I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #37, The Best Years of Our Lives.
What can be said about World War II that can’t also be said about the first half of Season 2 of Twin Peaks? It was the last time things made any damn sense…well, almost.
Filmed and released in 1946 — back when you could do that sort of thing — William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives follows three soldiers returning home from WWII as they attempt to re-acclimate to the lives they left behind. Dana “No That’s Not Gene Kelly” Andrews plays Fred Derry, an Air Force Captain from a poor family who married his sweetheart after 20 days of dating before he left for the war. Frederic March, in an Oscar-winning role, plays Al Stephenson, a wealthy banker with a job, a loving wife and children, and some sense of stability where Dana has none.
Most notable is Harold Russell as Homer Parish, a sailor who lost both hands in the line of duty. There never has been, and never will be, a performance like this. Russell was an amateur actor who actually did lose his hands in the war. Those are his real hooks and his real personality. He’s the only person who has won two Oscars for the same role: one for Best Supporting Actor and one Honorary “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance,” which was well-deserved.
Wyler — probably best known for Roman Holiday and Ben Hur — served in the war and knew firsthand the difficulties veterans face when coming back home, be they financial, marital, psychological or existential. And his appreciation for their experience shows.
One or two scenes are instant classics and were clearly designed to be cathartic for everyone, as nothing was unaffected by the war. Wives were left at home, children grew up, women were in the workplace, and every industry dedicated much of its resources to the war effort. Soldiers came home to find that it hadn’t simply been life as usual, and families found veterans permanently changed by what they experienced. The two didn’t always know how to relate, and the results were embarrassing, insensitive and often disastrous.
The trouble is that all of this respect and love for veterans merits a far, far better movie. This one limps along on its heart, tears down your cynical defenses, grabs your attention and then does nothing with it.
Harold Russell is absolutely captivating in almost every scene. His character just wants to be treated like everyone else even with his obvious handicap, and he carries himself accordingly. His determination to live on despite not having hands is heart-warming, and he delivers his lines with the sincerity of someone who has been through the same struggle. He’s funny, easy to relate to, natural and charming…
…EXCEPT when they make his character a romantic lead and force him into a conventional actor. It’s then that you’re reminded that he’s not an actor and that the tacked-on love stories that once were subplots are now the main thrust of the action. Sympathy for Homer, Fred and Al devolves into an overlong romance that doesn’t matter. Of its 172 minutes, about 60 is dedicated to engaging storytelling and the rest is filler.
It’s a deceptive bait-and-switch that makes me angry. I care about these shockingly realistic people Wyler created to see him remove all of their dimensions just so he can have a happy ending at a wedding. I appreciate that this film was intended for a nation with sensitive nerves. I also appreciate that many vets came home wanting a return to normalcy but were unable to forget the horror they just witnessed. Perhaps it deserves a public service award, because I’m sure it helped people forget their troubles for awhile. But it’s so slow, plodding and ultimately pointless that you end up feeling bad about not caring what happens to these nice people.
All of that sucks, but are you ready for the real betrayal?
There is one scene which is (surprisingly) not on YouTube, otherwise I’d embed it. In it, Homer starts a conversation with a man who admires his sacrifice, then adds “And for what?” Homer takes offense and asks what he means, to which the man gives vague, broad caricatures of political opinions. Sometimes he goes isolationist, sometimes he says we attacked the wrong people, that the Soviets are the real enemy. Throughout, he keeps hitting the newspaper, saying, “Look at the facts.” Homer’s response is to talk about the men he saw die, that he doesn’t need facts.
This guy is dressed fancily, has a sleazy mustache and vague opinions while Homer shoots from the hip. Rather than being a real confrontation of why the war happened, the only reason this scene is in the movie is to elicit cheers of “USA!” from the crowd. When Homer tears off his American Flag pin, the message is clear:
“This guy is not a real American. Hate him.”
The worst part is that he is meant to stand in for anyone with questions about US motives. Sometimes he’s isolationist, sometimes he’s pacifist, sometimes he’s ultra-hawkish anticommunist. He doesn’t make any sense, therefore, all questioning of US motivations are treasonous. This borders on propaganda, and we all know how I feel about that.
Now, speaking as a descendant of WWII veterans on my father’s side and immigrants from a small Jewish village in Ukraine that was totally eradicated by the Nazis on my mother’s, I have very strong thoughts on the moral ambiguity of stomping some Nazi ass, in that there isn’t any. If anything, there’s a moral imperative to do so. I’ll let Woody Allen say the rest:
But is that all the war really was? Did everything begin and end with the need to wipe out fascism and save the world from their wave of genocide? Are we the undisputed heroes of this chapter in history? Short answer “Yes” with an “if,” long answer “No” with a “but.”
It’s not quite that simple as being “good” or “bad.” In some ways, it was the natural product of the unresolved issues that sprang from WWI, the same way that the Civil War was the second half of the American Revolution. Both wars are remembered as the “good fights,” but the truth is that the Civil War wasn’t specifically fought to end slavery, it was to stop cessation and maintain the Union. WWII wasn’t specifically fought to end fascism and stop genocide, it was to prevent German expansion. The wars would likely have been fought even without the particularly wicked strains of systematized racism that characterized the losing sides.
That’s not to say that involvement in WWII was unjustified. Understanding these things is not the same a saying “And for what?”
Nazism needed (and still needs) to be eradicated, by force if necessary. But the ink wasn’t even dry on the German surrender before the Allies began carving up the postwar world into spheres of influence. Britain maintained its repressive Empire. Soldiers of color returned home from a war ostensibly against racism to their own fiercely racist country. The US then committed its own atrocity with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a war crime, in my estimation) as little more than a warning to the USSR. And the USSR continued to do what it did best: suck. The victors’ exploitation of their geopolitical advantage and even much of their behavior during the war (not bombing tracks to concentration camps even after they were discovered, refusing Jewish refugees, unfettered profiteering) were shameful and a disgrace. So yes, facts are important.
The universality of The Best Years of Our Lives might have been its greatest strength, but it ends up as its most telling weakness. The story could apply to any country recovering from any war, which would have worked in its favor, but it ends up being conventional and jingoistic.
Comments: The Best Years of Our Lives builds up your hopes, then dashes them with dishonesty and lack of cohesion. It doesn’t respect, it panders.
Deserves to be in Top 100: If it were 90 minutes long, yes. As it is, no.
Inspired: It’s telling that none of these actors, though relatively successful in their day, are famous for any other roles. It didn’t inspire any films that came after it.
Next Week: #36 Midnight Cowboy
Last Week: #38 Double Indemnity
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