Monday, June 17, 2013


Among the many observations noted about war is that even in triumph, the victor cannot fully escape defeat. War is that leviathan whose reach extends beyond the battlefield, immeasurably impacting lives long after the treaties have all been signed. “The Best Years of Our Lives” captures a kernel of this impact, chronicling the struggles that WWII exacts on the lives of three different men as they return home. Given it’s nearly three-hour running time, and the fact that it braids three complex stories together, “The Best Years of Our Lives” felt surprisingly trim and efficient, in a good way. I kept bracing for the film’s pace to be dictated by eager melodrama. Instead, it seemed low-key and restrained in taking its time to tell the story of these servicemen. An effective approach because the subject matter of war veterans struggling to transition back to civilian life is one that needs no superfluous bells and whistles, as it stands on its own two feet.

Directed by William Wyler, “The Best Years of Our Lives” stars Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Theresa Wright and Harold Russell, a real-life WWII veteran who lost both of his hands in a training accident. He holds the unique distinction of being the only actor to receive two Academy Awards for the same role: one for the Best Supporting Actor and the other an Honorary Academy Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’” Additionally, the film went on to collect seven more Oscars, including Best Picture for 1946.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” chronicles the return home of Al Stephenson (March), Fred Derry (Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Russell) to the fictional Boone City. The momentary jubilation of seeing their families rapidly fades, leaving them reminded of their unavoidable realities. Like an old shirt that’s been outgrown, each man quickly discovers that their former lives don’t quite fit like they remembered. Al struggles in reconnecting with his now grown children and the business culture of the banking world where he is employed. Fred is forced to confront the failures in his marriage and in his job prospects, which find him back behind a soda fountain counter. Homer begins to alienate himself from those around him, especially his girl Wilma, as he suffers from a sense of worthlessness from having hooks instead of hands.

From left to right, Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric
March contemplate their lives as they head home from WWII.
As I mentioned earlier, this film felt trim, giving it an almost modern feel. A lot of this perception is rooted in the fact that the plot doesn’t claim any extraordinary features. The protagonists are not intellectual superiors, star athletes or anyone special. Dramatically speaking, their conflicts are fairly conventional experiences that don’t lead to any major breakdowns. Even their home, Boone City, looks like it could be any town USA. Ironically, in just depicting the simple truth, “The Best Years of Our Lives” radiates a certain power in its ordinary qualities, which the ordinary movie-going public is more apt to relate to, particularly in 1946.

These are characters who feel authentic; who deal with their setbacks in ways that don’t trespass the boundaries of realism. William Wyler does an excellent job in orchestrating the film so as not to bury the human elements under overly dramatic ones. In truth, I think there could have been no other successful approach to this material but an understated one. Audiences most certainly would have rejected it because the majority of people at that time probably knew at least one veteran struggling to become reacquainted with their former life. To dress it up with cinematic flare instead of realistic trimming would have, I think, felt manipulative.

Without a doubt, this commitment to realism is most harrowingly depicted in the storyline of Homer’s struggle to accept the genuine love of his friends and family, despite his artificial hands. It seems strange to refer to Harold Russell’s work in this film as a “performance,” due to his status as a double amputee. His presence in the film discards any line separating life from art, leading to a unique achievement in authenticity. Each time Homer shudders away from affectionate words or touch, Russell isn’t just acting, he’s reenacting. It feels as though he is tapping into and channeling personal experiences into his scenes, particularly those with reference to Homer’s usefulness to anyone else. Perhaps the most heartbreaking example is when Homer invites Wilma to his bedroom to put the self-perceived, ugly reality of his amputations on display for her as an attempt to showcase why he wouldn’t make a good husband. He plays the scene with such tenderness and sincerity, that ironically he defuses his own argument, as his humility reveals a tried-and-true strength that would serve him well in marriage.

Russell’s acting career essentially retired after “The Best Years of Our Lives.” At the suggestion of William Wyler, Russell matriculated back to Boston University, where he eventually graduated with a degree in business. He went on to start up a public relations business, but became more actively involved in the affairs of American veterans, even serving three years as National Commander for AMVETS. He also devoted efforts to campaigning for the disabled, touting a core message that "It's not what you lost, but what you have left and how you use it.” In 1992, Russell reportedly consigned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar to an auction house in order to raise money for his wife’s medical expenses, explaining that "My wife's health is much more important than sentimental reasons." However, a conflicting story in The New York Times reports that he actually sold the Oscar statuette to take a cruise with his wife. (Just as a side note, since 1950 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has required that all Oscar recipients sign an agreement prohibiting them from selling their award.)

Even though the nature of war and modern culture may change over time, the core challenges facing veterans reintegrating back into society will always remain the same, elevating “The Best Years of Our Lives” above the decaying effects of time. Unfortunately, in that way, it will always be a relevant and important cinematic experience. However, in the end it offers up hope that trials can be navigated; that footing can be made on happier ground; and that defeat is not an inevitable prescription handed down by the fates of war.

Favorite Line: In trying to convince Wilma that he’s no good for her, Homer leads her upstairs to his bedroom to demonstrate his nightly ritual of removing the harness he wears to keep his hooks in place. After tossing them onto his bed, Homer looks down at the floor, painfully muttering, "This is when I know I'm helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it." The belief with which Russell delivers this short speech carries an authenticity that a regular actor might not have been able to convey, making it one of the more distinctly raw and vulnerable lines of dialogue in film.

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