I first saw William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives 14 years ago on Tuner Classic Movies. In the introduction to the film, Robert Osborne called it the greatest American movie ever made. After sadly losing Robert Osborne earlier this month, I took another look at his favorite movie and understand his extremely high regard for it.
The movie’s title enters the dialogue when Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo) tells her husband Fred (Dana Andrews) that he stole the best years of her life from her while he was away fighting in WWII. Before this we meet Fred flying home from the war with two fellow soldiers from the same home town.
Al Stephenson (Frederic March) is returning to his wife and two adult children worried about what life will be like getting adjusted to a family he no longer knows, especially about how he will relate to the children after missing them grow up. He’s become cynical towards the “normal” American world but passionate and compassionate for anyone who experienced trauma like he has. He’s dealt with his trauma by excessive drinking, something that does not seem to be part of his civilian life before the war.
Homer Parish is a very young man, barely old enough to be in the military. He lost both his arms in battle. He returns home with the fear of how his girlfriend will respond to him after she sees him as he has become. Homer is played by Harold Russell who was not a professional actor but was discovered for this movie based on his personal war experience that is the same as his character’s. He proved to be the right choice giving a riveting performance.
The movie’s title is crucial to what makes every scene work. It is a movie about returning from war. It is a movie about re-adjustment to normal life for both the soldiers and their loved ones. But much more than these things, The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie about aging. During the plane ride at the beginning, we can see the physical ages of the three men. Al is in his late 50s, Fred in his 30s, and Homer in his early 20s, maybe even late teens. Yet Fred dreams of the life with his wife that he never had before the war, and the dreams he talks about sound much more like someone reaching retirement age than someone in his 30s. And Homer talks about his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as if she’s a child, even though they’re the same age physically. Because of the war, these men have all aged far beyond their literal years. They are all old men returning to a much younger world that expects them to act youthful.
Fred is the only one not particularly worried about his situation at the beginning, yet he’s the one accused of stealing the best years of his wife’s life. The plane ride at the beginning is a scene full of anxiety and hope. What will life look like when returning home? It could be the best years of their lives ahead, or it would be the worst, unable to recover from all that the war has stolen. The hope is what fills the rest of the movie, though the anxiety certainly doesn’t go away.
The Best Years of Our Lives understands that trauma of any kind ages people. The film uses this wisdom to tell a story of characters that have to face a new reality, living with a type of experience and maturity, or age as I’ve been calling it, that the people around them don’t have. The trauma is real and doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get easier, and they will never “get over it” like so many people recklessly tell them to. But it does serve one very positive purpose, and that is the wisdom that although the trauma doesn’t go away the situation that caused it did, which gives them a new start. That new start is an opportunity to make what follows the best years of their lives. The movie is very tender and loving toward its characters but quite confrontational to the audience. It expects something of us as we watch. As we watch these three coming to terms with a new normal and learning how to make what follows the best years of our lives, the movie expects that we will be compassionate enough to feel their trauma with them and to age with them in a way that we too will learn how to relate to people like them who have experienced unspeakable trauma and make the rest of our own lives the best years of our lives.