The war is over in the Pacific. Three servicemen are returning home. They bum a ride together on an Air Force transport plane, sitting in the nose of the plane exchanging stories about loved ones that they will see once again, about all the places they plan to visit in their hometown. They wonder about the opportunities that await them.
But once the plane touches ground in Boone City, where they are from, they realize that all has changed, that their city is not the same one that they have left.
Thus begins one of the great movies about the aftereffects of war, The Best Years of Our Lives. This 1946 gem was a major hit, a opus of close to three hours in length that took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It spoke to the returning vets, to the flood of servicemen and women who suddenly were back on home soil in their military pleats but with nowhere to go.
The Best Years of Our Lives was not always a pretty picture. It was subversive for its day, not a heavily patriotic look at what we accomplished in World War II or the admiring denizens of the United States who would shower them with affection as war heroes.
Instead, what the audience received was a dose of unfiltered reality. The film contained hints of what really happens when Johnny comes marching home. There are elements of PTSD and depression. There is a jaded view of how crass commercialism had taken over daily life, how materialism, money and keeping up appearances had driven out compassion and kindness. There is the objectification of the war hero, whom the crowd may love for a time but then casts out like last year's Christmas toy. There is the difficult readjustment of injured veterans who are pitied but not helped.
Which makes it somewhat surprising that this picture was a box office success or even that it was made at all in an era when most World War II films were still given over to jingoism and Allied victories.
It was directed by William Wyler, a major in the Air Force who has just returned from three years on the front lines. Wyler had been known at the time for Mrs. Miniver, his 1941 film concerning an English middle class family that had been disrupted by the blitz and nightly bombing runs by the Germans.
It was partly propaganda, a way to shake America out of its isolationist stance and enter the war. Wyler later called Mrs. Miniver an incomplete film that had only scratched the surface of war. Although Wyler garnered an Oscar nomination for the movie, he was dissatisfied with the result.
The Best Years of Our Lives became his personal project, one that would reflect on his own experiences at coming home. While still a 40s melodrama of sorts with romance and infidelity at its core, the movie still packs a wallop today. Its themes are equally poignant in an era where we don't always know what to do with our returning veterans and where our mental health units are understaffed and underfunded. PTSD and depression have not gone away, nor have the dim prospects of jobs for returning veterans.
All three of the ex-servicemen on that transport plane home must deal with these problems in their own way. The main character among the trio is Fred Derry, who is played by Dana Andrews, an underappreciated actor of his time who is both athletic and commanding in presence. Derry had escaped his difficult youth to go to war, coming from a poor family and having to take a job as a soda jerk to get by. He is recently married when he decides to enter the war as an Air Force gunner.
And he becomes a hero, saving lives by shooting down Japanese planes and rising to the role of captain. But he soon has a comeuppance upon his homecoming. He can't find a proper job. In one telling job interview, he is asked what skills he has, whether he has managed people or dealt with procurement. He has none, save his work alone in the cockpit of an F-17 fighter plane.
Andrews' disappointment is evidenced by his body language, the downward shoulder shrug and plumes of cigarette smoke wafting away to the sky. He ends up back at the drug store where he started, selling women's perfume and still making vanilla shakes. The place has been bought out by a major chain and now is a full-service department store that Wyler shoots as a gluttony of goods jamming the aisles. Conspicuous consumption, in form of women dressed to the nines with gaudy hats and audacious scarves, cannot be shared by Andrews' character.
Moreover, he still has nightmares about his war experiences, about friends dying and planes going down in flames. He can barely concentrate on life in Boone City, the fictional corn belt town where the movie takes place. His slight PTSD is made worse when his wife decides to leave him, accustomed to the high living that he cannot provide.
It is no wonder that late in the movie, he decides to chuck it all and take another plane somewhere, anywhere away from the life he has.
The second major character, Al Stephenson, is played by Frederic March, another well-known actor who had already won an Academy Award and would do so again with this role. March plays a former Army sergeant who comes back to his comfortable life as a banker and to his wife and and two children. He seemingly has the most opportunity awaiting him.
But March also finds its difficult to readjust to the mercenary life he left after leading tanks across battlefields. He is given a promotion at the bank to that of vice president in charge of loans; he is especially tasked with deciding which G.I.s are to get federal loans to start businesses or open a mortgage.
While the work seems noble, the bank sees him more as a prop, as a means to show that it is helping veterans ease back to the workforce. When Stephenson gives a loan to a fellow serviceman who has no collateral or down payment to make, he is chided by his superiors for negligently handing out money from its bank depositors. He drinks too much. At a dinner honoring his heroism, Stephenson gives a sloppy, drunken speech that chides the bank -- and by all rights, America -- for not caring enough about the needs of veterans who must rebuild their lives.
The pair are joined by Harold Russell, who also won as Oscar for his role as a depressed former military inventory specialist. Russell had lost both hands in a military accident during the war when TNT that he was carrying exploded. In the film, he also is a victim of an explosion that leaves him with hooks that can function as hands, unscrewing jars, pinching cigarettes and grasping beer bottles.
Russell's character, Homer Parrish, comes home engaged to his next-door neighbor, a corn-fed beauty (Cathy O'Donnell) who loves Parrish whether he has all his limbs or not. He has an adoring family.
But Parrish is haunted by himself. He cannot abide by the fact that he is unlike others, that he has a disability. He retreats from his family and fiancee to shoot guns in a makeshift garage range and to work things out for himself. He lingers in bed and barely goes out except to Butch's, a bar owned by his cousin where he can drink the day away. Butch, coincidentally, is played by the great pianist Hoagy Carmichael, who teaches Parrish a nifty rendition of chopsticks on the keys.
All three of the former servicemen are haunted by their own memories of war and misaligned with civilian life, where they have no one else who understands them except others coming home from battle. They are ghosts who may be physically in the world but not entirely a part of it.
That there is a semi-happy ending with romance and marriage is less important than the film's message. It is shot by one of the best cinematographers of all time, Gregg Toland, who captures deep focus images in the background and sides of the frame that tell a story and uses shadow and light effectively to connote sadness where there is happiness. The cinematographer also shot Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath but died in his sleep two years after The Best Years of Our Lives of coronary thrombosis.
Few movies since The Best Years of Our Lives have made the same impact on returning war veterans. Certainly, there is Born on the Fourth of July, Tom Cruise's epic about a disabled veteran, but that only tells part of the story. Hal Ashby's underseen Coming Home tells a tale of a Vietnam vet, played by Jon Voight, who cannot cope with life after the war. And in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, Bradley Cooper's character suffers from PTSD and cannot leave the Middle East behind.
But outside of documentaries, The Best Years of Our Lives stands alone as a must-see movie on a difficult homecoming. A shot at the beginning and end of the film is symbolic in its urgency: Toland shoots rows upon rows of military planes on an abandoned airfield waiting to be dissembled and sold for parts. They have no use anymore. Many veterans feel the same sense of abandonment.