The Best Years of our Lives (1946)

(On Cable TV, March 2018) There have been a lot of World War II movies, but comparatively fewer post-WW2 films. Released in 1946 and taking a look at the struggles of servicemen coming back home after a long time abroad, The Best Years of our Lives surely qualified as a “social issues” movie when it came out. Fortunately, it does capture the dynamics of the moment well enough to be worth a look even seventy years later. Of our three protagonists, one is an older man coming back home to adult kids and a senior banking job; another is an ex-soda jerk struggling to go back to lower-class jobs after a rewarding tour as a bombing navigator; a third (played by a real-life amputee) sees his disability as a disqualifying factor in his relationship. All three interact in various ways, break established patterns and reveal themselves to have been changed by their experience. Of note here is Harold Russell, an amputated non-actor delivering a performance so impressive it won no fewer than two Oscars. (Nominated in the Supporting Actor category but expected to lose, the Academy gave an honorary Oscar to Russell … only to see him win the competitive category as well.)  Fredric March is also quite likable as the visibly older man reintegrating a comfortable position. It does have the quirks of a mid-forties film, but the drama is solid, generally palatable to a modern audience (including a daring-for-the-time subplot of a married man justifiably leaving his wife) and still well-observed even today. The ripped-from-headlines nature of The Best Years of our Lives has aged very well in a credible depiction of an overlooked facet of history and the result is surprisingly good even today.

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