By the end of 1945, the long struggle of World War II was finally over and American soldiers, who fought so long and hard, were finally settling in back home with their friends and family. Most in Hollywood felt as though the public wanted a break from the war pictures that had dominated screens over the previous four year period. Despite that, producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler remained committed to The Best Years of Our Lives, a story about the difficulties experienced by soldiers returning to civilian life.
Inspired by a story he read in a 1944 issue of Time Magazine, Goldwyn hired former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay. As it turned out, Kantor wrote the story as a novella, which was published as Glory for Me, and then Robert Sherwood adapted the screenplay from that. As it turned out, what became The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge commercial success and won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Sherwood), and Best Original Score (Hugo Friedhofer).
Three World War II return to small-town America civilian life to find very different world than the one they left behind. The oldest, fortyish Al Stephenson (Fredric March), is an infantry soldier. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is a highly decorated Air Force captain who commanded numerous bombing missions. The youngest, Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man, lost both hands to burns after his aircraft carrier was sunk, and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. While Homer’s injuries are most obvious, each man carries their own psychological scars.
Homer gets home first. He still lives with his parents (Walter Baldwin, Minna Gombell) who are clearly glad to see him, but unsure how to react to his prostheses. His fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), is happy to see him, and shows no discomfort over his hands. Nevertheless, Homer is timid, and doesn’t return her loving embrace.
Al comes home to a family surprised and thrilled to see him. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy); daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright); and son, Pat (Michael Hall), all greet him enthusiastically, and Al is surprised at how much the kids have grown. Al finds himself restless after Pat has gone to bed. He suggests to Milly and Peggy that they celebrate his homecoming with a night on the town. They make the rounds of the local night clubs and bars. In the last one, they bump into Fred, who has been unable to locate his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). Homer, who needed to get out of the house, has ended up there too, reuniting the three soldiers. Fred and Peggy meet for the first time, starting a friendship that will eventually evolve into romance.
At nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives provides ample time for each man’s story. Much of the first hour centers on Al, the remainder focuses largely on Fred, with Homer’s story scattered throughout. Early on, Al is simply uncomfortable as he struggles to accept that the young children he left behind have grown up so much, and the fact that his boss at the bank wants him to flip the switch and return to work immediately. None of this matches up with idealized homecoming he’d created in his head. There’s even an odd distance between him and Milly, despite her attempts to close it. Fred and Homer can relate. Fred is finding that his wife (Virginia Mayo) whom he married just weeks before shipping out, doesn’t particularly care for his now former Air Force Captain status, but expects him to provide money and the good life. Unfortunately, the only job he can find is at the local drugstore. Not exactly what she had in mind. All the while, his feelings for Peggy continue to grow. Homer meanwhile, is afraid to get close to anyone, fearing rejection because of his disability.
None of these men is presented as particularly extraordinary, which is part of what makes the film so effective. These are ordinary men called on to meet an incredible challenge in a time of war. Working with cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) William Wyler employs a wonderful series of deep-focus shots instead of cuts, allowing the emotion or meaning of a particular scene to soak in, rather than forcing it on us with severe close-ups.
The acting is stellar across the board, with everyone offering realistic and heartfelt portrayals. The Best Years of Our Lives is involving from start to finish, taking us into the lives of soldiers and their families whose lives are forever changed by an event not of their own making. More than sixty years after its release, this is a story that anyone who has ever been away from home for a long time can relate to.
Framed at 1.33:1, Warner’s black and white1080p transfer is a solid one. Lacking the artifacts present in previous SD releases, the image is markedly cleaner. Black and white levels are pleasingly even. I did notice what I thought was some slight cropping on the right edge for the first few minutes of the film, but all-in-all this is a fine transfer.
The audio track is presented via a DTS-HD 1.0 Mono mix. While fine, the range is rather limited, and not particularly dynamic. Having said that, this is a dialogue heavy film, and words are clear throughout, mostly directed through the center speaker.
English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are included.
All of the extras have been released on previous DVD editions:
- Introduction by Virginia Mayo (1:08) The actress provides a short introduction.
- Interviews with Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright (7:22) Both women provide some interesting and surprisingly emotional anecdotes about the making of the film.
- Theatrical Trailer (1:48)