The first war movie to win the BAFTA Best Picture prize

The Best Years Of Our Lives
Share this Article:

In our old movies focus, we go back to the very first winner of BAFTA’s Best Picture gong: The Best Days Of Our Lives.


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

Last Sunday saw the 76th BAFTA Awards, hosted by Richard E. Grant, and Alison Hammond. The awards were a glitzy and glam affair with the greatest movies of the year sparring it out at Royal Festival Hall. German drama All Quiet On The Western Front Scooped up the biggest award with Best Film, and dominated the BAFTAs by winning seven awards, followed closely by The Banshees Of Inisherin and Elvis.

Now I am not saying that the British awarding body loves their wartime dramas, but did you know the first ever winner of the BAFTA for Best Film, back in 1947 was, well, a wartime drama?

To celebrate the BAFTAs, I am taking a look at the first ever BAFTA winner for Best Film – The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Released in 1946, and based on novel Glory For Me by MacKinlay Kantor, William Wyler’s groundbreaker revolves around three soldiers – USAAF bombardier captain Fred Derry, U.S. Navy petty officer Homer Parrish, and U.S Army sergeant Al Stephenson – who happen to meet on the plane back to their hometown in Boone City. There they struggle to assimilate to civilian life and the ramifications of the war.

Also scooping up the Academy Award for Best Film, The Best Years Of Our Lives is often cited as one of the greatest post-war movies that dug into the aftermath of World War II on the veterans and the small-town lives that they had left behind. As such, the three men tackle with the personal ramifications of war – such as PTSD, poverty, and prejudices.

Whilst some of these sequences are obvious such as the celebrated Fred Parry struggling to make-ends meet in his old job, some are delicately threaded in, like Al Stephenson’s dependency on alcohol.

This examination of the difficulties faced is beautifully spun as these initial strangers become fast friends, weaving through their woes and wonders together, alongside their family members’ who strain to understand their strife.

A lot of the film’s triumphs come from the three leading actors: Harold Russell, Fredric March, and Dana Andrews.

Throughout his many years of performing, you could say that Fredric March’s greatest talent is playing drunk (that and a scientist with a monstrous side.) Here is no different. As Al Stephenson, his work and home life unravel due to his excessive drinking. Stephenson cannot assimilate to his upper middle-class world at the bank, especially as they prop him up as a hero whilst denying other veterans work. March is commanding as man slowly undoing – unravelling with the weight of this old world that cannot accommodate him anymore.

Dana Andrews’ journey is a familiar one – even now. Andrews plays Fred Parry, a captain who was widely celebrated during the war. At home, his wife has left him, he no longer has his soda jerk job, and he suffers from PTSD during the night. All those awards meaningless, all that heroism laughable in the face of cruel customers and retail work. Whilst everything slips out of his life, Parry grapples with his cheating wife (the brilliant Virginia Mayo) and his regular nightmares. Andrews is not only wonderful in this devastating journey, he also manages to be soft and tender as he falls for Al’s daughter Peggy.

The Best Years Of Our Lives

Despite March winning the Oscar for Best Lead Actor, The Best Years Of Our Lives is truly Harold Russell’s film. Going into the film, Russell was not a professional performer which I think only adds to the movie because as Homer Parrish, Russell produces one of the most naturalistic and incredible performances in cinematic history.

Russell lost both his hands during military service and, it can be said, he brought those experiences and that pain forward to Homer. As the young, newly disabled man attempts to meet his new circumstances with aplomb, his family, and his childhood sweetheart Wilma (played greatly by Cathy O’Donnell) also deal with the fallout.

But what’s more captivating is the times where Homer really struggles with his now lack of independence and how he views his own disability, often angry at other characters for their pity long before they have a chance to cast it. In one tender scene, he snaps at his younger sister and her friends as their curious child eyes towards him, and he starts pushing Wilma away despite her insistence on staying. Russell tremendously brings this quiet, heartache and determination to the character. It is a tender, captivating performance that will leave you in tears during the conclusion.

After being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, many saw Russell’s chances of winning slim. So, the Academy Board of Governors gifted him an Academy Honorary Award for “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance” However, delightfully, Russell did, in fact, win the Oscar, making him the only actor who has received two Oscars for the same performance.

The way Wyler directs makes this three-hour long venture worthwhile, flitting through the three men and their foibles. I know it is said a lot about long films, but it doesn’t feel like three hours whilst watching. There’s also some incredible technical direction and cinematography.  Such as the use of framing: Wyler creates incredible scenes of depth, where a jovial moment could be taking place in the forefront, and another life could fall apart in the background. It’s exceptionally put together. A marvel on all fronts.

From title alone, The Best Years Of Our Lives may seemingly across as a celebration of the war but as the final sequence comes to fruition, the title becomes more biting. But perhaps, then, The Best Years Of Our Lives isn’t the war – as the title suggests –  nor is it the world they knew beforehand. Perhaps what the title refers to is the years to come, the years of quiet reflection and appreciation. The years of love and support. The years of family and friends.

The years that they still have, unlike the many who fell before them. Do check the film out if you can.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this