WAR DOES NOT DETERMINE WHO IS RIGHT – ONLY WHO IS LEFT
The Best Years of Our Lives
Rant by Peter Mayer
In 1946, when many Boomers were but twinkles in their mommies’ eyes, “The Best Years of our Lives” became the best grossing film since “Gone with the Wind” seven years earlier. What made this movie so special? The themes of post-war recovery and renewal, coupled with the hidden grief and sacrifice faced by returning veterans made for a story that still speaks to us.
The movie revolves around three servicemen who meet on their way home from the war. Art is an older man, a banker, who served as an Army sergeant. Fred is an Air Force captain who dropped bombs on Germany. Homer served as a SeaBee in the Pacific Theatre, and lost both his hands in a fire. All three have similar fears and different expectations upon their arrival in their hometown. Homer is worried that the hooks he now has for hands will push away his girlfriend Wilma. Art isn’t quite sure how to interact with his wife or two children, Peggy and Robbie. Fred can’t find his wife, who has moved and works in a nightclub downtown.
The men’s lives have changed during the war. Art no longer has the same passion for banking, and wishes to risk more to help GIs get loans. He knows from his experience in Europe that life is too short for a bank not to take a chance on someone. Where once Homer was jocular and friendly, a side we still see when he is with Art and Fred, now he is distant and detached from his parents and Wilma. They have not seen what he has seen, or lost what he has lost. All the while he wants people to treat him as normally as before, he tells Wilma that he has to ‘work it out’ himself. This struggle paints some of the more poignant scenes in the film, bringing to light the struggle that any veteran would have to get people to understand or empathize their plight.
The real drama is pushed by the romantic tension between Fred and Peggy. She sees a soul adrift, no longer anchored by marital love and in fact at risk of further damage through staying in a hurtful relationship. At one point, she tells her parents outright “I’m going to break up that marriage”. I’ve never seen a pre-60’s movie be so honest about such a wish. For his part, Fred sees the chance for a fresh start, and a way to rid himself of pre-war expectations. His wife has lived as if he just went out for eggs and came back three years later. She has no concept of sacrifice, nor does she care to.
William Wyler’s direction is very realistic, and his use of subjects in both foreground and background at certain points does well to not only show distance but also connection. The acting is superb, led by Fredric March and Dana Andrews. There is a tremendous range of emotions on each face as they feel what is unfolding in front of them: hope, agony, fear, desire and uncertainty.
It’s a movie that could easily be remade today. Films such as “Three Kings”, “Jarhead”, and “The Hurt Locker” explore to varying degrees the plight of the modern day soldier, but what about the modern veteran? What is like to come home to a country that hasn’t been asked in any meaningful way to sacrifice during your tour? What is it like to see other men and women your age who have not served, but rather have served themselves, getting ahead? What is it like to have people wonder what’s wrong with you, why you can’t sleep, why you are prone to anger and depression? What is it like to have people expect that ‘you’ll get over it’ and tell you to ‘snap out of it’? That’s ultimately what drives this story, and allows the viewer to connect with the actors.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is available on DVD.