Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AFI Top 100: #37 "The Best Years of Our Lives"

Teresa Wright & Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

A valiant return of the AFI Top 100 reviews in 2016! After the holidays, I took a bit of a "writing" break, feeling kind of drained and creatively stunted. But some time away (and watching a few inspiring movies) is the perfect remedy for writer's block. The end of this journey may be a bit far off still, but I'm amazed how truly far we've already come. This week, we're discussing #37 of AFI's Top films, The Best Years of Our Lives. War is a common theme in celebrated cinema. In what is truly the first post-WWII picture (it was released just a year after the war officially ended), this, surprisingly, is not a film about war. Rather, it is about the human condition, about servicemen returning home to lives that have changed in their absence.

The war is over, and three servicemen from different military posts and varied ranks share a long and hopeful plane ride back home to the States. From the same city but different walks of life, airman Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) eagerly anticipates a reunion with his gorgeous war bride; Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to his patient and excited family; and Naval seaman Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) worries about his family and fiancee's reception to the loss of his hands in battle—now fitted with mechanical hooks, his positivity may be squashed by those around him being unable to cope with the change. As the men return to their lives, they soon discover that their military careers and successes may not count for as much in civilian life as they'd originally hoped.

The scrutiny we give to veterans of war is a significant theme in the film. As our characters return to their lives, difficulties adapting take many forms. For Al, life appears to be falling back into place on the surface—his job (a promotion at the bank) and loving family all ready to embrace him with open arms; yet being still, in a quiet, money-driven life, pushes him to drown his sorrows with drink. For Fred, the opposite is true—a profitable career for a former soda-jerk-turned-bombardier may very well not exist, and his bride is less than enthusiastic about being with a man whose uniform is traded in for an apron.

And then there's Homer, one of the most inspirational characters in the film. Adaptable and hopeful, his disability is harder for his family to ignore. Harold Russell was cast as Homer specifically because he'd lost his hands, and the truth behind his performance elicits pity, then admiration. Honest and revealing, director William Wyler created a film that explores the dynamic of a city that looks up to its heroes, but doesn't honor them. Dana Andrews is the perfect "every man," handsome yet worn, and he plays Fred with a weary determination. His chemistry with both Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright brings melodrama, but none of it unrealistic. Wyler manages to tell so many stories here, and as an ensemble piece, each character—even the family members—get the opportunity to add richness to the film.

As a snapshot in time, this film is indisputably a classic. It's topical in a way that only stories told during that time about that time can be, a character study that refused to rely on patriotism and nationalism to garner an emotional response. There is nothing romantic or heightened here. Everything is down-to-earth, unpolished and worn, from the clothing (which Wyler insisted the actors wear for weeks leading up to the shoot) to the personal relationships, that it could easily be misconstrued as boring. It is anything but. Even now, separated by 70 years and multiple (more unpopular) wars, changing social and political climates, we can feel the catharsis a story like this brings.

I know people (many in my family) who consider this one of the most impactful films of the time. I don't share the same enthusiasm for it, but I certainly can't ignore what it accomplished. In a time when Hollywood aimed more for glamour than realism, this movie stands out. The characters are flawed, with dark facets that reveal themselves to us before being pushed aside—or in the case of, say, Homer Parrish, the darkness begins to actually recede. But it's beautifully laid out in front of us, begging for our attention, and to remind us that respect is something we can all give to each other, free of cost.

While I don't find as much joy watching this touching film as others might, it remains a uniquely early perspective on post-wartime homecomings, and just how rewarding (and damaging) committing to service can be.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © RKO Radio Pictures]

Check back next time for #36 on the list, The Bridge on the River Kwai — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...