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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)



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The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the most important and timely movies ever made back in 1946, when World War II was just ending. That it's just as meaningful and resonant today is a tribute to its greatness. The film is about soldiers returning home from the war -- three in particular, played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell. It concentrates not only on their hardships in readjusting to everyday life, but the struggles endured by their families and loved ones, as well.

I don't know what it's like to come home from a war -- particularly from one so cataclysmic as World War II. I've never done it. I don't presume to know what it's like from watching this film. But this film did a spectacular job in making the experience real to me. What's it like to come home to one's wife and children after long years at war? This movie is a tearjerker before it's even gotten started.

This is a technically simple movie. There's no flash, no glitter, no sweeping sentimental manipulation. The movie doesn't need it. A camera is plunked down in front of who seem to be real people, and their lives and thoughts and feelings are revealed with the sobering ring of truth. That's a great tribute to the film's cast (including Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Hoagy Carmichael), who all turn in excellent performances. And I must be careful not to slight the camerawork. The cinematography is absolutely wonderful -- artistic and effective. But it's invisible to the absorbed viewer, as it should be, contributing effectively to the unseen "movie magic" at work.

I must bring up one of the three returning veteran characters again. Fredric March and Dana Andrews were established actors, of course. The third, played by Harold Russell, was not. He was a real-life amputee, playing the part of a sailor who had lost his hands in the war and instead had mechanical hooks that sufficed for most everyday things but weren't enough when it came to doing up buttons or embracing the woman he loved. What's surprising and inspiring is that Russell could actually act. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for this film but did not make another movie until 1980.