I’m far from a movie buff, but I’d love to become one. So my strategy, for better or worse, is to watch every Best Picture winner. A daunting task for someone who hasn't even seen Jaws. To save you a ton of time, I’ll document my adventure here, and we can become movie buffs together.
Looking at 1940s Best Picture winners, my wiki leads me to The Best Years of Our Lives. As far as I can tell, World War II movies in the 40s and 50s always glamorized war. Teens in 1945 must have believed that boys earned their manhood on the battlefield. The Best Years of Our Lives strips away the romance by telling the stories after the victory parades, which is something I’m unaware of in a classic WWII movie. A little dose of reality. Let’s do this.
The film won seven academy awards: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Film Editing (Who Cares), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. I’ve never heard of any of the actors in this, so that should be enlightening as well.
The film follows three veterans returning home from WWII. Al Stephenson (played by Fredric March) is 50ish with a wife (Myrna Loy) and two college-aged children, Rob and Peggy. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is around 30 with a wife of two years, but they were only together for a couple months before Fred left for duty. He barely knows her. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is the youngest, fresh out of high school and ready to reunite with his sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).
The movie opens with the three vets meeting for the first time as they share a plane ride back to “Boone City.” It quickly becomes clear that these dudes do NOT want to go home. A lot of, “No, we’ll drop you off first,” “Nah, you go home first.” The new normal is intimidating, even for these hardened war vets. What’s awesome about this movie is each character has different adjustment challenges, yet every single one is crazy relevant to this day.
Relatable Challenge #1: A veteran returning with a physical disability
Homer lost both hands in an explosion and now has a pair of metal, albeit quite nimble, hooks. In the beginning he plays it cool, but his new friends on the opening plane ride seem distracted by it. When they fly over Homer’s high school football field, he casually remarks, “I sure would like to have a dollar for every forward pass I threw down there.” As he stares ahead, Fred shoots Al a glance that says, “Um ... that’s a messed up thing to say when you’ve got no hands, bro.”
Homer’s confidence finally breaks when he gets out of the car and has to show the civilian world his hooks. His mother cries. His Dad tries so hard not to notice that it’s obvious he notices. Homer can’t even bring himself to hug his girlfriend.
As the scene plays out, I can’t help but think of today’s vets and the similar emotional hurdles they face. With Skype and email, it’s probable family members have seen a loved one’s prosthetic limb online before seeing it in person. But would that make it any less jarring when seen in person for the first time? I’d imagine that even if the initial shock is dulled, the broader return to normalcy is similar no matter what generation or war.
Relatable Challenge #2: Drug and/or alcohol abuse
Relatable Challenge #3: Change at home
The kids Al left behind are now adults. Almost immediately, Al’s son, Rob, rips open a serious generation gap when Al gives him a war souvenir: A flag from a dead Japanese soldier. Al was hoping for “Aw shucks Dad! This is great! You’re my hero!” Instead he gets a little lesson on Japanese culture and the dangers of radiation after a nuke. Rob reluctantly accepts the gift. Al pours a scotch
Al pours a lot of scotch. Like every other scene. It’s a reminder that alcohol abuse is always a concern among returning vets. On the very first night he’s back, instead of soaking in some QT with the fam, he drags everyone to a bar and gets legit plowed. Addiction is never easy to talk about, but it’s certainly an issue. Vietnam vets had a stigma about it. I’m sure many of today’s vets turn to their own version of Al’s scotch when they return home, but fortunately today’s support system is far greater than it was 65 years ago.
Relatable Challenge #4: Finding a Job
(Also, a bonus Challenge #3)
The relationship between Fred and his wife, Marie, frays within moments of Fred arriving at his parents’ home. He’s informed that Marie has taken a night job at a club and gotten her own apartment. But Fred’s problems don’t stop at home. He’s also humbled, even humiliated, by the fact that he can’t find a better job than his old Soda Jerk gig.
Once again, the challenge many of today’s vets face when trying to get a civilian job is well documented. It’s such an issue that certain companies have even formed an initiative to combat this problem (pun intended) with the 100,000 jobs mission. But taken even a step further, the Soda Jerk job itself died out not many years later. Is it possible a vet could return from war today and find his old job doesn’t even exist as a career anymore? It’s the Blockbuster manager of the 40s.
Relatable Truth #1: Camaraderie
When all these problems surface, Al, Fred and Homer immediately turn to each other. Despite just meeting hours earlier, their shared war experience is so strong, and so emotional, it makes them feel like lifelong friends. Fred helps Homer cope with his disability and his relationship. Al starts looking out for other vets when giving loans at the bank he works for. Al is even willing to trust Fred when his daughter takes a liking to him.
Relatable Truth #2: Some People Just Don’t Understand
Fred in particular deals with a wife who has no patience for his re-assimilation. She constantly complains about money and basically mocks his mental hangups. Fred reminds Marie about that whole “for better or worse” thing, and this is the “worse” part, but she doesn’t seem to care and quickly runs off with another man.
In so many ways, this film bordered on PSA for anyone who knew a vet. I have no idea how well people in the 40s understood how difficult it was to come back from war, and I honestly think today society is much more educated and compassionate to these difficulties. But maybe that’s why this movie was so outrageous successful, both critically and commercially. It wasn’t a story, it was your neighbor, the war hero.
Other random notes:
I have to admit that while Fredric March gave a solid performance, it hardly felt Oscar-worthy. I actually thought his wife, Myrna Loy, was the best, but I might be partial because that woman is the classic golden-age beauty.
Homer Parrish isn’t a good actor, and I don’t feel bad saying it because the guy wasn’t a professional actor. He was an actual war vet with a great personality and no hands. He really got them blown off in war, so at least that part was quite believable. A sentimental favorite for sure.
Finally, I must note that there was a big time capitalism versus socialism thing going on in this film that could have an article dedicated to itself. The economy was a huge topic, as was how much compassion/government help should be given to vets. It seemed to promote a more social version of capitalism, eerily similar to today’s government debates. History repeating.
Does it hold up? Clearly the plot line holds up. As mentioned before, I’m not sure there was a single storyline that couldn’t take place today. I’d actually go as far as to say that this being a 40s film almost makes the story MORE relatable. The dialog is straightforward and the film doesn’t have the dramatic camera angles and musical scores used today. Each character’s frustration feels like a you’re watching it from a human perspective, not through the dramatized lens of a director. It’s like you’re there, just in black and white.
I’d really love to hear what any Iraq or Afghanistan veteran has to say about this film. If there are any reading this, or if anyone reading this knows one, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll admit, I’m going off of broad reporting and don’t have any close personal friends who are vets.
There may be a similar movie from the last few years that focuses on today’s returning vets, but if not they could probably do a pretty amazing remake of this. If a drama about war vets sounds like your thing, I’d say to give The Best Years of Our Lives a shot.