The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Movie Review

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler


Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell
Director: William Wyler
Release Date: 21 November 1946
Language: English
Length: 172 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars


“Winning seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this classic drama follows three World War II veterans  –  Homer (Harold Russell), Al (Fredric March) and Fred (Dana Andrews) – as they return to small-town America and try to come to terms with their experiences. Best Supporting Actor Russell, a real veteran who lost his hands in the war, also won an Honorary Oscar “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”” —


I found this a moving, heartfelt look at what happens to 3 soldiers when they come home from the war.  It is not schmaltzy or cheesy, but honest and gripping.  I was a bit hesitant to watch this movie as it is about 3 hours long and I was not sure what to expect, but I am glad that I did.  This movie is about war, but not war on the battlefront.  Instead, this is about war on the homefront after peace is declared.  What is waiting for the soldiers when they come home?  This movie is about 3 individual soldiers: a sailor from the Navy who lost both hands in a fire and now uses hooks for hands, an Army Sergeant who left a wife of 20 years & 2 children behind, and an Air Force Captain who is coming home to a wife that he barely knows and married on a whim.  All 3 are nervous about the reaction that they will face when they see their loved ones for the first time in several years – and they all should be as life at home isn’t any easier than life on the battlefront.

Navy sailor Homer Parrish is played by Harold Russell, a real World War II veteran who lost both hands in a training exercise.  Even though this story is fictional, I feel that his story is very representative of what he would have gone through when he came home.  He had a fiancé, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who he was scared of dragging down with his handicap.  He still loved her, but kept trying to set her free so that she could lead a normal life.  His parents didn’t know where to look or what to do to help and is little sister is oddly fascinated with his hooks and cannot look away.  Homer struggles to act normal and to try and keep himself away from the pitying looks that he is getting, but it is difficult to have a “normal” life in such extraordinary circumstances.  Harold Russell won 2 Oscars for this role – Best Supporting Actor Oscar & a special Honorary Oscar for his portrayal of veterans the world over.  His performance was real and heartfelt and very touching.

Fredric March played Sergeant Al Stephenson.  He has been happily married for 20 years and has 2 children: a grown daughter and a teenage son.  He is a banker and he is one of the lucky ones because his old employers actually is waiting for him to come back to work.  Al gets promoted to VP of small business loans, but struggles to turn down veterans as they try to use the GI Bill to get money to start a new, better life for themselves at home.  He has a difficult time relating to his family and feels alone and struggles to keep from drowning his sorrows in alcohol.  This was an interesting role as Al supposedly had the most going for him, but he was just as lost as the other 2 – perhaps more – as his life didn’t really change on the outside, but he had changed on the inside.

Captain Fred Derry is played by Dana Andrews and he is the central focus of the film.  Derry was a bomber and flew all over the battlefront dropping bombs on the enemy.  He won many commendations and had a great number of medals on his chest, but his success during the war was not translating to success at home.  His new bride (Virginia Mayo), whom he married in haste, is shallow, superficial and only wants him as long as he has money to burn.  His war experience doesn’t qualify him for any job except his old one at the drug store, where he sells women’s cosmetics and serves ice cream sodas at the soda fountain.  Fred realizes that he married the wrong girl when he meets Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al’s beautiful daughter, but it may be too late.  His story was very touching as I was reminded of how these soldiers go out to change the world and then find themselves back where they started when they left.  Finding a job is difficult, the beautiful girl they married is a mistake and they just can’t seem to catch a break.  I fear that this portrayal is all too real for many of our soldiers returning home today as there are just not enough jobs to go around.  It is difficult to keep morale up and to try and hope for a better future when you cannot find anyone to take a chance on you.

I found this movie very moving and well made.  All 3 men struggled with readjusting to life at home and this is not something that I think about very much or see in the movies very often.  All of the actors in the movie turned in gripping, believable performances and I found it easy to identify with them and to become involved in their lives.  The soundtrack is quite lovely and suited the scenes very well.  The cinematography is beautiful and captures the heart and soul of this picture.  I thought this was the perfect movie to watch on Memorial Day to remember and honor our veterans who have done so much to keep us free and enjoying all of the benefits we have as citizens of the United States of America.  I highly recommend this film to those who enjoy black-and-white classic dramas.  There are no scenes of the battlefront in this movie.  Instead, the movie is all about dialogue and showing the lives of three people through their interactions with others.  I was moved and am grateful that I had the opportunity to see this film.  Definitely take the time to watch this movie if you have the chance.


This movie shows some drinking, getting drunk, a few scenes of mild violence, a wife who is a bit of a floozy, and some verbal arguing.  Appropriate for viewers of all ages, recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Filed under Classic Movies, Drama Movies, Historical Movies, Romance Movies, War Movies

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