When I think of World War II, my mental image is of veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress, with a bad case of the drinks, and with no hands. It’s not about glory or feeling good about a hard-fought job well done. Winning the most-important military conflict of the 20th Century be damned. Now we had to deal with the, ugh, return of guys who fought for a just cause. Didn’t they know they’re supposed to go into some kind of isolation tank until we need them to fight again?
Okay, that was a series of cheap-shots and I dropped all those bombs for a reason. We don’t want to deal with the hassle of doing right by the people who’ve shed blood and brain cells to keep us all safe from tyranny. Many movies have dealt with this topic, although not many of them have done it as well as The Best Years Of Our Lives. The 37th movie on both the 1998 and 2007 Top 100 lists released by the American Film Institute hits hard, but doesn’t hit you with a sledgehammer.
That’s thanks to director William Wyler and writer Robert Sherwood (who was once a film critic). They make it clear that Fredric March (the drunk), Dana Andrews (the PTSD guy who has no place back home), and Harold Russell (the guy who actually lost his hands for real) are not necessarily better off back home in the American Midwest than they were during WWII. Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy play March’s patient daughter and wife, respectively, who (unfortunately) are more saintly archetypes than they are real characters.
Who’s to judge someone for struggling to accept their post-war life on its lousy terms or for turning to the bottle to cope? There aren’t easy solutions and The Best Years Of Our Lives (classic Hollywood product that it is) doesn’t revel in their pain or just gloss things up for the camera. It suffers from over-length—although the first 30 minutes is positively brilliant—and the women have no depth at all, but the men are handled sensitively and with a keen eye. This is absolutely a fine film, quiet and true.