Escapism and propaganda drove Hollywood's engine during the World War II years, with fluffy musicals and shameless patriotic fare flooding theaters. Yet once the peace treaties were signed and soldiers began returning home, movie studios faced the daunting prospect of courting a more cynical and disillusioned audience, and didn't initially know how to approach them. Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, however, unwittingly stumbled upon the answer when he read a Time magazine article chronicling the plight of injured veterans and their arduous return to civilian life. Almost instantly, Goldwyn knew he found a topic that would strike a universal chord. He commissioned a script from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood, and soon 'The Best Years of Our Lives' was born. Forthright, realistic, and with only a smattering of the sentimentality that defined films of an earlier age, this sprawling domestic drama enriched the hearts and minds of a generation of Americans scarred by the ravages of war, and won a whopping eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), and Best Screenplay. Its unqualified success also gave Hollywood the freedom to begin exploring other potent social issues in a more serious and meaningful manner.
Though World War II was largely a popular war and America emerged victorious, those who fought overseas soon found themselves waging a less violent, but equally formidable battle on the homefront, as they struggled to adapt to tranquil suburban life, rekindle fractured relationships, find kinship with those unable to relate to the horrors and tragedies they endured, and deal with both mental and physical infirmities like post-traumatic stress and lost limbs. One might think readjustment in the bosom of one's loving family might be easy, but 'The Best Years of Our Lives' was one of the first films to show us that even the most durable ties can reach the breaking point under the strain. At last, here is a film that doesn't sugarcoat such problems as estrangement, unemployment, assimilation, and crippling insecurity. Without preaching, it quietly shows us the way, and though its depictions may seem tame, even naïve, by today's more complex and sordid standards, its core elements remain timeless.
The film's premise is simple. Three returning vets meet by chance on a plane bound for the fictional crossroads town of Boone City somewhere in Middle America. There's Al Stephenson (March), the successful, middle-aged banker with a dutiful wife (Myrna Loy) and two almost-grown children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall); Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a tough, strapping, wrong-side-of-the-tracks soda jerk with an uncertain future and unfaithful spouse (Virginia Mayo); and warm-hearted Homer Parrish (Russell), who lost both his hands in combat yet approaches life with an astonishing serenity and positive outlook that belie his inner turmoil over the future of his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). The three men quickly bond on the long flight home, and their lives remain intertwined once they set foot on terra firma and must deal with a mountain of unforeseen problems.
At almost three hours in length, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' requires a strong script to keep us involved in a story that relies almost exclusively on dialogue, and Sherwood, who wrote such acclaimed plays as 'The Petrified Forest' and 'Idiot's Delight,' delivers in spades. His is that rare screenplay that combines the vernacular with the poetic as it expresses simple ideas in a resonant, meaningful, and lyrical fashion. Yes, the plot often feels as if it's built around the ideas Sherwood wants to express, and as a result, contrivances abound, but they're beautifully offset by the small nuggets of truth that pop up everywhere, buried in seemingly mundane lines and delivered with quiet grace by the accomplished cast.
March, who won his first Oscar 15 years earlier for 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' files a standout portrayal as the rumpled patriarch who must reclaim his grip on his family. A study in natural acting, his performance never strikes a sour note and bursts with marvelous nuances that enhance his character and make Al Stephenson an everyman for the ages. Always cast as the quintessential perfect wife from 'The Thin Man' movies up through 'Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House' and 'Cheaper by the Dozen,' Loy is equally adept and just as natural in a no-glamour part that's almost completely devoid of the scintillating wisecracks that made her famous. Rarely has a married couple been more believably played on screen, and the relaxed chemistry March and Loy create keeps their relationship properly grounded and anchors the film.
Wright, Andrews, and Mayo, in her first dramatic role, also assert themselves well, but it's Harold Russell as the double amputee who makes the greatest impression. A non-actor who was discovered by Wyler in an army training short addressing the rehabilitation of veterans, Russell exhibits an unaffected sincerity and charm that transcend his lack of ability. The dexterity with which he manipulates the hook and claw that replace his hands is still a wonder to behold, and the tenderness that distinguishes his relationship with O'Donnell provides the movie with its most poignant moments. Russell remains the only actor to receive two Oscars for the same role - one as Best Supporting Actor and the other for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" - and for years, I felt his accolades were based more on sympathy than merit. Yet watching him on this occasion somewhat altered my opinion. His is the true face of the returning GI, and he doesn't cheapen, diminish, or exploit the image, and for that alone, he deserves all the honors he received.
