Warner Bros. // 1946 // 172 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // November 5th, 2013
"I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don't want you tied down forever just because you've got a kind heart."
Every solider hopes and prays for the day they can come back to their home and families. For three GI's, that dream is about to come true. Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews, Laura), sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, Inside Moves), and Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March, Inherit the Wind) have all returned to the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City from the ravages of World War II. Unfortunately, their stories may not have a happily ever after. Captain Derry is coming back to a loveless marriage to his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo, Captain Horatio Hornblower); Sergeant Stephenson has been gone so long that he feels like a stranger to his wife (Myrna Loy, The Thin Man series), son (Michael Hall, The Last Musketeer), and daughter (Teresa Wright, Shadow of a Doubt); and Homer Parrish not only has to learn how to live life without the use of his hands, but also contend with what his parents and girlfriend will think of his new deformity. Each man fears that the best years of their lives may be behind them, and that the future holds nothing but turmoil and struggle.
Director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives is a film of its time and for ours; Wyler's wartime drama deals with three military men coming home to their families and learning (all too harshly) that the war has not offered them any easy answers at home. Although The Best Years of Our Lives was released almost seventy years ago, the themes and emotions are as resonant as ever as soldiers in 2013 learn to assimilate back into civilian life after fighting overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, what goes around comes around, and Wyler's film -- while understandably dated at times -- retains its power to show us how the war affects not only our soldiers, but also their families, friends, and communities.
Wyler had already won an Oscar for 1942's Mrs. Miniver when he picked up his second for The Best Years of Our Lives (even with much of his hearing lost from flak concussions during the war). The Best Years of Our Lives ended up as both a critical and financial success; for a time it was the highest grossing film in cinema history and won eight Academy Awards. Produced by Guys and Dolls' Samuel Goldwyn (who also came up with the theme and story idea), The Best Years of Our Lives melded together populist entertainment, sentimentality, and ripped-from-the-headlines drama into one classic, award winning film.
While every actor in The Best Years of Our Lives gives an excellent performance, there's one that stands out among the rest: Harold Russell as the handless Homer Parrish. Russell was a real life WWII vet and not a trained thespian; the fact that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as well as an honorary Oscar (the only actor two win two awards for the same performance) for his portrayal as the heartbreaking Homer speaks volumes to his easy going presence onscreen. Watching Russell attempt to use his hooked hands around his family (including his weeping mother) is nearly impossible to watch. Russell instills Homer with a sense of frustration and fear (he worries what his girlfriend will think), and it's a performance that was truly worth every ounce of Oscar gold. Russell proved himself to be not only a gracious winner but an honorable one at that; in the early 1990s Russell's wife became critically ill and Russell made the tough decision to sell his Oscar to an auction house to pay for her medical bills. When Russell was given criticism for his decision he noted that his wife's health was far more important than a sentimental statue. Russell was a true hero to the end.
The other two men -- Fredric March (who won a Best Actor Oscar for his role) and Dana Andrews -- each give nuanced performances. Andrews has a very playful sense of humor as he attempts to woo March's daughter, even as he suffers nervous breakdowns from his experiences in the war. March's performance was one of my favorites; in the beginning of the film his character gets drunk and becomes the life of the party, which allows March to show off a very playful side. The women in the film are also well worth mentioning. Myrna Loy -- seen mostly as a comedic actress up until the release of The Best Years of Our Lives -- is effective as Al Stephenson's doting wife, while Virginia Mayo comes off as callous and ignorant as Derry's floozy wife, Marie. Teresa Wright (a holdover from Wyler's Mrs. Miniver) gives the most nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a young girl who falls so hard for a man that she's willing to break up the marriage to get him. The scene involving the Al and Milly chastising their daughter for this ploy is one of the best in the film.
The Best Years of Our Lives is presented in a very fine looking black and white 1.37:1 full screen transfer. Warner has been a studio that's given their catalog titles excellent transfers, and The Best Years of Our Lives is no exception -- this black and white picture is clean with a fine veneer of grain that gives the movie a warm, filmic feel. For a film nearing its 70th birthday, The Best Years of Our Lives sure looks great. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono in English. This audio mix is clean and crisp with clearly recorded dialogue, music, and effects. Because it's a mono mix, the film is mostly front heavy without any directional effects. Even with its limitations, this is a superior soundtrack. Also included are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Extra features include a short introduction by Virginia Mayo, a featurette sporting interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright, and a theatrical trailer for the film.
The Best Years of Our Lives finds just the right balance of being a large production but feeling like a much smaller movie. Although this was released by a major Hollywood studio, Wyler is able to keep the story personal and intimate; the viewer truly gets to know each of these characters and empathize with their plight. The loss of Homer's arms can be felt with each scene he inhabits (and the dexterity Russell had with them in real life is close to amazing); you can feel Al Stephenson's frustration with missing out on his family; and Derry's desire to find love outside a marriage of spite and contention isn't hard to understand for many who've gone through the pain of separation and divorce. The Best Years of Our Lives may be old, but it's never been fresher or more relevant.
Deserves every award it received. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13