The Greatest films of all time: 41. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)(USA)



Hollywood had been quite silent about the second World War that burnt Europe and cost millions of lives all over the world, even including the American soldiers who finally after the attack of Perl Harbour being sent out to the war. But “The Best Years of Our Lives” of William Wyler that was released a year after the end of the war in 1946, surprisingly broke this silence. The film while not addressing or showing the war directly, for the first time on the screen, reflects the casualties of the war in the aftermath. This is another prototype of anti-war films, different than the great classic of Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” of the WWI in 1930.


The impact of the war in the film is shown psychologically and socially very delicately in the lives of three survived veterans, their families and friends after returning home. These veterans upon returning home only after a few years that US was in the war, notice a huge gap between themselves, their families and friends. The two sides are totally estranged to each other in feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The film unlike many other anti-war films to come out of Hollywood in the later years, it is not focusing on one but three protagonist characters representing home returning soldiers.


The film still stands out to this day among many later on anti-war films for its depiction of the American society to be totally at loss with the reality of the war, even WWII that was considered a just war against the force of Nazis and Fascists. As if the American nation were not involved or not interested in going to the war! For just a year after the end of the war, understanding such a national reaction of common people to the war is still difficult to grasp. Perhaps one explanation as it is said clearly in the one of the early scenes of the film, in a discussion between Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and his teenage son, could be the disagreement of the American people on atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the surrender of Japan.

But throughout the film, here and there, opinions against war is expressed clearly by other characters such as uncle Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael) when advising Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) who has lost hands in the war, to give it time to his family to get used to him. In short, the family and friends of the returning veterans seem to be in guilt and shame for having sent their men to the war! This attitude in a Hollywood film at the sensitive time after the second world war was as strange as heroic, despite many war films of the modern time engulfed in high patriotism, receiving the returning veterans from any war with glory. This aspect of the film alone needs to be explored and analyzed on its own, to discover if there has been any difference in the nation’s attitude towards the war then than now.      


The Best Years of Our Lives: Gone!

The film as denoted above and clearly is stated and remains to be the attitude and the position of film throughout hinges on the question or statement that “The Best Years of Our Lives” have been wasted or lost in the war! The film that was adapted from the novella of “Glory for Me” of MacKinlay Cantor” in a narrative verse. The book that tells the same story of three WWII veterans returning home holds the same attitude, political or social position against the war or any war as reads “And each had felt the kiss of death so many times, that he could only share himself with other men whose lips still wore the damp and pungent print of cold infinity.” That’s why in the film we are witnessed to the closer relationship between the three veterans, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) than their own families and old friends.


As always even to this day, when the soldiers return home and back to the reality of civil life, they are estranged and have to face, not their own harsh war experiences through their flashbacks, but to live and cope again with their families and friends who had no such experiences. In fact the war gets soldiers for the first time not to reality of the death of their own, but others who lived with them for a while during the war. Moreover the soldiers face the enemy, soldiers and civilians, who are more or less like them and have no animosity to each other, but have to kill each other. While this bitter truth was shown very clearly in the classic masterpiece “All Quiet on the Western Front”, in this film it is shown in the impact of the aftermath of the war on veterans and their families. So they are left behind with shame, guilt, and so many other psychological turmoil. For example after going through the horrific experience of the war to the edge of death, now after return they have to start all over, back to their ordinary jobs, such as behind the ice cream parlor, selling ice cream or perfumes. The fact of life going to such extremes, becomes totally meaningless to them, so they have to drawn themselves in drinking and isolation from the rest of ordinary people.

In the above regards, the film despite not being much technical in real sense, it is original in its ant-war story, and as such technical in depicting it well on the screen through its masterfully translated a narrative verse into screenplay. The film was so felt and received by the American nation at the time that sold $23.7 million in the box office, and considering the cost of a ticket 25 cent, it was seen by almost 100 million viewers in US. This is alone proves the value of a film that is not commercial or pure entertaining, but a harsh melodrama that is hailed by a nation that the film enlightened and influenced. That is the sheer impact of cinema as the modern art medium that can reach people unlike any other art formats. This brings with it, a survival for ever, and an example what a film can do.


All the above was achieved well, to a great extent as William Wyler had combat experience in the war in Europe while filming “Mepmphis Belle” and hired Harold Russell as a non-actor to play the role of Homer. He also asked the actors to purchase their own clothes so to look more real and portray an authentic feeling on the screen, and shot the film on the real life sets, against the standard of the time that were all done in studios. Hence the impact on the audience was immediate and added to the realistic perception of the film. Perhaps through the public approval and reception of the film, surprisingly it won all major Oscar awards, including the best picture, director, screenplay, film editing and music score, and the best supporting actor (Harold Russell) who as a non-actor, he has been the only one in the history of Oscar to receive an extra Honorary award as well.  



In closing remarks “The Best Years of Our Lives” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is original in its story and content of anti-war without showing the war fields and the physical causalities.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Best Years of Our Lives” lies in its screenplay, artfully translated a narrative verse into a script, winning the audience and critics acclamation. The technicality of the film also lies in its delicacy in depicting the psychological casualties of the war on both sides of the soldiers, their families and friends.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “The Best Years of Our Lives” has been on many anti-war films in the later years and also on the American people who were against any wars for years to come, including the later Vietnam war.
  4. Survival: “The Best Years of Our Lives” has survived well to this very day as a heart warming, also heart breaking anti-war film, and it is still enlightening or even surprising for its heroic making right after the second world war.


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