The Best Years of Our Lives is a 1946 film that tells the story of three servicemen returning from combat in WWII. There are many films that focus on the hardships that soldiers encountered while in combat; The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the few that tells the story of the men afterwards.
Al, Homer, and Fred all return to find that the homeland that they grew up in is a vastly different place. Al finds that his children are all grown up. They are strong an independent people. His family also no longer has a made. Homer, who lost both of his hands in the war and now only has hooks, returns to his lover, but finds difficulty accepting his handicap as the stares or lack thereof really get to him. Fred returns to find that he can’t get a better job and is still stuck as a soda jerk, a lowly paying job. His inability to move up and his overbearing and shallow girlfriend make his life very difficult.
In several ways, the world that soldiers returned to after the Second World War was very different from the one that they had left. Nearly 700,000 soldiers from the US served as soldiers: that doesn’t include all those who served other functions such as supply, management, and other necessities of combat. During the war period, many jobs in manufacturing went to women. When the men returned, they wanted their old jobs back and many also wanted the women back in the household. Understandably, women were not too happy about that. The world the soldiers were returning from was also very simple. It may have been difficult, fighting every day for your life, but there was little mental dissent out on the field. Everyone knew who the enemy was. When Al returns home, he is confronted by his son asking him about the humanitarian consequences of dropping the bomb. Homer is later confronted by a man who says they were fighting the wrong enemy. The men have grown unaccustomed to such thoughts and they don’t really know how to respond to such situations.
Simultaneously, one of the greatest struggles for each of the men is returning to work. Homer, with hooks for hands, is unable to work. Fred is forced to settle for his old work and pitiful pay as well as working for an old companion who he was not fond of. Al lands a solid job, but he finds it difficult to balance loyalty to his fellow soldiers with the job at hand. So many of the soldiers lacked the skills necessary to reincorporate themselves successfully into society. Many found themselves unemployed or stuck in jobs with low pay.
The movie does a strong job of highlighting how some of the soldiers managed to make it through the difficult time. Family was often the only people that one could rely on. Each of these characters ultimately finds a female that they can confide in, someone that supports them through their struggles coming back from combat.