Well. The Best Years of Our Lives is quite a film. It runs for about two hours and fifty minutes but it’s not long – there’s hardly a moment wasted. Long films are the ones full of emptiness like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Dark Knight and Inception. This isn’t a film full of pretentious, self-important speeches and a whole load of assorted other shit the Joker got up to the other day. It’s about what happens when men come back from war but its strongest characters are women.
In The Best Years of Our Lives, three men return from the Second World War. They’re from the same town but only meet for the first time on their way home. One of them is a captain in the air force, another a sergeant in the infantry and the third served below deck in the navy. The captain got married shortly before the war, the sergeant has been married for twenty years and the sailor’s sweetheart is the girl next door. If their integration into civilian life was straightforward there’d be no film. The cynical might point out that the message is the folks back home need to prepare themselves, make adjustments and that it’s the women’s turn to be strong for their men. It’s not as simple as that, but even if it was, social cohesion is something that is important and even more so after the war.
Several of the female characters are very strong women indeed. It’s not just that it’s their turn to be strong – they have been throughout the war. One of the benefits of having so many minutes to play with is that there’s plenty of time for character development and consequently, the main characters are painted in many nuances. Not all the women are strong, not all the men are heroes… and the heroes can be helpless. They’re human. They’re flawed. One remark I must make is that I thought the captain’s reactions throughout the film didn’t seem to mesh with the tales of him acting with bravery and calmness under fire. He’s hot-headed and in one or two scenes I thought he seemed like the kind of man who might be too rough with women. It’s a minor complaint as we can all be four seasons in one day.
The main actors – Myrna Loy, Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and Harold Russell are superb. March and Russell won Academy Awards for lead and supporting actors respectively. Russell is a revelation, especially considering this is practically the only film he ever acted in. He was an actual veteran and was spotted in an army training film. Teresa Wright’s Peggy is a wonderful character. Within ten minutes of seeing her it’s apparent that she’s got a quality rare in any human being – dogged toughness combined with competence, dependability and compassion. She’s rock solid and seems to look out for her whole family – mother, father and brother. She’s the kind of person you’d expect to be able to hit almost any curve ball thrown at her, and a very fine woman indeed – the kind that need to be celebrated more often: get down on your knees and proclaim a Peggy the Queen of Everything today!
There really is a lot to appreciate in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even as a straight story it’s a must-watch. The script is perfect and there’s never a dull moment. The central message as I see it is that social cohesion is important and that everyone needs to play their part to make it happen, especially after such a huge upheaval. We all need each other, no matter how independent or heroic we are or have been. Depending on others isn’t such a terrible thing and we all need somebody who’s dependable every now and then. Every relationship is a partnership where two people become one unit. They can decide their roles themselves. If there’s anyone out there who believes that social cohesion is something that needs to be broken down they can get the hell of my lawn. The Best Years of Our Lives is an essential film. Please watch it – those three hours should be some of the best you’ve spent watching a film.
Maybe this doesn’t really fit in with the review, but I don’t think I’ve cried so much watching a film since Bambi when I was very young. This one really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and would not let go. There’s one scene in particular that’s so moving a woman who wandered in when it was on started crying. No young forest animals are orphaned in this one, though! The Best Years of Our Lives throws a lot of the ups and downs of life at us. It’s long enough to be able to afford to do that. Most importantly, it’s a positive, life-affirming film. Any film that can be positive while not flinching from showing us the bad bits has its head on straight. After all, once you’re alive you’re winning… and if you’re not you’ve got nothing to worry about!