THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute



In honor of Disability Pride Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), the first film in which a person with a visible physical disability, World War II veteran Harold Russell, was honored with an unprecedented two Academy Awards® for the same role, Best Supporting Actor and an honorary Oscar® for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures.” Russell, who lost both hands while in the Army, was also the first non-professional actor to be the winner of an Academy Award® in the acting category, and his two Oscars® were matched with seven other awards, including Best Director (AFI Life Achievement Award recipient William Wyler) and Best Picture, as well as the special Irving Thalberg Award for Samuel Goldwyn. Wyler, too, was injured during the war, sustaining total hearing loss in his right ear, and he overcame his disability by innovating a type of hearing aid on set in which he wore headphones that amplified sound from the recording system, allowing him to hear the dialogue as it was delivered without background noise. Featured on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list of the greatest American films of all time and AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers list of the most inspiring films, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES explores the experiences of three World War II veterans as they return home with both mental and physical disabilities.

The film was initially inspired by an August 1944 article in Time magazine called “The Way Home” which followed Marines aboard a train bound for their hometowns after years at war. Expecting to find ticker-tape parades and family fanfare awaiting them, the men arrived at empty stations with business as usual. Producer Samuel Goldwyn, whose son joined the Army, was touched by the article after his wife Frances Goldwyn brought it to his attention, and she encouraged him to adapt it into a film. Goldwyn enlisted writer and war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to establish a treatment, but Kantor eventually came up with a 400-page story in blank verse and published it in 1945 as a novel, “Glory for Me.” When William Wyler, a frequent collaborator with Goldwyn, returned from the war, he was brought on to the project, though he was initially reluctant because of his hearing loss; he had also recently started his own company, Liberty Films, along with fellow veterans Frank Capra, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin. However, Wyler was driven to resume his career by making films of social significance and worked together with Goldwyn and playwright Robert E. Sherwood (who was wounded in service during World War I) to adapt “Glory for Me” into a shooting script for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. In Kantor’s book, the disabled veteran was suffering spasms with what is now known as PTSD, but when Wyler saw Harold Russell in a short educational Army film (DIARY OF A SERGEANT) and noticed his ease at using his metal hooks that replaced both hands, he convinced the production team that Russell should be hired to play “Homer Parrish,” the young man who fears his childhood sweetheart will no longer love him as he is. Russell was the first person to be cast in the picture.

Made for roughly $2 million ($34 million today, adjusted for inflation) and grossing over $10 million domestically (nearly $170 million now), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was not only the highest-earning film of 1946, but the most lucrative picture of the decade. It was the world’s greatest box-office success since GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and it was the one of the first Hollywood films to bring the physical and psychological disabilities of veterans into the mainstream, evoking compassion for the struggles of homecoming. Although the American news media had made a concerted effort to refrain from publishing any images of wounded veterans since 1943, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES did not shy away from exposing its audience to the realities of Homer Parrish’s amputated forearms, as well as to portray Al Stephenson’s alcoholism and Fred Derry’s PTSD. The film was famously shot in a cinematographic style called deep focus in order to include as many characters in one scene as possible, giving viewers greater autonomy over which part of the screen they would concentrate on and making the overall presentation more realistic. During the war, Wyler had directed two documentaries for the Army Air Force and applied his new skills at nonfiction filmmaking to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, emphasizing realism within the melodrama. Wyler took an unconventional approach to the production, shooting most exteriors on location in and around Los Angeles (standing in for the fictional Boone City) instead of at a studio backlot. Sets were also built smaller than usual to give the audience a heightened sense of reality and intimacy with the characters, and the actors were instructed to wear their costumes in real life so they appeared more lived in, according to historian Sarah Kozloff. While Wyler was known for his perfectionism and his penchant for many takes, various shots without dialogue were filmed only once. Other scenes, such as those in which Russell performs seemingly effortless tasks with his prosthetic hooks, took over a dozen attempts to get right.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was received with overwhelming praise from critics, with Film Daily stating that the picture “comes close to being the perfect film” and Variety calling it “one of the best pictures of our lives.” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, “It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment but as food for thought.” However, the film’s political ambiguity and its depiction of an American economy stacked against veterans made it suspect to the FBI, which included it on a list of recent releases (including IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) that were categorized as featuring Communist propaganda. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was later targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), prompting Wyler and other filmmakers to speak out in defense of democratic ideals through the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA). Still, the movie continued to play to packed audiences around the world with its message of hope and love’s triumph resonating across global borders. While realism and authenticity in 1946 may be different from their portrayals in film today, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES remains relevant as America grapples with the issues faced by its veterans with a multitude of disabilities from their service, as Roger Ebert wrote, “As long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES will not be dated.” Film historians have widely questioned the title, wondering exactly when these “best years” are, those years that belong not only to the characters in the story but to a collective “our.” In light of the picture’s sustained pertinence over the decades, it is clear that there is no singular answer, and that the past, present and future continue to promise to be “the best years” if we only make them so with the acceptance of our various injuries and impairments, a pride in our disabilities, and our continuing aspiration for a world at peace.

Watch Harold Russell in DIARY OF A SERGEANT:


Watch Mel Brooks talk about THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES from the AFI Archive:

Watch William Wyler accept the AFI Achievement Award in 1976:

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