WASHINGTON — A week before I stood on the National Mall with throngs of World War II vets and their families, I had attended a screening of The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 film that swept the Academy Awards, taking home seven Oscars, including Best Picture, shutting out now perennial favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie is a little noticed gem these days, but this three-hour epic detailing the trials and tribulations of GIs returning from the front was hailed at the time of its release as one of the greatest films ever produced.
At the time, Life Magazine declared it “the first big, good movie of the postwar era really to sink its teeth into current U.S. problems.” Cultural critic Robert Warshow famously thought it worthwhile enough to dismiss it as overly optimistic for insinuating that “the problems of modern life…can be solved by the operation of ‘simple’ and ‘American’ virtues.” Marx Brothers movies were more culturally “significant,” he sniffed.
And yet, The Best Years of Our Lives struck a real nerve. Soon after the boys came home from the Korean War in 1953, the film was re-released to sell-out crowds once again.
Director William Wyler, a veteran himself, wanted to make the film as realistic and accessible as possible. He filmed it not on soundstages and studio lots, but in real stores and houses along real roads. Wyler had aerial photos taken of dozens of cities to get his bearings on what would make a good “average American” town. Boone City, fashioned after the Cincinnati, Ohio, of the 1940s, fit the bill nicely.
In light of all this, it was strange to hear Federal Express Chairman Fred Smith thank Tom Hanks and Tom Brokaw on Saturday for putting “a human face” on the World War II generation. Not to take anything away from Saving Private Ryan, but there are dozens of great World War II movies, and hundreds of lesser ones.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is a cut above the rest for almost the precise reason Warshow trashed it: It reveals the precarious position the “Greatest Generation” found itself in directly after the war, perhaps before the full gravity of the war and its aftermath had dawned on the country. After all, the wounds of the Depression were fresh in many minds. The three returning soldiers at the center of the film are greeted not by tickertape parades, but, rather, with personal demons, insecurity, and an apprehensive community. “With all these veterans coming home nobody’s job is safe,” one man mutters as the vets pass.
Returning to the old ways proves painful. Dana Andrews’ character, for example, forsook his position as a drugstore soda jerk to take to the skies over Germany. Decorated for skill and valor in those battles, he returns to a country with no use for bombardiers. The girl he married two weeks before departing for the war now openly scorns him. His war nightmares and lack of employment are a real drag on the romance once stoked by the sight of a man in uniform and Parisian scarves and perfumes. Forced to return to his old employer, now bought up by a larger company, Andrews laments openly that the time has come to “wake up and realize I’m not an officer and a gentleman anymore” but “just another soda jerk out of a job.”
Likewise, Homer Parrish returns from the war with hooks for hands and an inferiority complex that threatens to destroy the love of his life. Parrish was played by Harold Russell, a man who had actually lost his hands in a training accident during the war. Russell remains the only person to win two Oscars for the same role — one for Best Supporting Actor, the other a Special Oscar for bringing “hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” The pity of those he loves drives him into a deep depression. Unsurprisingly, Russell’s performance is revealing and heartfelt, even if Warshow complains that the film only uses Russell to sell something unreal as reality.
Fredric March portrays Al Stephenson, a banker who feels ill at ease with both his family and his upper-crust coworkers. No one understands him the way the other vets understand him, despite their divergent socioeconomic backgrounds. The vets greet each other, although barely acquaintances, with more gusto than they can muster up for their family or old friends. Everyone is hurting, everyone is confused.
In one telling scene, March presents his son with some of the spoils of war — a Japanese flag and a samurai sword. Unimpressed by the gifts, the son instead lectures his father on the “significance” the Japanese attach to “family relations” and asks if his father had noticed “any of the effects of radiation” on the survivors at Hiroshima. “No, should I have?” March asks, a bit overwhelmed by his son’s insistence on humanizing the men who a short time ago had been shooting at him.
AFTER BEING SCOLDED BY his boss for giving a bank loan to a young, poor vet without collateral, March shows up to a office party drunk, excoriating the old miser publicly by telling the uncomfortable crowd that he once had been ordered to take a hill, but refused because doing so required “considerable risk” and his commanding officer had no “collateral.” “So we didn’t take the hill and we lost the war,” he finishes. March goes on to moralize about his proto-Reaganite view of the future of banking. “Some will say we’ll be gambling with the creditors’ money,” he orates in support of the GI Loan program. “And we will be. We’ll be gambling on the future of this country.”
It is clear March’s character is operating under a new paradigm. For example, about midway through the film, March’s daughter Peggy and Andrews fall in love and have a brief affair of the heart. Peggy admits this to her parents, and much to their horror, declares that she’s “going to break that marriage up!” March responds by calling a meeting with Andrews and threatening him with physical violence if he ever sees Peggy again. It seems unlikely March would have been so viscerally masculine before his trip to the front lines.
And then there’s the Reform Party-type guy who slovenly accuses the amputee, of all people, of having “fought the wrong people.” “The Germans and the Japs had nothing against us,” he sneers. “They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds. And they would have whipped them, too, if we didn’t get deceived into the war by a bunch of Washington radicals.”
Andrews punches the guy out because Russell doesn’t have the hands to do it, but Russell does snip the American flag pin off the offender’s lapel with his hook, gently placing it into his own pocket. The brute’s membership in Club America has apparently been revoked. This is one point I agree with Warshow on: Not everything to come out of our intervention in World War II was picture perfect — for example, godless communists gaining control over half of Europe. By making the man, as Warshow writes, “a fascist sympathizer,” his argument is too easily dismissed.
But for every ying in The Best Years of Our Lives there is a pronounced yang. In the final scenes March is perfectly at ease with his wife, and is drinking “kiddie punch” at Homer’s wedding, the crowd of civilians not throwing him into a spasm of nerves needing to be soothed with drink. Russell’s girl Wilma turned out to be the “swell kid” he bragged about to March and Andrews at the beginning of the film. Though he tries mightily to push her away, she proves her love in a touching scene at the end of the movie, helping Russell remove his arms and then buttoning up his pajamas as he stands there helpless.
And Andrews? Well, everything bad turns good. He gets fired from the drugstore, which is the final straw for his wife who divorces him. On his way out of town Andrews comes across a graveyard of fighter planes and bombers. Sitting in the clear nose of one of the airplanes, Andrews lets his mind drift back to the war. He’s still lost in thought when a man comes yelling for him to get out. Turns out it’s a vet, and, lo!, he’s got a job for Andrews — turning the metal from old fighter planes into houses, the ultimate sign of rebuilding and redemption. He sticks around Boone City, and reunites with March’s daughter Peggy. Since she never made good on her threat to break up the marriage, their relationship remains somehow pure in the viewer’s eyes.
It’s true that the movie ends in typical Hollywood fashion, with everyone content in life and love, and no loose ends. We know now the country was on the brink of massive economic expansion, “All I want is a good job, my own future, and a little house for me and my wife, and I’ll be rehabilitated, all right,” Andrews tells March at the beginning of the film, and by the end you know he’s going to get it. If this is Warshow’s naive Americanism, sign me right up.
“That’s the problem today,” the fascist sympathizer shouts during his encounter with the two vets. “Every soda jerk in this country has got the idea that he’s somebody.”
As the Greatest Generation gets their due over the next few weeks, The Best Years of Our Lives helps remind us that the difficulties they faced did not end at the water’s edge. The story of how they put it behind them and moved on to even greater things is as much their legacy as the long, deadly charges across the frozen hills of Europe and the island-to-island fighting under the scorching South Pacific sun.
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