The Best Years Of Our Lives
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Most of us were too young to remember or were not born to have memories of the home coming at the end of World War II. The Best Years Of Our Lives allows us to go back to that time in a way that no film made since can. The movie came out in 1946 and provides an impression which is not a reconstruction of the period like Saving Private Ryan but a vivid result of the film makers’ experience and mind set. Fifty years ago America was a different place, and people’s attitudes, expectations and assumptions differed in many ways from today’s. Still, there is a common human reality that transcends time which makes The Best Years Of Our Lives a reflection of many aspects of the human condition.

The Best Years Of Our Lives
is the story of three returning service men and their families. The movie recounts the difficulties the men encounter getting back into civilian life after being away from home and the experiences they had in the war. It also shows the reactions of those who stayed behind as the three attempt to fit back in.

The three men have each been marked by the war. The youngest, Homer Parish, lost his hands but on the surface seems the most ready to adjust to being at home. Al Stephenson, the oldest, seems harder and uneasy with his family and his prestigious job in the bank. Fred Derry, an air corp "flyboy" who became an officer during the war, has trouble both with his marriage and finding a job. He is also burdened with post traumatic stress, a condition that was not recognized at that time. Watching this film we can feel the tension, witness the disconnection, and the struggle the three have re-establishing themselves. While each has changed and each has been emotionally hurt in some way, none will talk about it and (most of those around them won’t ask). This is a pattern that still, too often, we see when someone is dealing with a difficult reality.

In showing the experience of these three veterans, The Best Years Of Our Lives confronts an issue that has always existed: The gap that forms between those who have gone through life-changing experiences and those who have not. Those who have gone away, like to war, and have had a profound ordeal are different when they return. In some way they will never be like they were before. On the surface they may sound the same and look the same, but something is different. Even when there are visible changes, as with Homer, who lost his hands, deeper invisible changes are present that can cause a feeling of alienation or uneasiness. People who have not been through the experience either do not realize that the person is different or, confused, sensing the change, grapple to understand. This can be very hard for someone who sees and cares but cannot grasp the problem and is not helped by the fact that the one who has been changed does not want to talk.

There are many memorable scenes in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Two stand out in relation to the issue of the emotional gap. One concerns Fred Derry’s medals. The other occurs when Homer is confronted by his fiancé, Wilma, whom he has avoided since returning home. Homer underestimates Wilma’s courage, comprehension, and commitment. (This underestimation is common for people who are afraid to talk about something that is troubling them.) Homer also over-estimates his own maturity. The war has changed him, in ways made him a man. In other ways he is still a boy as innocent and naive as Wilma. Not only do these things become clear when the scene between Wilma and Homer occurs, but a barrier comes down that existed since he came home. The gap becomes a little less wide.

The Best Years Of Our Lives
is an excellent film to view if one is confronting difficult realities or dealing with a life experience that has caused emotional pain. It’s a good film to watch if someone has returned from a difficult ordeal that has left some scares. The Best Years Of Our Lives is affirming, without being sentimental, and is strikingly honest. This is a film that can provoke reflection and dialog.

Not rated by M.P.A.A.

Video available from H.B.O. Studios
The booklet Coming To Terms With Being Victimized is a resource for those who have been overcome by some bad reality.  This booklet is only $2.50 plus shipping and handing.  Check it out NOW!
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Last modified: 18 March, 2009