William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is fondly remembered as an honest and heartfelt look at the struggles of returning veterans. More than seventy years later, not only have few subsequent films matched it in this regard, but its concerns remain deeply familiar. Neglected and misunderstood despite their sacrifices, veterans still have difficulty re-integrating into the fabric of our society. Their situations can vary greatly, of course, so it’s to the film’s credit that it follows three protagonists — men of different ages and backgrounds who served in different military branches. Alternating among these often intersecting narrative threads gives the film its momentum over nearly three hours. On the flight to their shared hometown, these characters forge an instant bond that will smooth the jarring transition to postwar life, at least somewhat. Their comfort with each other transcends the differences in age and social status among them. Wyler finds this unity something to celebrate, even as the everyday forces of American life start to intrude.
The film’s striking mix of realism and melodrama is best exemplified in the story of Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), the poorest of the three protagonists. He’s the first character we meet, learning of a delay in his return home while the rich man standing next to him successfully checks in for his flight. Fred eventually shares a ride in a B-17, and later a cab, with Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March). Homer lives with his parents in a cozy two-story suburban home, Al with his wife and kids in a large apartment. Fred gets dropped off last of all, in front of a rickety shack at the dusty end of town where he’d been living with his parents and recently married wife just before the war. All three men had anxiety about meeting their families again, for very different reasons — Homer, because of the prosthetic hooks he got when he lost his hands; Al, because his kids have grown so much since he last saw them. Those two have the benefit of being surrounded by people who love them, who are wealthy enough to allow them time to rest. In Fred’s case, the struggle is more material and immediate. He’s only ever had an entry-level job and lacks the connections or training to do anything else. Meanwhile, his wife has been working all along, but the nature of her job becomes a source of friction.
Here’s where the stories start to intersect. The entrance of Fred’s wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) is delayed due to her work in a nightclub. This gives Fred time to meet and form a relationship with Al’s witty college-age daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Their friendship begins with accidental intimacy when Fred spends the night at the Stephensons’. Peggy overhears him shouting in his sleep (Fred is the only character in the film who has PTSD-inflected nightmares). Later, they meet at the drugstore where Fred has found himself trying to sell perfume under the skeptical eye of his manager (spotted in the background of one of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s gorgeous deep-focus compositions). Starry-eyed Peggy and frustrated Fred allow things to go a bit too far, and as Peggy learns more about his deteriorating marriage, she gets the idea that continuing to pursue Fred will be best for everyone. For his part, Fred seems less interested in starting a new life than in fixing his old one, but his efforts at challenging his wife’s well-earned independence and taste for extravagance are unsuccessful.
Three scenes toward the end of the film bring everything crashing down for Fred. First, Al threatens their friendship by confronting Fred about his flirtations with Peggy. Second, Fred punches a customer who’d gotten into an escalating argument with Homer about the war. This scene is interesting because the man isn’t merely a pacifist (an easy enough target in this context); instead, he argues that America had been fighting “the wrong people,” which is prescient considering the anti-Communist fervor that was about to sweep the nation. Having lost a friendship and his job, Fred finally loses his marriage in the third scene, as a fed-up Marie runs off with another man. At this point, Fred plans to leave town and start over. He stops off at an aircraft boneyard outside of town, a place the film uses as a rather obvious metaphor. He climbs into the nose of a bomber to be alone with his memories. Wyler doesn’t flash back to any traumatic incident here, even though the earlier nightmare might have teased that such a revelation was coming. The scene is still and contemplative, with tension found only in Andrews’s face and Hugo Friedhofer’s score. The film essentially says, “If you’ve been there, you know,” and that is absolutely enough.
Al’s story has some bearing on questions of money and class as well. His job at the bank brings him into contact with fellow veterans seeking loans to start their own businesses — veterans who, having been busy winning the war, lack sufficient collateral to make those loans a sound business decision. By the end of the film, Al’s future remains uncertain. His inchoate challenge to his superiors’ stinginess has been rebuffed with no real harm done, but the discontent remains beneath the surface. Homer, meanwhile, has a much more straightforward problem, but his story is still very touching in its treatment, not only of disability, but in people’s responses to disability. Homer will have his own reasons for struggling to get by in the coming years.
The film ends happily, with a wedding. Both Al and Fred are in attendance as Homer marries his steadfast girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). Here we get perhaps the most brilliant of the deep-focus shots in the film. To the right of the frame stand Homer and Wilma. Nearer to the camera on the far left is Fred, the best man, looking at Peggy in the background as she stands next to her mother, Milly (Myrna Loy), and her father. This is, appropriately, the most ambitious moment in the film, somehow reconciling past, present and future. Perhaps it embraces feel-good fiction over the grittier reality. There’s really no good reason for Fred and Peggy to get back together after their respective wake-up calls. But the symbolic nature of a wedding allows the film to find a sort of visual resolution without pretending that the problems each man faces have somehow gone away. This film is the apotheosis for a newly serious (self-serious, to some) but still giddily dream-weaving Hollywood system. One of the reasons it works so well is that it’s specific, locating returning warriors among America’s have-nots.