In many ways the ultimate coming home from war film released just after the end of World War II. This Wyler masterpiece sees three soldiers coming home from war to their small Midwestern town and the difficulties that they face. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to the world of banking but is not used to working away from his fellow servicemen and finds the transition from the team work he was used to in the war to being a hard hearted banker difficult. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to his wife, who he only married a few weeks before the war, and realises that she does not love him. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) has lost both of his hands in the war and returns to his fiancée, but is worried that she pities him rather than still loves him. As time passes all the men learn to adapt to the changes even though things are not the same as they were before.
What is so good about ‘The Best Years of our Lives’ is that rather than giving the idea that coming home from war is either wonderful or unbearable, it shows the complexity of how relationships changed in different ways for different people and across different ages and socio-economic groups, and also of the most unlikely relationships that were formed between the three men, despite their differences. The issues such as divorce and amputees had rarely been discussed before and it is easy to forget the impact that this film must have had at this time.
The film is an fine example of taking a small story involving a few individuals and using it as a microcosm of what was happening at this time across the whole of the western world, but it manages to be a totally balanced film and at no point becomes patronising or clichéd.
The acting is solid across the board, which is always a relief in these ensemble films. There are no weak links and both March and Russell picked up acting Oscars for their memorable performances. For me it is Russell who gives the best performance as the youngest of the group in what must have been a challenging performance for anyone to carry off. Russell had not been an actor previous to this role and, as an actual amputee, was picked from an army rehabilitation video, and Wyler didn’t want Russell to be sent to acting classes, as wanted a more natural style. Despite this, he manages to easily hold his own despite being surrounded by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Once you’ve combined the excellent acting with the enchanting story and engaging script, and taken into account the fact that it one of Wyler’s best films one realises just what a special film this is. Forget any other returning from war films that you have seen: this one is by far the best and is still totally relevant for today’s audience.