister happily embrace him on their front lawn. Wilma appears from the house next door and freezes when she sees Homer, as if she can't believe he's really there. She runs and kisses him, but he remains still, his arms visibly stiff by his sides as he anticipates the disgust she'll feel towards the hooks that have replaced his hands. No one notices these hooks, though, until Fred and Al's taxi leaves and Homer waves at them, his parents and Wilma's faces falling as they're suddenly hit with the gravity of Homer's new reality.








Al's homecoming is equally moving. When his kids answer the door, he motions for them to be quiet and then waits for Milly to appear. Setting the table in the other room, she asks who was at the door but their silence is all she needs to realize it's her husband. They don't even have to be in the same room for her to feel his presence. With sudden hope on her face, Milly rushes to the hallway. They lock eyes and wordlessly cling to each other.








While there is a deep sadness that follows our characters for most of the film, it's the moments of happiness that make me cry. The most astonishing scene is when Homer shows Wilma how he gets ready for bed every night. Convinced that his disability will ruin her life, Homer has been pushing her away until Fred encourages him to be vulnerable with her. While Homer demonstrates how he takes off his prosthetics and puts on his pajamas, Wilma watches him tenderly. With a warm smile, she buttons up his shirt and straightens his collar, making him finally see that Wilma doesn't pity him -- she unconditionally and undeniably loves him. She wraps her arms around him and, realizing that Wilma will always be there for him, Homer puts his arms around her for the first time. She then tucks him into bed and they quietly say goodnight to one another. As she goes, she makes sure to leave the door open a crack, remembering Homer's words that with the door shut, he is completely helpless. In the darkened room, a single tear falls down Homer's cheek.









The poignancy of Wilma and Homer's relationship is, for me, sob-inducing. Their love story is unexpectedly powerful, so much so that their wedding at film's end never fails to melt me. Without his hands, Homer had a lot to mourn; in his mind, that included the loss of his future with Wilma. For a long time, he doesn't understand how she could stay by his side, but his tragedy only emphasizes her strength and compassion. And his, too. One of the sweetest things about their wedding is when it's time for Homer to place the ring on Wilma's finger. Everyone holds their breath, wondering if Homer's prosthetic will make him drop the ring. Feeling nervous herself, Wilma's hand shakes... until Homer gently steadies it. It's such a subtle, beautiful expression of how far Homer has come since the beginning of the film, when he let his fears ostracize him from the people who loved him the most.


Although recognized as a drama about post-war difficulties, The Best Years of Our Lives is also intensely and surprisingly romantic. All of the relationships we see have issues, some more than others. But the imperfection adds to the verisimilitude. Fred and Marie's quick marriage before his deployment and their subsequent problems upon his return weren't uncommon during WWII. In one of my favorite scenes, Peggy confesses to her parents that she's fallen for Fred and she wants to save him from a marriage that is clearly breaking his spirit. When Al angrily replies that she shouldn't chase after Fred, Peggy accuses her parents of not understanding since they've always had a perfect relationship. "We never had any trouble," Milly wryly says to her husband. "How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?" Even people who are made for each other have to keep choosing to stay together.

After Al interferes, Fred and Peggy keep their distance from one another, which gives Fred time to separate from Marie and find his footing with a better, more suitable job. At Homer and Wilma's wedding, Peggy and Fred can't stop looking at each other. As the minister's words hang in the air, you can tell they wish it was their ceremony. When everyone else gathers around the newlyweds at the ceremony's conclusion, Fred and Peggy stay where they are, still looking into one another's eyes from across the room. Finally, he goes to her and, although they still have obstacles to face, they happily decide to face them together, just like Peggy's parents and Wilma and Homer have.








At the start of the film, it's a cinch that Al, Fred, and Homer believed that the best years of their lives had already passed -- they were the years before the war, before they were forced to leave their loved ones, before they were plunged into unimaginable circumstances. By the end of the film, though, it's clear: the best is still to come. They just have to keep striving for it.


Like his male protagonists, William Wyler was a returning WWII veteran who had been changed by his experience. (For more about that, I cannot recommend the Netflix documentary series Five Came Back enough. It was also based on a book that I haven't had a chance to read yet, but I've only heard great things.) I don't think The Best Years of Our Lives would be the same if it had been made by someone who didn't have that background. Wyler knew what these characters were going through and he doesn't try to shield us from their pain or their sorrow. Instead, he crafted an elegant masterpiece about the cost of war, and about humanity. And love. And resilience. It's a film that resonated in 1946 and will continue to resonate because it connects with our souls profoundly and unforgettably.

