Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Timely Picture With Timeless Messages, The Best Years Of Our Lives Remains Worthwhile!

The Good: Great character development, Decent acting, Generally good plot
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Slightly overbearing soundtrack (when there is one)
The Basics: A superb character study, The Best Years Of Our Lives explores the post-World War II experience as seen through the eyes of three families, all broken from the separation.

With my relentless pursuit of movies these days, there are surprisingly few movies that I get excited about. Most movies I see these days I either go into completely blind or having heard rumors about it. In an effort to (usually unsuccessfully) include my wife in my endeavors, I actually read the back of a few DVD boxes in my cache to try to let her choose the next film we might watch together. None of the backs sold her on watching with me. However, the DVD case for The Best Years Of Our Lives sold me on it, so the next time my wife was at work, I popped it into the Playstation 3 (reviewed here!) and watched it.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is one of those films where it is impressive to look back on now and see how perceptive it was. Considering World War II ended in 1945, the fact that in 1946 a film was accurately detailing the post-war experience is impressive. In addition to having a strong perception about social relations and the changing post-war economy, the movie also explores personal relationship issues like shellshock and the varying effects each person's war experience has on them. The Best Years Of Our Lives is based upon a novel, which I had not read, and is remarkably close to being a perfect film.

Three U.S. servicemen return home from World War II to Boone City, Michigan on a plane together. Meeting for the first time as they fly home, Captain Derry, Sergeant Stephenson, and sailor Homer Parrish return to their respective homes with a great deal of trepidation. Homer lost both hands in the war and encounters a family that is insecure about the hooks he has in the place of his hands. The Sergeant arrives to find his son and daughter all grown up and his wife unsure how to act around him. Fred Derry returns to even more murky situations as he discovers his young wife is no longer living with his parents and she has a job at a nightclub. Fred goes out to a local bar that Homer and Al are drinking in and he hits it off with Al's daughter, Penny.

The first night, Fred and Al both have difficulty sleeping and Fred crashes on Al's couch after he cannot get into the apartment building his wife lives in. But the three men quickly discover circumstances are not what they remember or want. Homer is pressured to get a job before the war boom disappears, Al and his wife do not know how to speak to one another and Al finds it tough to deal with his children being adults. And Fred, when he is finally reunited with his wife, discovers that the young relationship they had before he left may no longer be as strong. Fred struggles to find a job without returning to the soda fountain he worked at before the war. Fred and Al's daughter, Peggy, begin to develop a relationship, despite Fred's marriage. As each family adapts, it becomes clear that all of their lives have been changed by the war.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a character study, so it is not so much a movie chock full of events as it is a worthwhile movie exploring how people relate to one another and try to figure their lives out. While there are some obvious - and appropriate - literary elements that translate into the film, most notably the name Homer Parrish, an allusion to The Odyssey. Homer's story is also the most obviously broken one and Harold Russell is amazing in the role. Despite clearly working around the hooks, Russell makes the role absolutely believable and there is never a moment the viewer does not feel empathy for Homer as he insists on doing things for himself. Homer's struggle accurately explores the difficulty of being left alive and requiring special assistance as a result of war wounds. It is hard not to feel a tug when Homer has to have his father help him get ready for bed and it is painful to watch Homer try to negotiate the doorknobs when he is frustrated.

Conversely, Fred's wife is entirely impossible to empathize with. As Fred tries to get a job, she burns through Fred's money and resents him because he does not want her to have to work at the nightclub. Unlike other characters who try to be sympathetic to their family members, Fred's wife wants him to "snap out of it" and get over his wartime experiences. Fred, unfortunately, is plagued by nightmares and his wife is bratty and annoying, even if the very traditional gender roles intrude upon Fred continuing to be a fully realized and decent character.

Al's story is a more subtle arc at first and in some ways, he does not get over the war in that his new job keeps him working with G.I.s and their finances. Returning to the bank he worked at before the war, he is surprisingly promoted, but finds himself having difficulty adjusting to loan applications and the hard numbers of banking when dealing with former military men. He finds himself unfulfilled and listless, especially as he has to deny many people's request based upon bank risk.

What truly works, then, is how the three men bond and continue to collide with one another. They find themselves able to relate to one another better than they can their own families and that has both a timeless and historical element to them. The specifics of each character's struggle are surprisingly universal, despite details of prices and American culture that may have changed since.

For those who have served, The Best Years Of Our Lives becomes an easy way to illustrate the problems of reassimilation to those who have not. For those who have not served, it becomes a cautionary tale of how to be tolerant of those who have served. But regardless of the viewer's status, the movie has a rather universal resonance as all people struggle and the idea of how people survive their struggles (or don't) can be compelling to watch. All three of the main protagonists are worth watching and have compelling stories.

On DVD, though, The Best Years Of Our Lives is unfortunately lacking in bonus features. The movie only comes with the original theatrical trailer. There is no commentary track or other bonuses to entice viewers and that is somewhat disappointing.

This film is both entertaining and dramatic and anyone who likes drama and character studies that are unafraid to be complex will enjoy this one.

[As winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project which is available here!]

For other war films, please visit my reviews of:
Charlie Wilson's War
Battlefield Earth


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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