I had no idea how amazing this film would be. That it would become one of my absolute favorite movies. That it would cement Myrna Loy's spot as one of my fave actresses AND introduce me to Dana Andrews, who would go on to become one of my fave actors.
But amazing, it is. Filled with complex, understandable, ordinary people trying to figure out their lives again after they've lived through this life-changing thing called war.
Just so you know, this is going to be one of those long, detailed, ruminative movie reviews. I could probably write six posts, one for each of the main characters, and maybe some day I will dig that thoroughly into it. But today, I'll delve as deeply as I'm able.
I'm not marking spoilers.
It all begins with an ex-Air Force captain named Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) searching for a flight home to (fictional) Boone City. He inquires at a commercial airport, but with no success.
Tired and discouraged, he seeks out military transport instead. There he encounters an ex-sailor named Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) who is hoping to fly to Boone City himself.
Fred is shocked to discover Homer is a double amputee.
Homer and Fred hitch a ride on a plane that's headed for the scrapyards. Inside it, they meet an ex-Army sergeant named Al Stephenson (Fredric March). Al is also from Boone City, and though the three of them had never met during civilian life, they find they have a lot in common now that they've all survived the war and been mustered out of the military.
During the flight, they all spend time wondering what it will be like to return home. All three are apprehensive about how well they'll readjust to civilian life. Homer is probably the most worried, as none of his loved ones have seen him without his hands.
I want to pause here a minute to tell you about Harold Russell, who plays Homer. He really did lose his hands in the military during WWII, though it was through a training accident stateside, not in a ship explosion like Homer experienced in the movie. Harold Russell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and also a special Oscar for being an inspiration to all returning veterans. And I assure you, they were both well-deserved. While he wasn't a professional actor, his portrayal of Homer Parrish is as nuanced and moving as those from seasoned actors like Myrna Loy and Fredric March.
Anyway, back to the story. Our three veterans fly all night to get home. While they grew comfortable in the plane, sharing their fears and worries and becoming friends, their first sight of Boone City from the air brings all their apprehensions back.
They share a cab on the ground, and drive all through the town to see how it's changed. Homer points out his uncle's bar, Butch's, and invites them all to meet him there sometime. They're full of smiles, happy to be back, excited about the future.
And then they reach Homer's house. It's a nice, middle-class neighborhood. Homer's worried again, and Al and Fred are obviously worried for him. They feel protective of Homer now, even though they've only been his friends for about a day.
The first person to see Homer return is his little sister, who throws his arms around his neck while his parents run down the front steps and across the lawn to him.
Al and Fred feel relieved and glad for him. Their own chances for happy homecomings seem cinched now.
Then the girl next door, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), arrives. She and Homer were planning to get married, but he's confided to Al and Fred that he's not sure that's a good idea anymore.
Wilma throws her arms around Homer. She's obviously happy and relieved that he's home at last.
But flip that image around, and you discover that Homer isn't smiling. He's almost grimacing, like Wilma's embrace is something else he must endure.
Al and Fred see this, and they worry for their friend. They worry for themselves, too.
Al gets dropped off next. He lives in a fancy apartment building where the new man behind the desk doesn't recognize him.
Al enters his apartment and is greeted by his son Rob (Michael Hall) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright.) His wife is in a back room and doesn't know who just came in. Al shushes his kids so he can surprise her.
Everyone freezes as his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) enters the frame. She sees Al, he sees her, and time seems to stop for a few seconds.
There's some amazing cinematography in this movie. Lots and lots of shots crammed with people, with great depth of field. And moments like this where the camera stays in one place and lets the people move within the frame, giving them all the attention. Al and Milly reunite in the distance while we and their children watch from the hall.
This is a joyful reunion, one longed-for and filled with happy tears. The sort of reunion you'd want for any returning soldier.
Another absolutely gorgeous shot, possibly my favorite in the whole film. All that darkness Fred has to pass through to get home -- it's so layered with meaning. OH, I love this movie more with every viewing! It's one of those jewel-box movies were absolutely every piece is stunning in its perfection. Casting, writing, directing, music, everything.
