The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I will admit that sometimes I think of old movies as being unsophisticated.  That they don’t manage to capture the emotional complexity of our lives, at least not as well as we can do today (but, to be fair, don’t necessarily do in every superhero movie).  I don’t know why I think this way – it’s not a bias I have against literature or music of a different era.  Maybe a part of it is that I’ve seen the signs of a medium in its early years, as filmmakers figure out what they can do with the equipment and what the censors allow, and either I don’t understand it or I’m not impressed.

All of this lead-up is to say that I don’t see a lack of sophistication in this film.  The story focuses on three characters, returning home to their small town at the end of the war.  All have encountered some degree of suffering, though it’s not really a film about what happened to them in the war so much as what happens after, and how these men re-adapt to civilian life.

Homer Parrish probably has it hardest:  he lost his hands.  Though he seems to have adapted surprisingly well with a set of prosthetics (which seem to my eyes to be exceptionally advanced for the era), the difficult part is seeing himself as something more than a burden on his family and his one-time sweetheart.  What’s particularly impressive is that the actor himself lost his hands in a training accident during the war, and so provides the audience with a realistic portrayal of what remains after armistice.

The other soldiers have wounds less visible, but troubling nonetheless.  Post-traumatic stress disorder was not named yet at that time, but Fred’s night terrors and paranoia certainly fit the profile.  Fred hopes to find work doing something other than working as a soda jerk at the local pharmacy, but finds that everyone else who’s returned home is looking, too.  Worst of all, he’s now working as underling to the dweeb who once assisted him but stayed behind during the war.

Finally, the older Al returns to a family that doesn’t seem to have much use for him anymore.  His kids are nearly grown and much more independent.  He returns to his old job as a bank manager, and gets reprimanded for offering loans to fellow ex-servicemen because they’re deemed too high-risk.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story without a romance.  By the end, nearly everyone has a happy ending, which is certainly a welcome improvement over many of those who served.  At the same time, though, I don’t think the storyline is unrealistic or has a Hollywood ending.  I’m surprised at how willing audiences were to see a story like this so closely on the heels of the war, particularly because it does portray the more unpleasant aspects of soldiers at home.  It’s not a victory parade, not a story of heroism on the battlefield.

There’s an odd scene toward the end of the film where a customer in the malt shop argues with two of the servicemen.  He takes the unpopular view (and to my ears, entirely unheard of perspective until now) that America picked the wrong side during the war, and should have fought with the Germans.  I literally have no idea how this character could represent anything other than a straw man for Fred to beat into a pulp.  I’m sure there were some who expressed that opinion early on, but who would say that after the Allies had already won the war?  Nazis, that’s who.

Fred’s parting words to the guy could have been the final lines of the film (and were better than the actual last lines, which seemed as if they’d turned off the recorder a few minutes too early):  “I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done?”

 

Theme:  War

Which War:  World War II

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Nervous out of the service

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One response

  1. Pingback: Meta-post: The Ranking | Year of the Oscar

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