The Best Years of Our Lives

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(1946, directed by William Wyler)

- inducted 2018 –

“Men fight wars, women win them.”

“The above quote is attributed to Queen Elizabeth the First, supposedly during a speech made at Tilbury during the conflict with the Spanish Armada. In context, Elizabeth was needling the egos of some men of the court, who had been grousing, none too quietly, about her abilities to lead the nation during wartime. History, as they say, has decided she went on to prove her point.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a film about a war, a war that changed the character and direction of an entire nation, told from the perspective of those that lived through it. Three men, each damaged in some way by the experience, and the women who waited, ‘steadfast and true,’ for their return. In somewhat of a departure from most war movies of its time, this one spends its time examining not the conflict itself, what comes after, once the blood has cooled and the body politic returns to a state of equanimity and peace. In its masterstroke of genius, it gives us a clear-eyed and often prophetic look at the symptoms and side-effects of what later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The story centers on three men, each freshly home form the war and trying to readjust to civilian life. First, there’s Al Stephenson, a former Platoon Sergeant and family man, married to Milly and father of Peggy, who returns to his former life as small-town banker. Next is Fred Derry, a decorated pilot during the war, who returns to find all the medal and accolades essentially useless in a civilian job market. And finally, there’s Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both arms in a terrible shipboard fire. Each of these men is damaged in some way, with Homer’s obvious physical difficulties contrasted against the subtler mental and emotional difficulties of his friends.

“What they discover upon their return, however, is that some additional unforeseen damage has been incurred in their absence. Al’s wife has capably managed the household in his absence, and his once little girl has now grown into a woman. As he reintroduces himself into their lives, they, too, have to reorient their lives around him. Fred’s wife, left alone for so long, has come to love her newfound independence possibly more than her husband. And Homer’s family and friends demonstrate a keen reluctance to come to terms with his handicap, preferring instead to pretend as if nothing has changed when it so very obviously has.

“As the film progresses, we witness the trials and tribulations of each of these men and the women around which they orbit. Al’s increased social consciousness is tempered by an emerging weakness for drink, and his wife increasingly finds herself responsible for pulling him back to the straight and narrow. Fred’s wife’s increasing contempt for his failures to become as successful in the every day as he was during the war, drives him into the company of Al’s daughter, who sees him for who he truly is, rather than as a cardboard cutout of something that was. And for Homer, it is his awareness of the stark reality of his disability that leads to an almost perverse attempt to spare his childhood sweetheart’s feelings by intentionally causing her enough pain to drive her away.

“Within each of these stories lies the seed of their eventual resolution, and it as the seeds begin to sprout and grow that the movie takes on some serious power. Al’s drunken speech on the importance of doing the right thing for returning veterans is nothing less than a heartfelt plea to turn the engines of capitalism away from greed, if only for a moment, and steer them toward a more faithful fulfillment of the tenets of the American Dream. For Fred, it is young Peggy who holds the keys to his future, giving him the kind of love he needs to see beyond the horrors of his immediate past, and into the possibilities of the future. And for Homer…

“My God.

“When I first saw the scene between Homer and Wilma, where she’s come to tell him her parents want to send her away to forget him, and how he responds by showing her exactly what it means to live with a disability, and how she responds by showing him what love really is… I was floored. I was young, on my haunches a few inches from the TV, eyes wide, tears streaming down my face, and felt my very soul open. For the very first time, I understood something of the totality of human experience and the infinite power and possibilities of love. To say it changed me is an understatement. It made me fully fucking human. In those moments I learned that Elizabeth was mostly right; that while it is men who fight the wars, it is women, always women, that teach us how to achieve the peace. To become human again.

“And that is, quite simply, the greatest gift we will ever receive.”

~ Donald G. Carder

Principal cast: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin, Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams, Don Beddoe, Marlene Aames, Charles Halton, Ray Teal, Howland Chamberlain, Dean White, Erskine Sanford, Michael Hall, Victor Cutler, with uncredited appearances by Blake Edwards, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Leo Penn, Gene Krupa
Screenplay by: Robert E. Sherwood
From a novel by MacKinlay Kantor
Produced by: Samuel Goldwyn
Director of photography: Gregg Toland
Art direction by: Perry Ferguson, George Jenkins
Costume design by: Irene Sharaff
Film editing by: Daniel Mandell
Original music by: Hugo Friedhofer
Makeup by: Robert Stephanoff
Hair stylist: Marie Clark
Sound by: Richard DeWeese (sound recorder)
Associate producer: Lester Koenig (uncredited)
Supervising sound editor: Gordon Sawyer (uncredited)
Titles designed by: Dale Tate (uncredited)
Special effects by: John P. Fulton, Harry Redmond Sr. (both uncredited)
Aerial director of photography: Paul Mantz (uncredited)

Duration: 170 min
Languages: English
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (Western Electric Recording)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Released in USA by RKO Pictures
Premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1989
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 29 December 2007
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Picture (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Actor in a Leading Role – Fredric March (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Harold Russell (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Director – William Wyler (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Writing, Screenplay – Robert E. Sherwood (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Film Editing – Daniel Mandell (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture – Hugo Friedhofer (won)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Honorary Award – Harold Russell (won)
- BAFTA Film Awards, 1947: Best Film From Any Source (won)
- Golden Globes, 1946: Best Picture (won)
- Golden Globes, 1946: Special Award – Harold Russell (won)
- NYFCC Awards, 1946: Best Film (won)
- NYFCC Awards, 1946: Best Director – William Wyler (won)
- NYFCC Awards, 1946: Best Actor – Fredric March (won)
- National Board of Review, 1946: Best Director – William Wyler (won)
- National Board of Review, 1946: Top Ten Films of the Year
- Academy Awards (USA), 1946: Best Sound, Recording – Gordon Sawyer, Samuel Goldwyn SSD (nominated)