Top 100 Movie Review: No. 045 – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Ranked 045 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).  Watched movie during May 2020.

Cast: Dana Andrews (Captain Fred Derry), Fredric March (Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson), Harold Russell (Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Uncle Butch Engle)
Director:  William Wyler
My rating: 8.0 / 10

After World War II, returning veterans Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) meet while flying home to Boone City. Fred was a captain and bombardier in Europe. Homer was a petty officer; he lost both hands from burns suffered when his ship was sunk, and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. Al was an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific. All three have trouble readjusting to civilian life.

Al is a banker with a comfortable apartment and a loving family: wife Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) who works in a hospital, and high-school student son Rob. Al is promoted to vice president in charge of small loans, as the president views his military experience as valuable in dealing with other returning servicemen and them applying under the GI Bill. When Al approves an unsecured loan to a young Navy veteran, despite the man’s lack of collateral, the president advises him against making a habit of it. Later, at a banquet in his honour, a drunk Al discusses how they would have lost the war if the apply the Bank’s collateral rules and states that the Bank must stand with veterans and give them a chance to rebuild their lives.

Fred, a store clerk serving soda before the war, wants something better, but the tight labour market forces him to return to his old job. Fred had met and married Marie (Virginia Mayo) after a short acquaintance, before shipping out less than a month later. She became a nightclub waitress while Fred was overseas. Marie likes going out on the town with Fred wearing his Captain’s uniform and loves spending all the money he earned which quickly runs out.  Marie later makes it clear she won’t stand staying with someone earning so little and encouraging him to earn more.

Homer, a high school sports star, had become engaged to his next-door neighbour, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), before joining the Navy. On arrival home Homer’s family warmly greet him but struggle looking at his metail hooks.  Homer does not want to burden Wilma with his handicap so he pushes her away. However, she still loves him and wants to marry him.

On the night of Al’s return his daughter Peggy drives her parents around to various nightclubs to celebrate. The last place they stop is a small bar owned and operated by Homer’s uncle. There Al is reunited with Homer and Fred. 

With no options Fred returns to work out at the old store and finds himself working under a young man who had been his assistant before the war. Peggy drops by, and they have lunch together. Afterward, he suddenly grabs her and kisses her. He immediately apologises. Confused and somewhat upset, Peggy decides to find out more about Marie in person, and arranges a double-date with herself and a boyfriend.

After meeting Marie and hearing how much she doesn’t appreciate her husband and his lack of income Peggy’s dislike is established. Later that night Peggy tells her parents that she will help end Fred’s unhappy marriage. Al demands that Fred stop seeing his daughter. Fred agrees, but the friendship between the two men is strained.

Fred is serving Homer at work when an obnoxious customer upsets Homer with his remarks about fighting the wrong enemy in the war. Fred intervenes when the man insults Homer, knocking the man down and losing his job. Later, Fred encourages Homer to marry Wilma quickly. When Wilma visits Homer at home later that same evening, Homer shows her how hard life with him would be, but she is undaunted and they decide to get married.

Fred catches his wife with another man when he returns home unexpectedly. They argue, and Marie tells him that she is getting a divorce.  Fred decides to leave town to make a fresh start. While waiting for a plane, he wanders into a vast aircraft boneyard. Inside the nose of a B-17, he has a flashback. The boss of a work crew, in charge of disassembling the planes for materials for “prefabricated houses,” rouses him. Fred persuades the man to hire him.

At Homer and Wilma’s wedding, Fred, now divorced, is Homer’s best man. Fred and Peggy chat and she is aware of his new job and being divorced. After the ceremony, he takes her in his arms, kisses her and asks if she understands the troubles that lie in store for them. Peggy smiles fondly at him, and then kisses him again.

What’s to Like
The realistic story and focus on how hard it is for men to return from war.

What’s not to Like

The movie is about three men who served in World War 2 in the three major service; air force, infantry, and navy.  The movie covers the struggles of returning military as the three men struggle; Captain Fred Derry can’t find a place for himself and a wife who has moved on, Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson finds his work unsatisfying and his priorities changed along with his children being barely recognisable, and Petty Officer Homer Parrish struggling to accept his disability and those around him struggling to know what to do.

The movie was way ahead of its time being so soon after World War 2 and covering hard subject matters.  The movie doesn’t gloss over the hardships of readjusting to civilian life.  Harold Russell lost both his hands in an accident during the war and is one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award and the only one to win two awards for the same performance as he was also given an honorary award by the Academy as they didn’t think he would win in his nominated role and the Academy wanted to honour a War veteran.

Apparently Samuel Goldwyn’s the maker of this movie said at the time “I don’t care if the film doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” 

This movie doesn’t show perfect returning heroes or a land fit for heroes, just struggles to reintegrate into society. 

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Fredric March) – winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Harold Russell) – winner
  • Best Director (William Wyler) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood) – winner
  • Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell) – winner
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Hugo Friedhofer) – winner
  • Honorary Award (Harold Russell) – winner
  • Best Sound, Recording (Gordon Sawyer) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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