In 1946, the year after World War II was “won,” it’s hard to imagine any film but The Best Years of Our Lives winning Best Picture. 70 years later—aside from some inventive cinematography (keep your eyes on the mirrors and framing!) from Gregg Toland—William Wyler’s “Ode to the Veteran” is as embarrassing to watch as it is overly long (nearly three hours).
From different parts of the service, three men return to the ironically named Boone City to pick up their lives “like nothing ever happened.”
Former banker Al Stevenson finished his tour as a sergeant; settling back into family life (notably with Myrna Loy who plays wife, Milly with the patience of Job) is only bearable by drowning the awful experiences in enough booze to make a squadron tipsy. Fredric March portrays the lush with uncomfortable—Oscar-winning—veracity.
Fred Derry is haunted by nightmares of his Air Force bombing sorties and the present-day fact that his party-loving wife (Virginia Mayo revels in the brazen, busty role) only loves a man with enough resources to feed her voracious appetite for fun. It’s impossible to believe Dana Andrews as he vacillates between tramp from hell to angelic vision/desire of Al’s daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright filling the screen with long looks of hope and despair only to lose her character when she vows to become a home wrecker; more subtlety from the writers—Robert Sherwood’s treatment of MacKinlay Kantor’s novel, Glory for Me—is required).
Representing the Navy, Harold Russell (who lost both hands while training paratroopers in 1944) begins his portrayal of Homer Parish with a fine mix of dignity and resentment which is a tribute to all of those who’ve lost limbs for whatever reason (the “Chopsticks” duet with Hoagy Carmichael is a musical gem even even as the camera brings Al and Fred into the picture). However, he is saddled with some troublesome scenes (rifle practice to let off steam; a drugstore sundae that explodes into fisticuffs) that strain credibility. So many others with disabilities have learned the wisdom of acceptance and able to move on with their lives, knowing full well how many thousands upon thousands who’ve died would give anything to switch places.
In our own era of continuous armed conflicts, innocent deaths and PTSD, the public’s naiveté about the “glories” of war has long since faded to black; William Wyler’s film, today, seems very out of step with reality then and now. JWR