When William Wyler returned home after serving in the Second World War—his hearing in one ear irreparably damaged from participating in combat missions over Europe, which he chronicled as a wartime documentary filmmaker—he wasn’t sure what to tackle next. A script that had begun as a blank-verse novella caught his attention. The film he made from that screenplay is itself a cornerstone of postwar American history, a fictional story so keyed into lived experience that it continues to find an audience across generations.
Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and a young nonprofessional actor named Harold Russell star as servicemen returning from the war, struggling to readjust to civilian life. March’s Al Stephenson has misgivings about returning to his old banking job, and though his all-knowing, no-nonsense wife Milly (played by the great Myrna Loy) adores him, she can’t hide the fact that his homecoming has disrupted her routine, too. Dana Andrews’ Fred is a highly decorated bombardier captain, but he can barely find work upon returning home; he’s also coming to realize that he’d hastily married the wrong woman (Virginia Mayo) before being deployed. And Russell’s Homer has lost both of his hands in combat; he’s been outfitted with hooks that he’s handily mastered, but he can barely fathom the idea of holding his loving fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) in his arms. (Russell—who himself had lost his hands during military service—won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, and received an honorary Academy Award as well.) The Best Years of Our Lives is famous for lots of reasons—cinematographer Gregg Toland’s skillful use of deep focus is one of the most touted. But its truest value is both more immediate and less tangible: This is a story of what it means to yearn to be home, only to realize that home is a place you need to find in yourself, sometimes at great cost.
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