“Some of them look brand new—from the factory straight to the scrapheap,” contemplates Fredric March’s Sgt. Al Stephenson at the beginning of The Best Years of Our Lives, flying with two fellow WWII vets above Boone City, the nondescript Midwestern city to which they’re returning home. Stephenson is assessing with his bird’s-eye view the fate of an entire airfield’s worth of bombers, but given the difficulty he and his two traveling companions shared in even hitching a ride after their years in battle, he could just as easily be offering a pessimistic prediction for all veterans upon their homecoming. And he’s the one of those three who gets to return to a lucrative position at a bank, unlike the demeaning work as a soda jerk the decorated Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) will have to reluctantly accept. He also still has the use of both of his hands, as opposed to the hooks that have replaced the hands of one-time college football hero Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell).
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the movie Americans knew they needed, but likely few realized how badly they also wanted it. As has happened with other films in that position before and since, its achievements seemed to take on a force-of-nature patina; it was the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind and missed tying that David O. Selznick epic’s record number of Oscar wins by just one trophy. A prime example of American middlebrow writ on an epic (170-minute) scale in service of universalizing its themes and messages, the film takes its time to settle into an environment that most viewers would’ve already found familiar enough with a single establishing shot, to introduce people who are no more complicated by the film’s end than they are during their first appearances.
Yes, the leisurely pacing and extended running time were undoubtedly an extension, if not a stratagem, to convey an unmistakable pedagogical gravitas. But whether intended or not, Wyler’s deliberateness also positions the three main characters—who have all just spent years in the midst of or at least anticipating life-or-death situations—in a context of once comforting but now alienating domesticity. The shadow of war falls most obviously on the space where Parrish’s hands once were, despite how gamely he insists on lighting his own matches and writing his own deposit slips, turning himself into the all-day parlor trick he secretly thinks his friends and relatives all take him to be, accepting the role of crucible to benefit the Norman Rockwell-esque sense of normalcy he lost his hands defending.
The performance by Russell, a non-professional who actually did lose his hands during the war (not in battle, but during a mishap handling explosives at Camp Mackall), carries with it pre-historical hints of Method acting. Nearly as forward-thinking are Derry’s belated but climactic struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder; his traumatic walk through the airplane graveyard insinuates shades of neorealism just months after Roberto Rossellini’s Open City ushered in that new revolutionary tactic. Stephenson’s string of lost weekends, which provide Myrna Loy the one lovely detail (marking the number of drinks her husband has had with a fork against the tablecloth), are more a product of the time. But each of the three men, in their own way, chase some form of oblivion, and if The Best Years of Our Lives emerges as a more contemporary-seeing film than almost anything else to which its ingredients could compare, it’s because of how it wrestles with the burden of patriotism. The nation’s problems are right there in plain sight, just as clear as cinematographer Gregg Toland’s typically precise deep-focus shots.