The Best Years of Our Lives

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After making the classic documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler began work on what would become his greatest masterpiece and one of the best American films ever made according to the American Film Institute. This classic movie is The Best Years of Our Lives which was released in 1946. I’ve seen this movie four or five times over the decades and it remains emotionally powerful no matter how many times you see it. The film won 8 Academy awards (1 honorary and 7 standard) the same number as Gone With the Wind.

I rarely do this but here are times when it’s best for me to stand back and turn a blog post over to an expert in a particular subject and in this case there is no one more expert than the movie critic, Roger Ebert. The following paragraphs are from his 2007 review of the film. (The entire review can be found here.)

I would make a special note that, Harold Russell, who plays a US Navy sailor who has lost his hands in the war, was exactly that. He had no training as an actor.

Says Roger Ebert:

Seen more than six decades later, it feels surprisingly modern: lean, direct, honest about issues that Hollywood then studiously avoided. After the war years of patriotism and heroism in the movies, this was a sobering look at the problems veterans faced when they returned home….

The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t use verbal or technical pyrotechnics. It trusts entirely in the strength of its story. One of the sources of its power is the performance by Harold Russell, the handless veteran. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was actually criticized at the time for his “tasteless” use of Russell, but look at the heartbreaking scene where Homer invites Wilma up to his bedroom – not to make a pass, but to show her what is involved in getting ready for bed. He thinks maybe then she’ll understand why he doesn’t think he can marry her.

Russell was an untrained actor, but utterly sincere. He says: “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” We know Russell is speaking for himself, and the emotional power is overwhelming. O’Donnell’s response is pitch-perfect.

Russell won an honorary Oscar, “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” Although he was actually nominated for best supporting actor, the Academy board voted the special award because they thought he didn’t have a chance of winning. They were wrong. He won the Oscar, the only time an actor has been given two Oscars for the same role. The film also won for best picture, actor (March), director, screenplay, editing, and score.

As long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded, The Best Years of Our Lives will not be dated.

[Image courtesy of Roger]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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