No 302 - The Best Years of our Life
Director - William Wyler
This film took me two attempts to watch, two very different attempts in that the first time I struggled watching this film about 3 returning veterans of WWII, however the second time I found myself engrossed in the characters and relationships. It is a very syrupy film, but it was made straight after the war, so you can kind of forgive it.
The film follow 3 veterans as they get home and try to pick up their lives from where they left off. It also shows how institutionalised some people had got, how they had found comfort in the skills and routines of the war and how by going home they're cast adrift.
The war was a terrible terrible thing. But for a lot of people, their experience of the war isn't dominated by the bombs and the killing. It is about the camaraderie, the drinking, the adventure, the people and the sense of purpose. You see this sense of purpose mostly with Fred who returns a Captain but who has no qualifications for the real world and therefore has to go back behind the soda fountain.
This seems to be a very real thing, certainly when I speak to my Grandfather he gets nostalgic over the war ad he has hundreds of anecdotes he could tell you about the great times he spent as a marine. Only once in the 24 years I've known him has he spoken about fighting and that was just telling me which beach landings he had done. For him, in retrospect, the war was more about the sense of camaraderie and getting up to antics then it was about the horrors of battle. Though it is never said, I would not be surprised to know that for all the happiness that happens post war, for all the relief of returning home, the title refers to the war years. After all it seems none of the three protagonists are comfortable in returning home - Fred has lost all connection with his wife whilst Al is struggling to return to the normality of family life as a banker. Homer has the biggest struggle, but I want to focus on Fred and Al's stories first then give Homer's arc the space it deserves. Their first night back they try to spend a normal evening with their respective families and fail, finding themselves in the bars and dancing and laughing with each other until late into the night.
It is here Fred meets Peggy, Al's daughter. They very much fall in love and Fred has a bit of a choice. Should he face the scandal of leaving his wife or should he just suppress his feelings for Peggy.
Al's relationship with his wife is lovely, the number of times where Al seemingly re-remembers that he is home for ever and passionately grabs his wife in an embrace are many throughout the film. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and here is evidence that 2 or 3 years away at war will certain re-ignite the flames of passion in a marriage.
However, besides all the emphasis on Fred and Peggy's will they/won't they relationship, the real important story is of Homer, played by Harold Russell. Russell lost his hands in the war during an explosives training accident and was left with two hooks. Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM fame) saw this and had the part of Noah specifically rewritten for him. For that reason, the role is incredibly humbling. Russell is incredibly adept with his hooks. He is able to light cigarettes, drink, write - there is very little that he can't do. However, he is returning to a fiance and he has lost all of his confidence. To quote Al: They (The Navy) couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair.
Homer spends most of the film in a bit of a dejected mood. He regularly hides to his uncle Butch's bar where he is having piano lessons (not a joke, at one point Homer and Butch play a duet together) however over time Wilma finally manages to prove to him that sh does still love him.
They're relationship is the sweetest, once Homer removes his hooks he is completely helpless, and for that reason he hates himself. It is clear throughout the film that he doesn't want to be dependant on people and he believes that no one will want the burden of having to care for him. So when - FINALLY - Wilma convinces him otherwise, it is lovely to see.
Edit - I forgot to add.... Russell is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role. Not only did he win best actor but he won a second honorary one because of the hope he had given in showing what is possible even after losing your limbs.
Man is a bit awesome. Kudos to him.
Of course the film has a big schmaltzy happy ending. Of course the entire film is sweet with nary a hard angle to it (despite talk of affairs, home wrecking, war injuries, fisticuffs and Al's hilarious tendency to get hammered all the time the film really is soft and harmless) but it is a wonderful study of three characters and how the settle back to the real world.