Film/Classic logo
The Best Years of Our Lives
Directed by William Wyler with Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell,
Theresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, black and white, 172 minutes,1946

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Frederic March
Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Frederic March flying home at the end of World War II in a B-17 bomber

By Carter B. Horsley

"The Best Years of Our Lives" is an American masterpiece in which love overcomes post-traumatic stress.

The movie was developed from a pictorial article in the August 7, 1944 edition of Time magazine that became "Glory for Me," a novel by MacKinlay Kantor.  Kantor's novel was adapted for the screen by Robert E. Sherwood.

Harold Russell arrives home and reveals his hooks

Harold Russell arrives home and reveals his "hooks" to his family and his sweetheart at left, played by Cathy O'Donnell

Director William Wyler, who had four years before directed Mrs. Miniver, which is often considered the British "book-end" to this film, decided against the casting of Farley Granger as a shell-shocked veteran in favor of Harold Russell, a sailor who lost both his hands when his ship was sunk.  Wyler had seen Russell in Diary of a Sargeant, an Army film about the rehabilitation of injured veterans and cast him in his film despite the fact that he had had no acting experience.  He not only won an Academy Award as best supporting actor but also received an honorary Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

The movie would have been great without his performance, but his fantastic performance makes it indelible.  He is extraordinary and wonderful and you will cry several times while watching and rewatching the film.

Carmichael plays duet with Harold Russell

Harold Russell plays duet with Hoagy Carmichael as Frederic March watches

The film would have been wonderful without Russell's role because of its great acting, slow tempo and marvelous cinematography by Greg Noland, who shot "Citizen Kane."  Also very notable is its low key.  Its three returning soldiers are not superheros in the mold later established by Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzennegger but merely good men of relatively humble backgrounds and ambitions.  

Although the story line pretty much treats each of the soldiers equally, it is Russell who raises the film to legendary stature.

If he can make it, as they say and sing, then there is hope for everyone.

Dana Andrews leaps to Harold's defense

Soda-jerk Dana Andrews leaps over counter to defend Harold Russell
In one of many memorable scenes, Russell berates a shopper in the drug-store where Andrews has become a soda-jerk for his very un-American remarks about the war and when the well-dressed shopper takes umbrage Andrews leaps over the soda fountain counter and knocks the shopper crashing into a display vitrine and is fired.  

Andrews and March had met Russell when they all hitched a plane ride home in a bomber and listened intently as Russell praised the Navy for his prosthetic hands and teaching him how to use them with remarkable agility.  When they arrive in their Midwestern town they all have trepidations about returning to their homes as the world and they have changed a lot.

March is welcomed home by his two children and his very patient and understanding wife, Myra Loy.

Andrews can't find his wife who he had married just before he went to war.

Russell is welcomed home by his family and his former girl friend, Wilma, played by Cathy O'Donnell, who lives next door.

They all have trouble adjusting and each decides to go out for a drink at the bar run by Russell's uncle, played by Hoagy Carmichael, that they had passed on their ride in from the airport.  They all get drunk and March's daughter, played by Theresa Wright, is attracted to Andrews who finally discovers his wife, played by Virginia Mayo, who loves his uniform.

Russell is uncomfortable because he feels that his family pities him for his handicap and that his former girl friend cannot possibly really love him and known how helpless he can be once he takes off his "hooks."

March had worked for a bank and he discovers that the bank not only wants him bank but gives him a promotion because it thinks he can do a lot of business with other returning veterans.  When he decides to grant a farm loan to one individual based not on collateral but his character he is reprimanded, but not fired.  He turns, however, to drink.

Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo

Theresa Wright talks to Virginia Mayo in ladies' room at nightclub

Mayo, who has never looked more voluptuous, likes the good life and is not happy with Andrews's financial condition that forces him to take his old job as a soda jerk for $32.50 a week.  

She wants more and a divorce.

He likes March's daughter very much and she tells her father that she wants to break up Andrew's marriage because she loves him.  Her father, however, is vehemently against it and implores Andrews to stop seeing her.  Andrews decides to leave town and goes to the airport where while waiting for a transport plane goes to the field that is littered with the carcasses of fighter planes and bombers.  He climbs into one of the eviscerated B-17s, like the one in which he had been a bombardier and they had flown back to town in.  Dusty and striped of its engines, the plane is even more disabled than Russell.

Andews in B-17 cockpit

Dana Andrews sits in the transparent nose of dismantled B-17 at bomber graveyard

As he gazes out of the dirty and scratched nose of the bomber, he relives a frightening moment when the plan was hit on a mission, a memory that has been giving him nightmares.  The scene is one of the most memorable in cinema and only ends when someone yells for Andrews to get out of the plane.  That person is working to "junk" and dismember the planes and Andrews asks him for a job.  He gets the job, which allows him to stay and not leave.

Wroght, Loy and March

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy and Frederic March watch Harold Russell putting wedding ring on Cathy O'Donnell

Russell, meanwhile, decides to show his girl-friend while they can't get marry and takes off his hooks to show her how helpless he is.  To his surprise, she still loves him, and they soon get married.

At the wedding where the gathered are worried whether Russell can put the ring on her finger he does and Wright, who has never looked sweeter, and Andrews decide they are hopelessly in love.

The women are secondary in the film but Loy and Wright and O'Connell are very human and deserving of great respect.  They are very special.  Mayo, on the other hand, is selfish.  Her lot is not what she bargained for, which is somewhat understandable.

There is a happy ending, but it has been a tortuous time getting to it, and there is no guarantee that happy times are here again.  Life does go on and that is marvelous.

Director Wyler lingers on his scenes, not to squeeze sentimentality, but to focus on the fragility and frighening and wrenching fraility of life.

The acting is magnificent by the entire cast and the firm deservedly won numerous Oscars including best picture and best director

This film is ranked 95th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films and was ranked 195th in the list of the 250 most popular films as of February 14, 2015.

Order the Blue-Ray edition of the movie from

Home Page of The City Review