The Best Years of Our Lives follows three soldiers returning from war to a small American town. The film is unique among its era for the courage with which it tackles the consequences of war on simple, peaceful domestic life. Homer, Fred, and Al are three men with differing backgrounds and histories, and their tales are easy to envision happening all throughout the United States and the world at large. For all its dread and unease, though, The Best Years of Our Lives is obviously a deeply optimistic and positive movie that can’t help but give its characters all the joys and comforts they deserve.
Harold Russel’s dual Oscar winning Homer Parrish has to be one of the most instantly sympathetic characters in film history. Despite losing both his hands in the war, he proves an indefatigable spirit. As he first meets fellow soldiers Fred and Al, he’s totally at peace with his lot in life, and shockingly agile with his prosthetics. As he returns home, though, anxiety sets in. He knows he’s a different man than the one that left his family behind. So when they greet him back with open arms and unconditional joy, it’s a huge relief and a genuinely moving moment.
Fred, the man with the most success and highest rank of the three in the military, struggles the most to find a place. He returns home to a loveless marriage with no marketable skills. He takes a demeaning job as a Soda Jerk at a pharmacy, and he hates himself for his inability to provide a manageable living for himself and his wife, whom he married on a whim before heading overseas. Fred found purpose and esteem at war, but at home he has nothing.
Al… well, Al sort of falls off the map after a brief moment of awkward readjustment. At first, his son and daughter are practically strangers, and he embarrasses himself in front of his wife after a night of heavy drinking, mistaking her for someone else. Lucky for him, she takes it with gentle good humor, happy to have him back. Of the three, he has the most to return to: wealth, love, family. With a new found appreciation for the little man, he seems perhaps the only one richer for the experience. He aids fellow soldiers with finances as the vice president at a local bank, and stands up for their rights at gala dinner. Before long, his family respects and appreciates him more than ever.
Really, the only criticism I can lob the film’s way is that it maybe doesn’t go dark enough. The film is incredibly powerful when it plays with the dread of an uncertain future. The anxious moments right before the men return to their loved ones are tense and powerful, and they make the loving reconciliations all the move heart warming. Nuclear terror and the fear that the world simply won’t survive another war also makes for some especially powerful conversations. But that all fades.
The Best Years of Our Lives wants to tackle the consequences of war on small town American life, but it’s unwilling to truly be cruel to its characters. Sure, adjusting back to small town American life has its hiccups, but all three come out better and happier than ever. Homer fears being excluded or treated differently because of his handicap, but his family and girlfriend treat him with dignity and respect from beginning to end. Fred’s marriage falls apart, but it was doomed from the start, and he finds a much better love. Al’s family loves and cherishes him, and work promotes him instantaneously. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t really address the possibility that the scars war can leave are anything but fleeting.
That’s fine, though. In the wake of an enormous conflict like World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives tries to tell the stories and share the pain of thousands of men across America. So what if it suggests that misery is temporary. It can hardly be begrudged for looking to the future with a healthy sense of optimism.