The film The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable work, because it explores many issues that are still very current today, with respect to returning war veterans such as disabilities, readjustment to civilian life, unemployment, and marital problems.
World War II is over. Three veterans, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) are from the same hometown, Boone City, a Midwestern town with white picket fences, the drug store with a soda fountain, and honest hardworking people, who talk straight from the heart. The three veterans had never met before, because they are from different parts of town.
The three protagonists arrive to the west coast, and they are unable to get on a commercial flight to get home. A clear preference is given to full-fare civilian passengers. They are directed to another section of the airport, where servicemen have get on a stand-by list to get on a military flight that would take them home. There is a long list, and a long wait. Our heroes finally get called, get on a flight, and after several stopovers they arrive home.
Al, Homer and Fred are simply happy to be home, and they celebrate their return with family and friends. What can they expect in areas of love and employment?
They represent different socio-economic levels, and their employment prospects could not be more different.
Al Stephenson was a sergeant in the Army,and returning home to his wife, and his two already grown children, a son and a daughter. They live in comfort in a spacious apartment, in a secured building with a concierge. Al is a banker, and he is returning to his position with the Cornbelt Trust Company, a local bank.
Homer Parrish is a disabled sailor, who is returning home to live with his parents, who live in a middle class neighborhood. He lost both of his hands, and parts of his arms in an explosion below deck. His income will be from his disability benefits.
Fred Derry comes from the wrong side of the tracks. His father still lives in the poorest section of town. Fred was a bomber pilot, and he achieved the rank of captain. He developed leadership skills; he was devoted to duty, and he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Fred is the only one who has to look for employment. He was a soda jerk before the war. He has no practical skills, and he would have to spend two years as an apprentice, or attending a trade school. He is not inclined to do so. He visits the drug and department store where he used to work. He discovers the business has been sold, and they have no obligation to give him his old job back, which he doesn't want anyway. He speaks with the manager who asks Fred if he has any experience is procurement, or any experience in supply. The answer is no. Fred wants to work, so he winds up working in the cosmetics department, with part-time duties at the soda fountain. His supervisor is a young man who used to be his assistant at the soda fountain. Derry is eventually fired. He soon finds a job with an outfit that is dismantling the very same kind of airplanes he used to fly. The salvage materials are going to be used to make prefabricated homes. The foreman is also a veteran, a foot soldier, and he makes a remark about pilots having it easier in the war. Fred is very focused and direct. He says he does not want to exchange war stories. "Do you have a job for me?" The answer is yes.
What is the situation of these three veterans, with respect to love and their relationship with others?
Al Stephenson returns to a loving family, to his wife Lilly, daughter Peggy, and son Rob. Al develops a friendship with both Homer and Fred. His friendship with Fred cools off somewhat, after his daughter tells him and Lilly how she feels about him. She is in love with Fred. Al meets with Fred and asks him "Do you love my daughter?" Fred's answer is a simple yes. Since Fred is a married man, Al asks him not to see his daughter any more, and Fred complies.
Shortly after his return to work, Al is promoted to a position where he has to make decisions about loan applications from veterans. He approves a loan to Mr. Novak, a sharecropper, so he can buy a small farm. He ignores the bank's guidelines. Mr. Novak cannot offer any collateral for the loan. In Al Stephenson's view those guidelines ignore the human value he sees in other veterans. Mr. Novak represents "what people are when stripped of everything but themselves." He is a naked man, who cannot hide who he is. Men of quality are easy to spot that way, according to Al's thinking.
Homer Parrish returns to live with his caring, loving parents, and to Wilma, his loyal and determined girlfriend. She was his high school sweetheart, and still his next-door neighbor. Homer tries to discourage her by first ignoring her, and then by telling her what it would be like to be married to him. He even gives her a practical demonstration about his nighttime routine, when he has to take off his artificial limbs. She loves him, and nothing is going to change how she feels about him.
Homer has a relative who owns a bar, a place where he usually sees Al and Fred. He has a nice relationship with Uncle Butch, the owner of the bar; and he's happy to spend time with him. His uncle likes to play the piano and sing. He's good company for Homer.
Fred Derry returns to his father Pat's place. Pat still lives in the same poor neighborhood, with his wife Hortense, who appears to be Fred's step-mother, because Fred calls her by her first name. He expects to find his wife Marie living there, but he learns she has moved to an apartment in town. Fred simply cannot find his wife because, as he learns later, she works at a night club. He had married Marie while he was stationed in Texas, and was with her for a brief time, before leaving for duty overseas. It becomes apparent that Marie does not love Fred, that she wants to go out every night, and that she has been an unfaithful wife.
The film concludes with Homer and Wilma's wedding. By this time, Fred is doing well at work, and he is in the process of getting a divorce. Al already knows both of these facts, when he has a nice conversation with Fred at the wedding. The road to happines is clear. Fred Derry and Peggy Stevenson are going to get married in the near future.
The best years of their lives are yet to come for these veterans and their loved ones. What really matters is what happens after the war. Problems of returning veterans may have increased through the years, but the basic need for love and satisfying employment will always be present.