__________________


This is my entry to the World War II Blogathon, hosted by Cinema Essentials and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To read the other contributions, click here.

Comments

  1. I shall not berate myself for weeping while reading your lovely article on The Best Years of Our Lives.

    "This is the only thing I have ever seen where the picture started and three minutes later I was dissolved in tears, and I cried for two hours plus after that. That was the opening sequence in The Best Years of Our Lives. The moment that that guy without his arms was standing there with the back to the camera, and the parents came out, I was gone. And I'm not a pushover believe me. I laugh at Hamlet." - Billy Wilder in American Masters: Directed by William Wyler, 1986

    PS: Some of your best and most evocative screencaps.

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    1. Oh no, I made Paddy cry! I blame Wyler. If this film didn't make you cry, I'd be worried.

      As always, Billy Wilder says it better than the rest of us. I have the same exact reaction to this film every single time. I was even getting teary-eyed grabbing my screencaps!

      Thanks for reading, Paddy! :)

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  2. I saw The Best Years of Our Lives on television years ago, and I have always remembered the scene where Dana Andrews gets into a cockpit and relives his war experiences. Incredibly moving, even in memory! Thanks for such a great and moving blog post.
    Marianne
    Make Mine Film Noir

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    1. That's a great scene! The cinematography and Dana Andrews's performance are just stellar.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. There's so many things which make this such a tremendous film, and you've captured pretty much all of them.

    I also think this movie was years ahead of it's time in terms of movies which dealt with the struggles of veterans transitioning back to the civilian world.

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    1. Thank you! It was daunting to write this post because this is such a big, important film, but I wound up writing it in just one day, which has to be a record for me.

      I agree. It's pretty gutsy in what it portrays, especially when you consider that it was made a year after the war ended.

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  4. This beautiful film is one that needs to be seen by each generation that has followed. Words just don't describe it's impact but we try. Great pick.

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    1. Thanks! You're so right. I definitely don't think my post did it justice, but I'm glad I finally put some words down about it because it's certainly one of my favorite films.

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  5. Some would call it depressing, but there's such wisdom in this movie. I like that Wyler had the costumers buy the wardrobe at department stores instead of glamming everyone up--it makes it that much more relatable. Excellent review!

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    1. Thank you! I find this movie more uplifting than sad, but I can see how others would disagree. It's definitely not all sunshine and rainbows!

      That's cool to know about the wardrobe. Ever since I've seen Five Came Back, I've developed such an admiration for Wyler. Every time I watch one of his films now, I try to pay close attention.

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  6. Wonderful movie, nice writeup. Another scene that always gets me is when Fred's father reads his citations. So many great scenes in this one. I've always liked that Wyler never went with any flashbacks, just what's going on now.

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    1. Thanks! I actually forgot about that particular scene until I rewatched the film for this post. It is a very moving moment, and beautifully acted, too. It never occurred to me that flashbacks could have been used. I agree that what Wyler did was best.

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  7. An incredible, emotional film. The scene where Dana Andrews sits in the cockpit in the airplane "graveyard" is one of my favourite moments on film, period.

    Also, I agree with Caftan Woman re: your screen images. A beautiful collection from this film.

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    1. Thanks, Ruth! If I had had more time, I would've gotten screenshots from the entire film, but it was probably best that I limited myself (for once, haha).

      That cockpit scene is unforgettable. It feels so intense, and it says so much about Fred. One of Hollywood's best moments, for sure.

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  8. Great review of a great film. Nice screenshots too! :)

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    1. Thank you! Wyler and Gregg Toland did some gorgeous work together on this film, didn't they? They deserve all the credit for my screenshots!

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  9. Excellent! This really is a masterpiece, isn't it? It still packs a punch even now. I like the way that it's optimistic, by is still left open-ended. Who knows if these characters really will have a happy ending, but they at least have the chance of one.

    Thanks for contributing to the blogathon.

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    1. Thanks for having me! I optimistically think everything will turn out great for these characters, but it is kind of left up to your imagination. I mean, Al's alcoholism is somewhat dealt with by the end, but it's iffy. And Fred makes it clear to Peggy that they'll still have struggles.

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  10. Such a wonderful review of this poignant and powerful film. This is one of those films that never seems to age or lose its emotional impact. The characters and their respective stories come across as being so real and we are more drawn to them because of that. I like that this shows what returning veterans have to endure, and also what the impact their trauma etc has on their loved ones. Thanks so much for joining. Apologies for my late response but I've not been well. Maddy

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    1. Wonderfully said! And thanks! I'm sorry to hear you haven't been feeling well.

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