William Wyler’s heartbreaking postwar ballad seems even more radical today than it did in its Oscar-thick heyday. It’s as non-propagandistic as an unemployment line.
This definitive life-after-wartime masterpiece is filthy with resonant quantities Hollywood wasn’t supposed to know from: real-life ambivalence, disappointment, social humiliation, threadbare hopes, very American dreams crushed by time, adulthood, and happenstance.
Three weary soldiers come home to the same Midwestern town after years away — one a small-time banker too old to have gone (Fredric March), one a grown soda jerk now sourly matured out of his life (Dana Andrews), and one a high school jock returning, with crippling self-consciousness, minus his hands (Harold Russell). Tapping our empathy with his trademarked deep-focus compositions, Wyler often places the emotional flame-ups far across these familiar rooms. But at any distance, instead of mega-melodrama, you get the moments when reunions go awkward, the struggles of going back to work where you’re not needed, the family squabbles that disguise problems that will never go away.
This wasn’t the movie 1946 we thought we knew all about, but it hews closely enough to reality, in a pre-Method way, to punch a hole in your heart.