The Best Years of our Lives

Even if you don’t know this classic 1946 movie—even if you’ve never heard of it—you will surely suspect that the title is meant ironically. The movie poster (below) even contains scare quotes that belie the obligatory smiles.

So yes, the title is meant ironically.

We’re all accustomed to war movies that glorify returning vets as heroes. The Best Years of Our Lives is not one of those movies. I don’t know why I had never seen it before, but at least I know now why it’s a classic, despite being three hours long. (Probably audiences had longer attention spans 75 years ago.)

I do have to believe that the film’s portrayal of the life that awaited many (most?) World War II vets was realistic, but it surprised me. Almost everyone else presents it positively, not just the “conquering hero comes home” welcome but the GI Bill and so forth. Apparently it wasn’t so, as my subsequent research confirms what the movie shows: unemployment, resentment, PTSD (not called that at the time), banks that were reluctant to give the loans promised under the GI Bill, …

Naively I had thought that these reactions were unique to Vietnam War vets because it was unpopular; surely people’s reactions wouldn’t have ruined the return of veterans from the Second World War, the most popular war in our history!

But clearly I was wrong.

The three servicemen returning to their small Midwestern city in this movie are both individuals and representative types: one an alcoholic, another whose hands had both been blown off; one who was a soda jerk (a term that I’m sure is longer in use, but was common at the time), another who was a banker. OK, that looks like four—I’ll leave it to you to figure out which two descriptions apply to the same person.

In some ways the most amazing character is Homer, the one whose hands had been blown off. What amazed me was that cinematographic technology at the time was so advanced that they could make the hooks that he was given as prosthetics look so realistic! Homer could do practically everything with those hooks and never wanted or needed special treatment.

After watching the movie I found out that the actor, Harold Russell, had actually lost both hands in the war and had actually become an expert in using the prosthetic hooks! Despite not being a professional, he won two Oscars for the role.

Anyhow, if you haven’t seen this movie, do so. There’s a bit too much romance, and it’s clearly too long by today’s standards, but it’s still very much of a classic in all senses of the word.

Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV