Memorial Day Movie: “The Best Years of Our Lives”

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March on their way home in "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Indiewire polled critics for their choices for Memorial Day movies, and the results can mostly be broken down into three categories: war movies (including anti-war movies, homefront movies and post war life movies); war-related documentaries; beginning of summer movies (the two outliers are “In America” and “Nashville,” because they celebrate American life, and “Memento,” because Memorial Day…remembering…”Memento”…about remembering…).

I thought about what movie seems most appropriate to me for Memorial Day, and while I could think of many fine options, the one I kept coming back to is “The Best Years of Our Lives.” I stayed away from this movie for a long time, not because it’s made in 1946–I’m a classic Hollywood fan and I’m just as happy watching a black and white movie with a staticky soundtrack as I am watching a 2013 summer blockbuster. Actually, I stayed away because I thought it sounded like a representation of the worst of Hollywood from that time period  or any other: a glossy, overstuffed, all-star melodrama that’s way too long.

Then finally I made myself watch it and I was stunned by how plain and honest the situations and emotions were in this story of a group of soldiers returning to civilian life in a small town after World War II. Fredric March’s character now finds the business practicalities of his well-paying bank job unfulfilling and cold-hearted. Dana Andrews’s character, trapped in an unhappy wartime marriage, can’t fit in at his old job or get anything better. Harold Russell’s character, who lost his hands in the war and has been fitted with hooks instead, finds he can’t bear the pity he thinks he sees anytime someone looks at them (Russell, a real WW II vet who did indeed have hooks for hands after an injury, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). The women who stayed behind find themselves dealing with men who now seem like strangers.

You could take the problems of those three characters and give them to any soldier coming back from any war, from the Civil War to Afghanistan today. The movie holds up 100%, almost seventy years after it was released. Now if you’re a person who freaks out at the sight of black and white, can’t stand any movie that doesn’t have tons of edits and quick cuts, or get impatient with any music not from your lifetime, I’m not going to be able to talk you into watching this movie, because you’ll mentally shut down before the opening credits. If, however, you like good, well-made dramas, no matter what time period it comes from, then I hope you’ll give it a try.

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