Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day Twenty-One: The Best Years of Our Lives

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #192
Year: 1946
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Dana Andrews and Harold Russell

First of all, yes, this actually is Friday's movie even though I'm writing about it late Saturday night/Sunday morning. I fell a little behind because I didn't feel well; don't tell me how to do my job. Second, this was the first half of a little double feature I put on at my private cinema today, and my fairly low expectations were smashed to bits by how much better this movie is in practice than it is on paper. Its biggest problem is how incorrectly it's advertised. Make no mistake, this is not a romantic picture. It has a few romances in it, and the final act does focus a bit more on them than the rest of the film, but this is a movie about the havoc wreaked in the lives of brave men who come back to what they once called home after spending time in a war zone. That's about as far from romance as it gets.

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the all-time leaders in Oscars won with seven, and it's easy to see why. The movie follows the lives of three men returning to their hometown from World War II. They soon find out that not only did they radically change while they were away; home did too. Homer Parrish had his hands blown off during his stint in the Navy and can't cope with people's pity and curiosity about his new prosthetic arms. Al Stephenson finds himself exploited at his old place of employment because of his link to the military. Fred Derry battles flashbacks and nightmares, and realizes that his wife is a phony who only loved him when he had money, and he falls in love with Al's daughter instead. And all that just scratches the surface.

The theme of soldiers reentering society after seeing the atrocities of war has been done plenty of times since Years, but it's the fact that this movie came out in 1946 that makes it especially poignant. In that year, hundreds of thousands of men were returning home from war, looking for jobs, wives, and acceptance in a society that wasn't ready to accept them back yet. This film must have spoken directly to an uncountable number of young men who felt the same isolation and confusion as its characters, and it's impossible to undervalue that. Indeed, human nature rarely changes, and current veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may find the performances just as resonant today.

Special mention goes to Harold Russell's performance as the armless ex-seaman Homer Parrish. It won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it's definitely a competent performance from an acting standpoint, but what's most impressive is that Russell was not an actor at all, but a former military man who actually had his arms blown off during the Second World War. He brings such an emotional depth to the role that a person watching it with the right mindset could easily be brought to tears several times while he's on screen. A scene where some neighborhood kids are looking into the garage to see his prosthetic limbs and he struggles to open the doorknob to yell at them so he breaks the window with his hooks instead, yelling "You want to see the freak?" is particularly tear-jerking, and is probably the film's best scene. Russell earned his Oscar, and his Purple Heart. It's not often that it's okay to call a movie star a hero, but he certainly is one.

I didn't really have any expectations for this movie going in. Truthfully, I thought it was going to be a typical 1940s cornball affair in the vein of It's a Wonderful Life. Fortunately, I was wrong. Barring some dated references (Fred Derry works as a soda jerk. Erm, a what?), The Best Years of Our Lives holds up remarkably well in 2010, and is definitely worth watching.

The Good: Harold Russell's tragic performance.

The Bad: Unimpressive direction and cinematography. The fadeout transition can only be utilized so often before you want to throw up. Fortunately, this doesn't stand in the way of enjoying the movie.

The Skinny: It belongs on the list. #192 might be exactly where it belongs, too.

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