Fred's dad (Roman Bohnen) and stepmother (Gladys George) welcome him home warmly. They're so proud of him, so happy to have him home. Fred is happy at first, until he learns that his wartime bride isn't living with his parents anymore. He sets off to find her.
After supper that evening, Milly and Al sit beside the fire in their elegant sitting room, not at all sure quite how to behave toward each other. After all, they'd been married for a long time, but he's been gone for years now -- they're not strangers, but they're also not comfortable with each other anymore, almost like two people entering a new relationship.
Al decides they should go out and celebrate. They take along their grown daughter, Peggy, almost like a chaperone.
In one nightclub after another, Al proceeds to get drunk.
Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) is my husband's favorite character in this movie. He watched it for the first time with me while I was preparing for this post, and he said that he really admired how Butch knew what needed saying and doing, and wasn't afraid to say and do just that.
Butch alerts Homer to the fact that Fred's here too, and was asking for Homer. They have a cheerful reunion, though they both know that the fact that they're at Butch's means their homecomings weren't exactly awesome.
Butch gives them his biggest booth, and they all get cozy.
Al wants to dance with Milly, so Butch obligingly plays some lively tunes. Since he's Hoagy Carmichael, he does all his own playing, of course. He also advises Homer to go home and talk to Wilma instead of running away from everyone.
Fred's clearly been drinking for a while too, and he knocks back another drink or two while Al and Milly dance.
He then gets friendly with Peggy, who finds him pretty funny. She's so good at dealing with his sodden advances that it's clear her work nursing soldiers has given her a lot of practice with soldiers vying for her attention.
Milly and Peggy finally convince Al it's time to go home, and they offer to drop Fred off at his wife's apartment building. He stands on the front steps, bewildered by all the names and buttons that loom over him. He tries to buzz his wife, but she never answers.
Milly and Peggy decide they'd better take him home with them so he doesn't freeze on the front steps there. Peggy gives him her room and tucks him into her bed.
She goes out into the living room to make up the couch for her own sleeping purposes, and she and her mom share a good laugh over the ridiculousness their evening has involved. At least, that's what they think they're laughing about -- I think really, it's just their joy at having Al home bubbling to the surface.
In the middle of the night, Peggy wakes up because Fred is yelling things inside her bedroom. She rushes in and finds him rolling around, clutched in a terrifying nightmare.
Peggy calms him down like he's a child with a night terror, and he goes back to sleep.
In the morning, Fred wakes up in what is obviously a woman's bed with no clear idea how he got there. He gets cleaned up and finds Peggy in the kitchen. Fred's very nervous, wondering what may or may not have happened the night before.
Peggy cooks him some eggs and assures him that she spent the night on the couch, that she knows he's married, and that she and her parents were very happy to put him up for the night.
Later, Fred finally reunites with his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). She's a nightclub singer now and was working the night before, which is why she wasn't home when he got there.
So our three heroes are all back home and ready to reenter their lives. Al goes back to the bank where he used to work and gets promoted to a new, better position, but gets reprimanded for decisions he makes there. He also continues to drink too much. Fred winds up back at the drug store where he used to be a soda jerk, no better off than he was before the war. Homer distances himself from Wilma and his family, retreating from life in every way he can.
Milly and Al put their marriage together again, but Fred and Marie are unhappy together. Marie wants him to be glamorous and handsome and free with money the way he was when they met during the war. Fred's too realistic, too down-to-earth now, and she gets bored with him. Peggy feels sorry for Fred, then starts to fall in love with him. She knows this is wrong, and tries to defend her behavior to her parents one night.
Milly, calm and collected and very wise, sits in one place while her daughter and husband move around her. She's the rock-solid center of this film, is Milly. Sensible and patient and wanting to help however she can.
Peggy bursts out with the opinion that her parents can't possibly understand how she feels because their own love story has always been so happy, so how can't they know what's going on with her?
And that's where Milly delivers the lines that form the crux of this film. She looks up at her husband and says, "We never had any trouble. How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again."
