Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Favorite Classic Movies: Best Years of Our Lives.

The Best Years of Our Lives.
This is another must see movie from the same time period as Gentleman's Agreement. This movie is brilliant in that it in many ways shows that some things never change. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives faced many of the same issues that returning war veterans are facing today. The movie follows the lives of three returning veterans, that meet on their way home and become friends and the issues that each of them faces adapting to peacetime life. Please understand that I have not seen this movie for years so a lot of this is from memory.

The three returning veterans meet while trying to find transportation home. The three of them manage to hitch a ride on a bomber that is probably on its way to be sold for scrap. All three of them sit up in the bombardier station of the bomber, which is the setting for one of the great visuals of the move. During WWII bombers used optical bombsights so the nose of the planes was made of clear plexiglass. The shots of from that position, looking down at the US, are breathtaking. It is important to understand that a large number of the people watching this movie would have been veterans and their families. Those veterans had seen what the war had done to Europe and Asia, the sight of a safe prosperous, and untouched America as seen from the nose of that bomber on its way to being the embodiment of a sword beaten into plowshares would have been an inspiring sight for many of those returning veterans. The three returning veterans were a sergeant in the Army, a bombardier with the rank of captain in the Army Air Force, and a sailor that lost both his hands. When the plane lands the three of them go their separate ways but promise to keep in touch.

Sergeant Al Stephenson returns to his life a well to do banker. The fact that Al who was rich and important in civilian life was not an officer but a sergeant is reflected in his new attitude about class. Al is no longer comfortable with being limited by class in who he considers friends or in judging peoples worth. He comes home to see that his children have grown up without him and to a world far different from the one he left. You also see how he has changed as a person. The first thing that a modern viewer will notice are the clear signs of post-traumatic stress.  Al drinks way too much and no longer fits in with his old life. He no longer cares about class because of his war experiences and just does not fit in with his old friends that do not share his life-changing experience. Al's wife Milly has to learn to deal with these changes and is supportive of her husband that she loves.

Captain Fred Derry is a bombardier that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. In his pre-war civilian life, Fred was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. His job before the war was working the soda fountain at the local department store. During the war, he had risen through the ranks to become an officer and is excited to come home and start his new life and to see his beautiful wife that he married before shipping out. Fred finds that he can not find a job and his marriage was a terrible mistake.  His wife is shallow, provides no emotional support and only cares about his money, so once it is gone so is she. Combine that with the fact the only job Fred could find was working at the same soda fountain that he worked at before the war and under his old assistant, that is now a manager, this leaves Fred feeling cheated of the future for which he had fought so hard.  

For Homer Parrish, the sailor, his problems are related to the simple fact that he has no hands. He lost his hands when his ship sunk. His family and friends are as supportive as they can be and but he still has to deal with his disability. His high school sweetheart is waiting for him so that they can marry. Homer has to decide if he wants to “burden” the women he loves with a crippled husband.

How it ends.
I am not going to tell you exactly how it ends because I do not want to spoil the movie for you. What I can tell you is that ending is not what I would call a happy ending but rather a happy beginning. 

My thoughts on this movie.
This movie is what I would consider a must see. The movie deals with subjects that I doubt would ever be covered before the war and frankly were not dealt with in movies again until the 1970s. The heroes of this movie are not flawless men that can face any challenge without flinching. They are tired men that have given more than anyone should be asked to give. They all saw friends die in front of their eyes, suffered wounds, had taken peoples lives in battle and now come home changed people. The movie deals with heroes that have to deal with physical disabilities, divorce, and substance abuse. Those subjects were just not dealt with in movies. It is probably the first movie made where you were supposed to be happy about a marriage ending. Many of the problems that this movie deals with were the same problems that veterans of the Korean and the Vietnam war had to face, as do the veterans of the current wars. I really liked that even as the movie ended, it kept the same hopeful optimism that seems to be so much a part of that time. The veterans of WWII are often called the “Greatest Generation” not just because of what they did during WWII but what they did after the war. This movie is a tribute to those men and seems to predict those future accomplishments. One thing that I did notice was that the two most striking visuals from the movie that impacted me the most both involved B-17 bombers. One was the fight home scene I mentioned earlier where the men rode in the nose of the bomber looking down at the landscape flying by them and the other was hundreds of B-17s, most of which were probably brand new, in a scrap yard waiting to be scrapped, and made into new prefabricated homes for returning veterans and their families. The B-17 was the plane that leveled Germany during WWII, but it was also a plane that was known for getting its crew back home when it was shot up. For US aircrews the B-17 was both a killing machine but also many times their salvation.
This B-17 was rammed by a German fighter. The crew flew this plane safely back to base.

In many ways, I can see the B-17s in those two segments as an allegory for those men's war-time lives. It took them home but was also going to be scrapped to make a new and hopefully better world. It was the end of the warrior's life for those men and those planes, but also the start of a new life as builders of a better world.

Best Years of Our Lives is available for purchase from Amazon on DVD.

Howard Russell, the actor that played the disabled sailor Homer Parrish was a paratrooper during WWII who lost his hands during training when a charge of TNT went off in his hands. He won two Oscars for his role in this film. He realized that roles for people without hands would be limited so he went to college and got a degree in business.  He spent his life as an advocate for disabled veterans and had a dream of creating a worldwide organization to advocate for all war veterans including those of Germany and Japan. 

I will get back to some more technical articles soon but man does not live by technology alone and frankly, opinion pieces like this are easier to write. 
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