Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 5, 2013)
As someone who wasn't even a glimmer in my parents' eyes when World War II ended - heck, my Dad was only ten in 1945 - I've had to rely on media depictions of the war to understand what it was like at that time. I've always found that war to be very interesting and I've studied it a fair amount over the years.
The vast majority of that focus remained on military and political aspects of the conflict, so I know relatively little about the social domains and how WWII affected them. To be honest, I'd always accepted the standard line that the entire country got behind the military in a big way and everyone went all out with their support. We've always been taught that Vietnam was the first conflict during which things went poorly for veterans in the social realm.
For the most part, that may be true, but I was surprised to find the even after WWII, the media were willing to recognize that all wasn't just peaches and pie for returning soldiers. The general impression that's always been left is one of men coming back from the conflict, effortlessly re-entering our society and then propelling the US into some of its greatest "boom" years during the Fifties.
Apparently that wasn't quite true, as depicted in The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film that won the Best Picture Oscar. It shows three men, Strangers at the start of the movie, three returning soldiers become friends after they share a transport back to their home town. The rest of the picture depicts the trials they face as they attempt to reintegrate with society.
Lives offers a compelling picture of their various problems but suffers from this diffusion of focus. Even at nearly three hours in length, the movie doesn't seem long enough to fully document what happens to these men, and I think it lacks the depth it needs.
The tri-focal nature of the piece works in that it shows these reintegration difficulties weren't limited - something we might believe if it depicted only one main character - but I can't help but feel that a more specific protagonist might allow the movie to flesh out his story more fully.
Actually, one character does seem to stand as the de facto "main" one, although this never becomes explicit: Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) definitely musters more screen time than the other two men. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) comes next - aided by the fact his tale and Derry's become more interwoven when Derry hooks up with Stephenson's daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) - and injured sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) brings up the rear with the smallest part of the main three.
I think the fact Parrish's story gets the least attention occurs for a few reasons, and none of them good. The Parrish character lost his hands during the war, and the film used a hand-less actor. This surprised me, since Hollywood usually takes an established performer and fakes the injury rather than work the other way around. Russell was not a professional actor and although his work he earned him serious accolades - he actually received two Oscars for the part - he didn't make another movie until 1980.
Despite this acclaim, I really don't think much of Russell's acting; he's decent but wooden and ham-fisted in the role. Politics were alive and well in Hollywood even in the Forties, and I'd speculate that he got the awards because of the real-life aspects of his story, not because of his work. Anyway, I feel Parrish's story gets put on the backburner just because the filmmakers knew Russell was the least talented of the actors and didn't want to make him the focal point of the movie.
I also wonder if the potential reactions to Russell's disability may have kept him somewhat in the film's shadows. Although there aren't any graphic "stump" shots in Lives - his arms are always neatly bandaged - I'm sure audiences were probably a bit shocked to see Russell's handless arms and his hooks. The filmmakers may have minimized his screentime to make the project more palatable to the era's tastes.
Which is too bad, because Parrish's story really is the most dramatic and compelling of the three - or at least it could have been, since the character faced the greatest obstacles to reintegration. As it stands, the movie essentially works as a romantic melodrama, since two of the three stories revolve mainly around relationship issues; Derry's in a loveless marriage to a floozy (Virginia Mayo) while Parrish is sure his long-time honey Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) can't love a deformed lump like him.
In contrast, Stephenson's story - which lacks romantic interest since we see things seem good between him and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) - largely sticks with his issues at his bank management job as well as his clear drinking problem, which doesn’t receive much real attention. As such, although March and Loy appear to be the two strongest actors in the cast and both lend weight to their characters, their story seems fairly forgettable.
I kept waiting for something to occur in regard to the drinking and for the two problems to interact - especially when Al makes a drunken speech at a banquet in his honor – but this never happens, and the Stephenson family's main concern seems to become Peggy's romantic woes. They have a son as well, but since he doesn't fit that plot, he literally vanishes early on; I can't state for certain we never see him again, but I can't recall observing Rob (Michael Hall) after the movie's first 30 minutes or so.
Despite these criticisms, I did find Lives to offer a generally compelling experience. The film had the potential to be a serious drag considering its length, but that's one area in which the three somewhat superficial storylines help; they make the project move along at a nice clip since the plot never gets bogged down with dull filler.
With the exception of the awkward Russell, the acting seems uniformly good; as I mentioned, Loy and March seem strongest, but most of the others are almost as good. I can't call The Best Years of Our Lives a great film, but it clearly has some merits and it did provide an eye-opening view of the way society reintegrated World War II veterans.