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Film / The Best Years of Our Lives

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The Best Years of Our Lives is a 1946 post-war drama film directed by William Wyler, starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell. Adapted from MacKinlay Kantor's 1945 blank-verse novella Glory for Me, the film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture of the Year.

Just after the end of World War II, discharged American servicemen Al Stephenson (March), Fred Derry (Andrews), and Homer Parrish (Russell) return home to Boone City and their loved ones. Their adjustment to post-war life is met with varying levels of success. Al, a banker, finds it difficult to reconnect with his family and even more difficult to be as stern as he was before. Homer, who lost both hands in a fire, can't stand the pity that he detects from others, including his fiancee. Meanwhile, Fred is infuriated that the only job he can get is that of a soda jerk, and discovers that the woman he married before heading off to war wasn't worth it. Somehow, they are going to have to go on with their lives...

This movie is interesting (and this is probably the reason it was so well received) for being one of the first movies that depicted men coming home from the war as it was, rather than romanticizing it like movies and books were prone to.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: It's implied that Fred's father is one. And Al turns to the bottle after his return home.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Homer lost both hands in a fire when his aircraft carrier went down.note 
  • Betty and Veronica: Fred between Peggy (Betty) and Marie (Veronica).
  • Bittersweet Ending: Although it ends with Homer marrying his sweetheart and Fred finding another job in town, implying he might be able to find a life with Peggy later on, all three men acknowledge they will still be struggling over the emotional scars of the war.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: Although he harbors feelings for her, Fred (at Al's behest) calls Peggy to tell her that it's over, in order to put her out of harm's way.
  • Breakfast in Bed: Defied. Millie intends to serve Al breakfast in bed the morning after he's come home from war (and after his night on the town), but he's already up.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Fred does this when he has nightmares of his fellow aviators dying in a bombing raid. As a bombardier, he had all too good of a view through the transparent nose of his B-17.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Homer and Wilma, having lived next to another since childhood.
  • Cobweb of Disuse: Cobwebs and signs of dust inside the B-17 that Fred is checking out at the airplane graveyard.
  • Comforting Comforter: A running theme. First it's Peggy covering Fred with a blanket, then it's Homer doing it to his little sister (or niece) and lastly it's Wilma doing it on Homer.
  • Derelict Graveyard: The airplane graveyard that Fred visits towards the end (and takes a job at), where decommissioned bombers are being converted to material for prefab housing.
  • Eye Take: Millie rolls her eyes as she listens in on Al's conversation with his boss.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Al, a wealthy banker, was a sergeant. Inverted with Fred, who evidently comes from poverty (his father and stepmother live in a dilapidated shack), but was a captain behind a Norden bombsight in B-17 bombers.
  • Girl Next Door: Literally with Homer's girlfriend Wilma. Peggy could also count.
  • Hook Hand: Homer Parrish — played by real-life double amputee Harold Russell, a drill sergeant during the war who lost his hands in a training accident.
  • Inadvertent Entrance Cue: At the pub, when Fred and Homer discuss Al's whereabouts, the latter enters through the door.
    Fred: Oh, Al. He's home in the swankiest apartment house in town. We'll never see him again.
    (Cue Al walking in)
  • Layman's Terms: Done twice between Fred and Peggy. The first time is when she's driving him to his apartment so he can finally see his wife; she asks him what he did before the war, to which he replies he was a fountain attendant, and when she looks puzzled, he clarifies, "Soda jerk." The second time is near the end, at Homer's wedding, when Peggy says she's heard Fred is rebuilding houses, which Fred thinks is a polite way of putting it; he's actually in the junk business.
  • Like a Son to Me: Subverted; Mr. Milton starts to say this about Al, but then stops and calls him "like a younger brother."
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: The standard wedding song sung by the kids.
  • Malt Shop: Fred returns and takes up his old job as a soda jerk in the local drugstore. However, he finds this unsatisfying after his time as a captain in the Air Force.
  • Manly Tears: Homer sheds these in his bed after Wilma leaves.
