1946: The Best Years of our Lives

(Originally published December 26, 2013)

An all-star cast including Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews,Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell comes together in The Best Years of our Lives to dramatize three soldiers’ experiences returning to civilian life from World War II.

The film opens with these three men flying home for the first time after the War has ended.  They admire the landscape of the United States from the airplane and they talk about their contribution to the military and about the girls to whom they are returning. The men have never met before; one was a bomb-dropper, one was a captain, and one was a sailor in the War.  They are slightly different ages.  The captain is in his 50s, married for 20 years.  The bomb-dropper is in his thirties, married less than 20 days before deployment to a gal he met on base.  The sailor is in his early 20s, returning to his next door neighbor high school sweetheart; they aren’t married yet.  The sailor has no hands, only hooks that resemble pinchers.  They have considerable dexterity (he can light a cigarette), but they lack the tenderness he deeply wants to bestow to his girl upon his return.  The conversations lapses, the men seemingly lost in an array of personal emotions.

As the men share a taxi through town, they agree to reconvene sometime at the sailor’s favorite bar.  One by one, the men go home, alternately terrified and excited, none of them knowing what to expect.

The rest of the film unfolds each man’s story a little at a time.  The older man, the captain, is met by a delighted wife and grown children.  Although plagued by some internal turmoil, he settles into family life fairly easily and his former employer restores his job.

The middle man, the ex-bomber, faces the most external conflict.  He discovers that his wife of <20 1946=”” 24=”” a=”” actually=”” and=”” at=”” back=”” builds=”” cannot=”” captain=”” cares=”” company.=”” crashes=”” daughter=”” days=”” discovers=”” e=”” fact=”” film=”” find=”” first=”” font=”” for=”” friendship=”” has=”” he=”” her…while=”” her=”” him.=”” his=”” home=”” hours=”” in=”” is=”” job=”” kisses=”” married=”” move=”” n=”” nbsp=”” nightclub=”” of=”” pleasant=”” quickly=”” rather=”” risque=”” s=”” still=”” taken=”” that=”” the=”” their=”” to=”” town.=”” wife.=””>

Although she is thrilled to see him at first, we begin to see that she really only liked him in military clothes…literally (she says so) and figuratively.  She becomes increasingly disrespectful and refuses to understand his struggles to get a job.  Her military get-rich-quick scheme quickly comes crashing down and, to be honest, because of the aforementioned plot twists, it’s a bit of a relief to see her reject him.

The sailor faces the most internal conflict.  To a female viewer who has never experienced war and still has the use of both hands, many of the sailor’s actions seem very selfish. Because he has not yet come to terms with the emotional fallout of having no hands, he actually pushes his love away for much of the film.

Most provocative quote: At the very beginning of the film, while still in the airplane, the captain says, “What scares me most [about civilian life] is people trying to rehabilitate me.”

This quote really got me thinking because I have friends who are coming back from an overseas war.  Is this how they feel?  Would they like to be left alone?  The film touched another similar nerve with its portrayal of civilians interviewing veterans for jobs upon return from combat.  The civilians in the film are surprisingly condescending; they treat the veterans as incompetent because they have “no experience.”  It is also difficult for the veterans to get loans because they don’t have any collateral.  I’d never considered this before.  Excuse me, didn’t they just have to learn an incredibly difficult job that involved precision, following orders, and working together?  I’m pretty sure that should qualify anyone to carry out most civilian jobs upon return, even if their specific qualifications aren’t a perfect match. That said, it was hopeful and heartwarming to see the veterans helping each other with both job placement and loan acquisition, even at the expense of their own advancement.

Each man experiences intense scenes of conflict with himself and his relationships.  The most tender scene occurs between the sailor and his sweetheart.  At this point, he has pushed her away repeatedly and this is his last opportunity to commit before she moves away to get over him.  It’s late at night and he is grabbing a midnight snack when she knocks at the door.  He cannot bring himself to melt into her arms…so instead he invites her upstairs to see him get ready for bed.  It is at this point in the day that he is completely helpless; once he takes his pincher hands off to sleep, he cannot button his nightshirt, tuck himself in, or open the bedroom door should it blow shut.  He allows his girl to see him in this state; essentially he bears his deepest soul wound.  And she takes his heart and holds it gently.  As a female, I knew she would see the no-hand situation as a totally manageable obstacle, relatively no big deal, because her character obviously adores the sailor on a deep, committed level.  She was just so happy to have him home alive.

Everything else is also resolved satisfactorily and I highly recommend this film.

Questions I asked as the film progressed:

–Is the captain’s wife having an affair? (I couldn’t tell if her pleasure was genuine; my inner Hollywood cynic made an appearance here)
–Is this going to be a film of internal or external conflict? (both)
–Will there be a love story between the middle man and the captain’s daughter? (not telling)

Themes:
Unity among soldiers lasts beyond military situations
The sanctity of marriage and the importance of fighting for it and falling in love all over again
The importance of commitment
Patriotism
Overcoming emotional and physical barriers to move forward

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