Take 15: The Best Years of Our Lives

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 66: Red River. There will be spoilers.

I was a little concerned at the top of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives that I was about to endure three hours of post war, ultra-patriotriotic, propaganda. The modern perspective on World War II shows a unified vision, it was a moral war and a hard fought victory over tyranny that could only be vanquished by American brand freedom. The whole spate of WWII cinema often hits me as trite, and I was mentally prepared to dismiss the content as overly romanticized. What I experienced was something very distant from my expectations.

There is a mythology surrounding the Greatest Generation — a collection of Americans who grew up in the Great Depression, many of whom watched their parents feel the impacts of the “war to end all wars”, only to then be called upon themselves to serve amidst the rise of Nazism. This class of Americans is held in the highest tier of respect from a modern vantage point, evidenced by the continual production of World War II films lauding their heroism. Depictions of the post war years occasionally glorify the GI Bill of 1944, which is widely credited with enabling the foundation of the American middle class and the establishment of a large spate of small businesses, the growth of the franchise system, and ultimately, catalyzing the establishment of our huge number of suburban communities.

What I saw unfold over The Best Years of Our Lives was something quite different. The story is a three part narrative seen through the eyes of a Navy Sailor, an Air Force Captain, and an Army Sergeant. The three of them meet on the hop home to Boone City, Iowa after the war has ended. They share a cab, and each of them displays visible anxiety as they near their former lives. There is great excitement, of course, but also a sense of dread and concern, most notably from the Sailor, Homer Parrish, played by Harold Russell, who lost both hands when his ship sank. In their place, are two hooks which he uses deftly and with humor when interacting with the other soldiers, but wants to hide in front of his family and his “girl” who waited for him to return home. I teared up when he exited the cab and stood awkwardly at a distance from all of the people he loved, sizing each other up, before melting into embrace. It stirred the same feelings as those viral videos of soldiers returning home from active duty to surprise their kids at school — evoking a particular kind of heart stirring sadness and beauty.

The other men watch the reunion from the back of the cab, and they each experience a similar flare up of worry when they approach their homes. Sergeant Al Stephenson, played by Fredric March, returns to his longtime wife and children. Captain Fred Durry, played by Dana Andrews, returns to a wife he barely knows, who he married after 20 days before being deployed to the war effort for a number of years. The reunions are uniformly mixed. There is excitement and joy at the soldiers’ safe return from peril, but there is also the awkward reacquainting process. This is the most prevalent theme of the film. The men who came home were not the same men who left, and the people they left behind had changed too. Sergeant Stephenson returns to teenagers with opinions and jobs that he had left behind as small children. Captain Durry returns to parents who were alone, a wife with whom he had confused lust for love, and who has gotten along perfectly fine without him (although she did appreciate the spousal support checks).

Over the rest of the film we see a reckoning unfold between the America that existed when the men left, and the new one that formed in their absence. They all have trouble adjusting, accepting that the thing they longed for most — normalcy at home with their loved ones — may never be attainable. In the immortal words of Tom Wolfe, “you can’t go home again.” There were many times I was reminded of American Sniper or The Hurt Locker, as the men suffered from nightmares or turned to drink to drown out the ghosts that followed them home from Japan, or Germany, or the Pacific.

They want to be known for who they have become, and that means breaking an illusion they helped to create. Homer lost his hands, but not his sense of humor, he is the most eager to prove he’s the same man he was before the war. On the other hand, Al’s former boss at the bank begs him to return to his previous position, hoping to leverage his veteran status in order to justify denying veterans access to GI Bill loans. Al resents his boss, the bank, and the suggestion that life should return to normal. Lastly, Fred, a decorated war hero, reluctantly crawls back to his soda jerk job at the drugstore, reporting to the boy who did not go to the war but stayed behind to climb at the company.

In a moment that feels widely out of place for 1946, Homer and Fred meet and confront a war dissenter who suggests that Homer lost his hands for no reason and that the US fought for the wrong side. I have never seen a character express those sentiments about WWII, and the effect was stark from the vantage point of 2021, by which point we have seen massively unpopular wars in both Vietnam and across the middle east. This is the moment they all crack, where everything comes pushing out from under their control. Their pain is palpable and not saccharine. They left to save the world out of a sense of duty and returned to find a nation that needed them less than they believed. There is deep sadness as they reconcile these truths.

All of that said, there are happy endings all around as everyone finds someone to love and something to do. Throughout all of this there are love stories for each of returning men and while these subplots align more closely to stereotypical narratives we’ve all seen before, there is something sweetly profound about how the women each interact with their fractured men. Yet, the beauty of the film rests in the vulnerability of fearless men, the men who saved freedom in the west, in allowing them to expose their pain. Fred’s divorce feels especially risky in the framework of 1946, and his pain is at times the most searing. When he cracks, loses his job, accepts that his marriage is over, and attempts to flee Boone City, it leads to the crown jewel scene of the film — when Fred walks through the scrap yard of old Air Force fighter jets the effect is haunting. His brokenness is reflected everywhere he looks, as he wanders among the machines that saved the free world but no longer have a purpose.

Watching movies and writing essays.

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Jessie McAskill

Jessie McAskill

Watching movies and writing essays.

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