  • Missing Mom: Hortense is Fred's stepmother; whether his actual mother died or just left his father is never explained.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Averted with Al, who hands out a loan for a war veteran because of his gut feelings.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Homer writing a check at the bank. For a person with two working hands it's a simple task. For Homer to do it, it's an act so amazing it shames Al into giving another veteran a loan without sufficient collateral.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Homer feels immense guilt over his outburst at the kids making fun of him.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the short novella on which the screenplay was based, modeled Boone City on Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • No Romantic Resolution: The romance between Fred and Peggy brews and brews, only coming to a resolution with 45 SECONDS LEFT and the credits about to roll.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Being a Shell-Shocked Veteran, Fred is consistently having bad dreams where he relives dramatic war scenes.
  • Removed from the Picture: At one point, Fred looks at the photograph taken at the double date dinner with his wife and Peggy. He first tears off the half showing his wife, then he also tears the other half with him and Peggy in two.
  • Relationship Sabotage: Peggy intends to break up Fred's marriage to Marie. Lampshaded by her line "That's the end of my career as a home wrecker".
  • The Remake: The 1975 Made-for-TV Movie Returning Home, which updates the story for the post-Vietnam War era and stars Tom Selleck as Fred, Dabney Coleman as Al, and real-life Vietnam vet (and double amputee) James R. Miller as Homer.
  • Returning War Vet: The three protagonists in the beginning.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The rusted-out, seemingly useless old bomber corpses are being refashioned into pre-fabricated housing, like the metaphorical swords (weapons of war) being beaten into plowshares (homes for new families). Not for nothing is this the place where Fred gets a new job.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Al can no longer relate to his wife or his children who grew up without him, and is turning into an alcoholic.
    • Fred, a former B-17 bombardier, finds himself having nightmares wherein he relives dramatic war scenes.
    • Homer lost his hands in the war and is now ashamed of his artificial hooks which makes him feeling uncomfortable around his family or his girl-next-door sweetheart.
  • Sleeping Single: Sneakily averted. They couldn't show Frederic March and Myrna Loy in bed together, so when Al wakes up after his night of drunken carousing, he sees a second pillow next to his, with an impression of Milly's head.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: All three have been so changed by their war experiences that they can't fit back into their old lives, and are forced to reinvent themselves ... with varying results.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: The central theme, examining the lives of three soldiers after they come home and struggle to readjust after the horrors of war.
  • Superstitious Sailors: Homer; on the plane ride back home, he lights both Al and Fred's cigarettes, and then asks if they're superstitious (lighting three cigarettes with the same match was considered bad luck). When they both say no, Homer laughs and says, "Well, I am", and lights his own cigarette with a new match.
  • The Talk: At one point Al obliquely asks Milly whether she's given this to Peggy. Milly responds, "She's worked two years in a hospital. She knows more than you or I ever will."
  • Tears of Joy: Subverted; when Homer's mother starts to cry after seeing Homer's hooks for the first time, she and Homer's father try to pass it off as this, but it's clear that's not the case.
    • Played straight with Milly when Al comes home.
  • Title Drop: Well, close to it, anyway.
    Marie: I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done?
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Fred and Peggy through most parts of the movie.
  • Verbal Tic: Fred habitually addresses people as "chum".
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: Millie and Peggy bring Fred home with Al after their night on the town, because Fred is as drunk as Al, and Peggy puts Fred in her room. When Fred wakes up the next morning, he not only doesn't know where he is, he also doesn't recognize Peggy at first.
  • War Is Hell: We don't see any battles on the screen. All we see is the damage each war veteran brings back with him.
  • Wartime Wedding: Fred had met and married Marie during his flight training prior to shipping out.
  • Wham Line: Upon seeing Fred in uniform again after goading him to put it on, Marie casually tells him, "Now you look like yourself." Fred's face falls as he realizes she's only ever thought of him as a soldier rather than the man he wants to be.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Peggy's younger brother, Rob, is seen in a couple of early scenes and then disappears from the rest of the film.