Milly knows life isn't perfect, isn't always happy, isn't fluffy and easy and sparkly. She knows that love and marriage are about more than feelings and desires. All relationships require absolute commitment, whether it's a marriage or a friendship, or even the relationship between parents and a grown child.
That's what it's going to take to get these three returning veterans -- and real-life veterans all across the nation -- through their readjustment from military to civilian life. The commitment of their parents and siblings and spouses and children to stick with them however they can.
Milly comforts Peggy, who is convinced her heart is irreparably broken.
Al meets Fred at Butch's and warns him not to trifle with Peggy.
Here's another wonderful shot. Homer's in the foreground, cheerful again because he's learned to play a fun duet with Butch. Al's in the middle, trying to be happy for Homer but still worried about Fred and Peggy. And Fred's way at the back in the phone booth, calling Peggy to tell her he can never see her again. So many people, so many emotions, all in this one shot! Wow.
That night, Wilma comes over while Homer's having a bedtime snack. She implores him to stop avoiding her. She still loves him, still wants to marry him if he wants to marry her.
So Homer takes her upstairs to show her what marrying him would involve. This is two hours and twenty minutes into the film, and only now do we fully see his prosthetic arms. It's the first time he's let Wilma see them too.
Homer shrugs out of his harness, fully exposing his handicap. Without his hooks, he's helpless. He can't open a closed door. Can't take a drink of water. Can't even pull up his own blankets very well.
This is what he doesn't want to burden Wilma with, or anyone else. His helplessness. His dependence on others. But Wilma doesn't see helping him as a burden. She sees it as a privilege.
She's shot in an almost saintly lighting -- her face positively glows.
(Spoiler alert!) Homer gets his happily-ever-after.
Fred doesn't. He loses his job. Marie gets tired of being poor, gets herself a new boyfriend, and informs Fred she wants a divorce.
She tells Fred, "I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flop. Couldn't even hold that job at the drugstore."
Fred decides to leave. He drops off his military gear at his dad's house and heads for the airport, running away from his troubles the only way he knows how. There, he has time to kill before the next flight out, so he takes a walk. And on that walk, he's confronted with row after row of dismantled military planes.
According to imdb, these scenes were shot was a real graveyard for B-25s and B-17s.
Fred wanders through, seeing his own failure reflected in these discarded aircraft. They were so important during the war, but now, nobody needs them. Nobody wants them. That's exactly how he feels. Fred climbs up into a plane just like the one he used to serve aboard. It's dusty, cobwebby, useless.
He takes his old position in the nosecone and stares out, stranded and purposeless, his life without momentum like a plane without engines.
The echoes of his wartime memories crash down on him there, the same voices and images he sees and hears during his nightmares.
This is one of my other favorite shots in this film. Fred is shrouded in darkness, bowed under the weight of his own failures and fears. The world ahead of him is bright, but shrouded and mysterious. He's cut off from the world, trapped.
Then someone outside calls out to him, tells him to get out of that plane. He swings down out of the plane, out of his past, and strides toward his future.
That no-longer-useful airplane is behind him, like his no-longer-useful military life. Fred discovers he can leave his past, not cling to it, and in so doing, he's free to move on with his life.
A few months later, our three heroes reunite at Homer's wedding. Al is friendly toward the now-divorced Fred, who has turned his life around and is going to be Homer's best man.
And with one final crammed-full-of-people shot, we get to see all six of the main characters in one frame. One couple whose marriage has lasted many years and will last many more, one couple whose marriage is just beginning, and one couple who are finally getting the chance to maybe move toward marriage someday themselves.
The war changed all of these people in so many ways, and only by acknowledging those changes and accepting who they are now can they move forward and build new lives for themselves.
Are their best years gone, like Marie Derry said? Or are they ahead? Or are they living the best years of their lives right now? The movie doesn't answer definitively, but I think it leans toward the third option. The best years of our lives are the ones we're living, not the ones we're remembering or the ones we're imagining.
This has been my entry for the Bill & Myrna New Year's Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame. Click on either of those blog titles to read the lists of the other entries into this event!