Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Was it you that changed, or only me?

It's rare to view a sixty year old film and feel like it could have been made yesterday. Such a movie is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. I don't think this film will ever really be dated because it deals with one issue that will, sadly, always be a part of this world: soldiers returning home from war.

The movie opens by introducing us to three men all trying to catch a flight back home. Al Stephenson (Frederic March) is a middle aged sergeant returning to his family and his old job as a banker. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was an officer with an airborne bombing crew. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a sailor who has lost both of his arms and is now forced to use steel hooks for hands.

The movie quickly begins to drop each of the three men back into their old lives but, it seems none of them are ready to readjust. So rather than try, they each decide to go out for a drink. One by one they all - along with Fred's wife, Milly, (Myrna Loy) and daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright) - end up at Butch's bar. The rest of the night consists of drinking, laughter and the common knowledge that nothing will ever be the same. War has changed the soldiers, their families and their country as a whole.

This is truly a wonderful movie. It has several scenes that work on such an emotional level the audience can actually feel the pain of these men. One of the most heart breaking lines occurs at the beginning of the film. When Homer is leaving, Fred turns to Al and says, "You gotta hand it to the Navy, they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al solemnly states: "They couldn't train him to hold his girl, or to stroke her hair." Homer knows this is true. He has a girl waiting for him back home, Wilma (Cathy O'donnell), but now he isn't so sure she'll still want him.

Another reason we react so strongly to the character of Homer is because Harold Russell actually was a soldier who lost his hands in the war. Every time the film allows him to open up about his loss, we know that he isn't merely acting. There is a scene towards the end of the film where he takes off his hooks and tells Wilma, "This is when I know I'm helpless." It is a scene of tremendous power. Russell actually won two Oscars for this role. He was given an honorary Oscar and won for best supporting actor.

William Wyler constructed such a well made film. He never falls into cliches or allows his characters to act in ways we know they shouldn't. He, and his cinematographer Greg Tolland, allow the camera to penetrate each character. Each scene focuses so deeply and for such an extended amount of time we really begin to understand these characters. I have always thought that some of the most powerful scenes in film were done with a stationary camera and no lines at all.

Such a scene occurs in this film. Fred goes to a field that is harboring several hundred military planes, the type that he was on during the war. He crawls into one and begins to relive every excruciating moment he ever went through during the war. No words can explain what he feels here. Pain like this can't be explained, it has to be felt.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie full of pain but, in the end, we are left with so much joy. I almost want to stand up and cheer every time I reach the wonderful ending scene.

This is a movie made for veterans of World War II but, it has held meaning for every soldier who has ever returned home to a place they couldn't quite remember.

What should you be watching this Friday?
The Best Years of Our Lives


  1. Wonderful! The old films did so much with simple dialogue without the need for explosions and special effects.

  2. Great review Wes! I like that your blog reviews unusual films - not just those that are current. Hope you keep going with it!

    I'm a director and have just started a blog on film making:

    and have another one which is film reviews:

    Check them out - would love to hear what you think!


  3. this sounds like my kinda movie, gotta go check it out:)

  4. this is pretty nice.
    follow me
    im following you

  5. Is it boring? I was watching the hustler the other day and I was like OMG this is so boring. Not all old movies are boring like Citizen Kane.

    Are there long shots where nothing happens? What I hate about old movies is that they are not compact. When there's an old movie gem it's golden but I just can't take how some old movies let scenes go on for ages.

  6. Haha, I know what you mean. A lot of directors around that time would just do a filler shot and drag a scene on too long. This one has a great rhythm to it. It's a long movie but it never really feels that long.

  7. This is one of the films on my "to watch" list. Your review makes me feel like seeing it sooner rather than later. I didn't know Greg Tolland was the cinematographer on this picture.

  8. If you ever happen to read a Samuel Goldwyn biography, the part about this film is quite interesting. Goldwyn was desperate for an Oscar and he finally got one with TBYOOL.