Three World War II veterans return home to their families to recover from the worst years of their lives.
The Best Years of Out Lives, a misfired title, seems to have started as a gleam in Samuel Goldwyn’s eye when he saw in a mid-war issue of Time a picture and article about returning veterans. At a later stage it was a verse novel by MacKinlay Kantor called Glory for Me—not a very good title either. Robert E. Sherwood turned this into a screen play; the director William Wyler and the camera man Gregg Toland and a few hundred others turned the screen play into a movie. The movie has plenty of faults, and the worst of them are painfully exasperating; yet this is one of the very few American studio-made movies in years that seem to me profoundly pleasing, moving, and encouraging.
The story is a sort that could have been, and often remains, just slick-paper fiction and its most sincere, and that could also have become, and occasionally suggests, a great simple, limpid kind of fiction at its most sincere, and that could also have become, and occasionally suggests, a great and simple, limpid kind of fiction which few writers of serious talent seem able to attempt or even to respect, at present. An ex-bombardier (Dana Andrews), an ex-infantry sergeant (Fredric March), and an ex-sailor (Harold Russell) meet for the first time as they return to their home city, part to undertake the various pleasures and problems of their return, and meet again at various subsequent times as their lives and relationships shake down into new shape.
The bombardier, a highly intelligent proletarian, can find nothing better in the way of a job than his old place in a drugstore. He finds, too, that he and the girl he married just before he went overseas no longer get along. The sergeant, who was once the kind of nervously well-married, vocationess. rather sensitive business man, too good for his job, who tries to sweep along his uneasiness in a momentum of alcohol, clowning, fairly sophisticated wit, and his real but seldom focused affections, finds that none of that has changed for the better. He is made vice-president of his bank, in charge of G.I. loans, and spends a good deal of his time drunk. The sailor, who has lost both hands and has learned to use a pair of hooks quite well, returns to the gentlest and most touching depths of the lower middle class. His chief problem is the girl he had always expected to marry; another is his extreme uneasiness about everybody’s attempt to be good about his hook; a hideous complication is that he is at once intuitively very perceptive and sensitive, and hopelessly inarticulate, and that most of the people he returns to are equally well-meaning and un-sophisticated.
At its worst this story is very annoying in its patness, its timidity, its slithering attempts to pretend to face and by that pretense to dodge in the most shameful way possible its own fullest meanings and possibilities. Perhaps one shouldn’t kick too hard at a “mere” device, but I feel very dubious about the invention of a nice bar in which the veterans keep meeting each other, perhaps because I suspect one of the dodged truths is that, once they become civilians again, most men of such disparate classes or worlds would meet seldom, with greater embarrasment than friendliness, and that the picture is here presenting, instead of the unhappy likelihood, a hopeful and barely plausible lie. I feel a good deal of interest in the love affair that develops between Andews and the banker’s daughter, played by Teresa Wright, but again they have made it easy for themselves by showing Andrews’s wife to be a bag, and they atone for this convenience only in part by making her as well-meaning and sympathetic and essentially innocent as, in the terms invented for her, she could be. Thanks to much of the writing and all of the playing, this illicit affair is by implication remarkably real and mature; but in action, in the good old inevitable Sunday School way, the extra-marital activities are limited to a single Andrews-Wright kiss and a boy-friend, for Andrew’s wife, lolling in his shirtsleeves; and it is the wide who asks for a divorce.