Three soldiers return home to small-town civilian life after the war to find a very different world from the one they left behind. Fred (Dana Andrews) was an airforce captain, but back home he has to accept work back as a lowly clerk on the soda-fountain of a drugstore and is unable to keep his wife in the style she had become accustomed to in his absence. Al (Fredric March), an infantry sergeant during the war, returns to a more lofty position in a bank, but he knows what other GIs have gone through and the difficulties they now face and believes that people mean more than just figures on paper, but his bank isn’t likely to feel the same way. Homer (Harold Russell), a former naval seaman, is the person most obviously affected by the war, having lost both hands and having them replaced by hooks, he knows that his life and how people relate to him are going to be coloured by their reaction towards his disability.
The three men, each representing a branch of the armed forces, are clearly meant to represent the dilemmas that faced every soldier coming back from the war. Some of them have been changed by the war itself and have had their attitudes changed by what they have seen and endured, others come back to find that the people they have left behind have changed; the soldier who returns to find his children suddenly grown-up and better educated about the world than those who have supposedly seen it all first-hand; the soldier who finds that he has no training for any civilian job and that experience in killing the enemy and citations of bravery are not valid qualifications; and the soldier who has to come to terms not only with his war wounds, but how people relate to him – not wanting to be pitied, patronised or even lauded or venerated – who just want to be accepted as the person he was before, but time and people’s attitudes have moved on.
When it was released in 1946, The Best Years Of Our Lives must have come as a shock to an American public who would surely have been used to seeing films depicting their troops as all-conquering heroes returning home to a flag-waving, tickertape welcome. Wyler’s film however presents a much more harsh reality and it certainly struck a chord with the Academy, who awarded the film eight Oscars in the 1947 Academy Awards, perhaps in the odd way that the Academy are wont to regard well-meaning and earnest studies of disadvantaged citizens, as a way of accepting and atoning for a collective national guilt. And The Best Years Of Our Lives is most certainly a deeply serious and earnest film. It’s told like it is, without adornment and without pleasantries. The situations are all frightfully grim, meetings and discussions – even romantic encounters – are all formally arranged and stiffly spoken. Everyone shakes their head dolefully and averts their eyes to do some meaningful soul-searching, while there is lots of dramatic underscoring from the rather stirring music score. Some of the issues are glossed over – Al’s alcoholism is barely hinted at and most issues between husband and wife are resolved over a brief serious conversation and the eventual submission of the woman to acceptance of the man’s inner turmoil. The value of the film however should not be underestimated – for its time it was a shocking depiction of American society and its influence would stretch to the much more powerful, The Deer Hunter, which actually looks overstated in comparison to this film. It’s three hour long and there is little relief from the intensity and seriousness with which the film treats its subject, but The Best Years Of Our Lives is well-paced, finely acted and makes its point through some incisive imagery and realistic, dramatic situations.
The picture is fairly grainy and a touch soft although the print is fairly free from marks or scratches and the contrast balance allows for a decent level of detail in close shots. Overall though, the tones are a little on the grey side, with no strong whites to be seen anywhere. Edge-enhancement is visible in places and some haloing but the effect is minimised and carefully applied. Unfortunately, compression artefacts are evident throughout, with objects and backgrounds shimmering and some scenes very unstable and blocky indeed. The original audio track is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, which brings the sound to the centre stage quite effectively and is clean and bright with no distracting noise or hiss, although it is a little low on volume. If you speak Spanish, German or Italian, you’ll have to make do with a dub, as MGM haven’t bothered to subtitle the film for these languages. There are no extra features whatsoever. Menus are static and basic and language free, using obscure symbols for playback, chapter, subtitles and audio selections.
The Best Years Of Our Lives is a very serious and in-depth look at the reality of the situation faced by troops returning home from the war that is perhaps a little too dull and worthy and may no longer have the shock value of its time, but has lost little of its acuity in its insightful and still relevant social commentary. Some other studios might regard a film that won eight Oscars as a major back catalogue release but not MGM. The DVD presentation of the film is barely even adequate as a barebones release, with poor picture quality, perfunctory, wordless menus and not a single feature to support the film’s historical and cinematic importance. A poor release for such an important film.