For a big movie, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' is wonderfully small. Yes, it meanders a bit, but when it's on point, it's sharp as a tack, and certain exchanges and sequences still wield palpable impact. Goldwyn was a meticulous craftsman and Wyler was often his right-hand man, perfectly realizing his vision. They made quite a team, and though the duo collaborated on such acclaimed pictures as 'Dodsworth,' 'Dead End,' 'Wuthering Heights,' and 'The Little Foxes,' 'The Best Years of Our Lives' ranks as their crowning achievement, an understated film that exposes the hidden wounds of war and depicts how they're healed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Best Years of Our Lives' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Despite cinematography by the esteemed Gregg Toland, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' has never made much of a visual impact on either the big or small screen. William Wyler's film has always exuded a bland, utilitarian, slightly washed out look that reflects the story's urban, everyman perspective. Warner's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering accurately represents the movie, and with a spruced up print that's free of any blemishes, it's a smooth, highly watchable presentation that outranks any previous home video edition. Just don't expect any breathtaking, wow-factor moments.
Contrast has always erred toward the weak side, which stymies the levels of gray scale variance. Blacks are largely lush and bold, especially the Irene Sharaff gowns, and whites are bright and crisp, but the overall palette looks a bit more monochromatic than most black-and-white films. Visible grain adds appropriate texture to the drama, but certain shots flaunt more of it than others, and the transitions are often jarring. Clarity, however, is quite good; background elements are easy to discern and close-ups exhibit marvelous details. Loy's careworn face, March's weathered complexion, the rugged good looks of Andrews, and the freshness of Wright and Mayo are all nicely reproduced. Shadow delineation is excellent, with no instances of crush cropping up, and exterior shots capture the natural cityscape without too much coarseness.
No digital enhancements seem to have been applied and no noticeable anomalies distract from the picture's solid appearance. 'The Best Years of Our Lives' is far from a visually arresting experience, but Warner makes sure the heart and soul of this Oscar-winning film aren't eclipsed by a subpar image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear sound without any fancy bells and whistles. Ambient effects, such as train whistles, plane engines, and nightclub clamor, enhance the action without overwhelming it, while accents like freshly shucked peas plopping into an aluminum pot are crisp and distinct. A wide dynamic scale manages all the elements well, especially Hugo Friedhofer's string-laden, Oscar-winning score, which nicely fills the room and flaunts a lovely depth of tone that tempers its syrupy nature. The all-important dialogue, however, takes center stage, and all conversations are properly prioritized and easy to comprehend.
A slight bit of surface noise could be detected here and there during quiet scenes, but pops and crackles are absent, and no distortion creeps in even during cacophonous moments. Though there's not much to rave about here, there's nothing to complain about either, allowing this unobtrusive track to properly take care of business under the radar.
Just a couple of negligible extras, obviously recycled from a previous edition, adorn this release.
Though its topicality has been replaced by an aura of nostalgia, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' still paints a stirring portrait of life on Main Street for returning servicemen following the conclusion of World War II. William Wyler's Best Picture winner may sugarcoat the darker aspects of domestic readjustment, but enough universal elements remain to make this epic drama still relatable today. Told with straightforward honesty and plenty of heart, but never crossing the line into sentimentality, this affecting tale may not warrant its almost-three-hour running time, yet it achieves a rare degree of intimacy that keeps us involved with the characters from beginning to end. Warner's no-frills Blu-ray presentation is shamefully short on supplements for an eight-time Oscar winner, but the video and audio transfers are pleasing, if not quite at the level of other, less prestigious catalogue titles. The film itself, though, is the main attraction here, and largely for that reason 'The Best Years of Our Lives' earns a high and hearty recommendation.