This review of The Best Years of Our Lives was due eons ago. Seriously, I accepted this assignment on my own eager whim almost a year ago. The interest and intention was there, the hindrance came in mustering up the energy to clear out my schedule enough to commit to watching a near three hour war drama. It seemed easy at first. I love cinematic representations of war. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Deer Hunter, and All Quiet on the Western Front are just a few of the stunning war stories that I hold dear to my heart. Each film nearly, if not definitely, hits at least the two and a half hour mark and though I’m notorious for hating on films that push three hours, I will consistently sit glued to a television if any of those gems come on.
When I wasn’t devoting the time to watch The Best Years of Our Lives I was instead doing myriad other activities. I started and finished all 60 episodes of “The Wire,” I watched a shit ton of Jean-Luc Godard films and even more classic films directed by pioneering black directors, I changed jobs, saw a bunch of bands like Nine Inch Nails live, and in a span of less than a month caught myself up on “Game of Thrones” (but seriously, can we talk about this most recent one?!) It boggles my own brain that in that time I spent drinking and raging away the better part of my days I couldn’t just sit down and watch The Best of Years of Our Lives, a film regarded and revered by the American Film Institute for its tenacious anti-war message. Finally, after having absolutely nothing else to do but look at tumblr porn, I decided to watch The Best Years of Our Lives—and wow what a waste of my time.
Now, The Best Years of Our Lives isn’t a terrible film. It’s the worthy story of three men whose fates cross on a plane ride back home to see their families after serving in World War II. Each man has apprehensive jitters at the prospect of returning home. Navy vet Homer (Harold Russell), is disabled from a bombing incident (the real life Russell lost his hands to a defective explosive while filming a training sequence), resulting in him donning prosthetic hooks for hands. Meanwhile Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (Fredric March) are left with the mental scars of their horrifying time overseas.
All three lead actors churn out sympathetic performances that grant their characters basic understandable attributes, despite concentrating on a very specific, somewhat exclusive, topic. Each character’s fears and insecurities are touched on, making for top-notch performances from its lead actors, especially the exceptional portrayal of Milly, Al’s Wife, by Myrna Loy. Also, I deeply respect The Best Years of Our Lives’ serious tone that advocates veteran’s rights and raises a still relevant voice of awareness as to how American society lacks the proper preparation for socially and economically handling veterans of war.
But that doesn’t stop The Best Years of Our Lives from being preachier than a reverend at an abortion rally. The Best Years of Our Lives’ script is muddled by a lack of focus. It attempts to show war in an unflattering, critical light, but it does so in shallow, superficial ways. The focus strays away from the humanity that is lost by the primitive nature of war. Instead, the film shifts to how a particular nuclear family is affected by war before ultimately settling on showing how these three men are battling romantic relationships after the war. At times The Best Years of Our Lives gets inspiration from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by speaking out against financial institutions for their lack of contributions to veterans. Other times, it stays in the safety net of classical Hollywood terrain following blossoming romantic relationships. Only on occasion in its 172 minute run time does The Best Years of Our Lives possess the gall to invite audiences to experience just how tragic and detrimental war is. We only see these men’s post-traumatic stress or their difficult integration back into suburban life in glimpses. The long term fixture of the film is a romantic triangle and a struggling marriage that never gets the reconciliation it deserves.
“Good morning reverend.”
“No sinner, GOD morning! Without the all-mighty father you wouldn’t be alive right now!”
A vast amount of films running over two and half hours master the art of pacing. You have to if you want your audience to commit. Nevertheless, there’s a fair amount of films that don’t quite get it right, and The Best Years of Our Lives is one of them. It moves at the speed of a slug wading through butter. Most scenes add little to no importance to the film like the times we sit and stare at a number of phone calls that add nothing to the story. We get locked into long-winded moments of a drunken character not knowing when to leave the bar, despite a preceding montage illustrating the extensiveness of his drinking. We watch every banal conversation had between each main character and their loved ones, a decision that would be commendable if they were entertaining or important.
“I think club soda is much tastier and crisper than tonic water. You agree?”
The Best Years of Our Lives’ goes against what it intends to do. Its strengths lie in its ability to be a one-note melodrama with war as its crutch. For some that can be promising. For me, it was a bland drag that did little to evoke genuine empathy at the behest of its characters. While I understood each character’s dilemmas, I never truly grasped their severities. Instead of focusing on how a country can reject those who put their lives on the line for it, The Best Years of Our Lives does the opposite. It shows how these three fictional characters reject the world around them. Homer’s family doesn’t necessarily push him away, he does that to them. His girlfriend, Wilma, doesn’t despise him for losing his limbs; he despises her because he expects her to be put off. Fred’s wife’s callous, conniving ways aren’t a fault of her own. It’s his; he married her while in basic training with little knowledge of who she was. Al’s family isn’t distant from him because he’s been away at war; he’s the one that refuses to accept that things change and that his children have grown. He doesn’t let go of war enough to recommit to them.
“Now look kids, war was hell so daddy doesn’t have time to catch up on your lives these past few years. I got drinking and preaching to do!”
The Best Years of Our Lives turned out to be the some of the most boring minutes of my life. However, despite its shortcomings its intentions are good and you can’t knock a genuine attempt no matter how bland the outcome, especially when that intent is to bring attention to the lack of proper guidance and mental health for service members returning home. But hey, what do I know? Apparently everyone loves this film. It’s been on nearly every AFI list and won an ass load of Oscars when released. Either every critic was huffing glue while watching it or I’m not huffing enough.
Take a Drink: every time someone repeats a line.
Take a Drink: every time Peggy tells Fred to “go to sleep”
Take a Drink: every time a character stares off unresponsively for more than 5 seconds.
Do a Shot: whenever Fred has a flashback.