Well before the antagonistic clashes between Vietnam War protestors and homecoming soldiers, this 1946 melodrama conveyed the deep ambivalence with which American citizens and returning military personnel often regard each other. Everything raw and angry in something like Born on the Fourth of July is right here, percolating under the surface.
A triptych narrative, The Best Years of Our Lives traces the return of three World War II veterans who hail from the same town: Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a well-off banker with a wife and two young-adult children; Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a soda jerk coming back to the night-clubbing wife he married shortly before deployment; and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who returns to his young fiance with hooks instead of hands.
Directed by William Wyler, the movie manages these parallel stories fairly well, even if I was ultimately left with the impression that it would have been better served by a miniseries structure. The narrative arc – which eventually centers on a potential romance between Fred and Al’s older daughter (Teresa Wright) – was less captivating than the little asides that reveal the confusion, condescension and even revulsion faced by returning veterans, then and today.
Everything raw and angry in something like Born on the Fourth of July is right here, percolating under the surface.
There’s an echoed shot, for instance, as each man gets out of the shared cab that the three of them are taking home from the airport. Rather than running heedlessly into the front door, they each stand at the curb looking helpless and watching the taxi – their last connection to the military life they’ve come to know – speed away. Another revealing moment comes later, when Fred’s wife (Virginia Mayo) demands he wear his military uniform for a night out with her friends, even as she insists he “get past” whatever it is that’s been giving him those night terrors (she never asks).
The Best Years of Our Lives has moments of grace, too, which are equally compelling. I think of Al’s drunken pronouncement as he introduces Homer to his family when they run into each other in a bar: “First we got to get one thing straight: Homer’s got these hooks … they don’t worry him, so they don’t worry anyone else.” The beauty of Russell’s performance, his first as an actor, is the way he uses physicality to convey how this is and isn’t true.
And then there is the lovely scene, near the end, when Homer finally lets his fiance (Cathy O’Donnell) help him get ready for bed. He shows her how he’s learned to shake off the shoulder harnesses that hold his hooks in place – I love the way her hands hesitate between holding back and reaching out to assist – and then he lets her button his pajama shirt. It’s intensely romantic, and slightly sexy in its own way.
I responded more to Homer’s story – one that tiptoes its way toward a new life that is clearly going to be fraught with more difficulty – than I did Al and Fred’s, both of which have a tidiness that isn’t quite true to the roiling reality the movie mostly means to capture. In its finest moments, The Best Years of Our Lives is a film whose title isn’t meant to be spoken with a smile on your face, but with a grimace and a spit.