Sunday, May 25, 2014

"The Best Years of Our Lives"


On Monday, Memorial Day, at 10:30PM EST, 7:30 Pacific Time, Turner Classic Movies will air a magnificent tribute to veterans called "The Best Years of Our Lives".  No war-like stuff here.  Instead it is a true and accurate portrayal of veterans returning home and being forced to make the adjustment from military to civilian life.  William Wyler directed an all star cast, including Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright and Fredrick March who won the Oscar for Best Actor, one of seven Oscars the film captured, including Best Picture for 1947.

The film tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a veteran's return through the lives of three vets; a banker turned company sergeant, an Air Force officer serving far higher in the social food chain as a military man, then returning to his poverty ridden hovel at home, and a sailor who leaves a sweetheart behind at home and his hands somewhere in the distant Pacific.  Each veteran will have to deal with his own collections of troubles but will find their lives weaving in and out of each other's distinctive lives.   And it is how director Wyler achieves it all that is pure magic.

I wish I was a trained film scholar and critic.  Then maybe I could explain the magic on the screen...the way Wyler was able to show the penultimate tenderness of family reunion, or the mental and emotional frustration these vets have as they return home to their loved ones.

There are easily a dozen scenes in this movie where my eyes tear up.  One scene in particular touches me deeply for I have played that scene half a dozen times during my own military career.  Frederick March, the old army sergeant, arrives home ahead of schedule.  He is greeted at the door of his home by his now grown son whom he shushes, anxious to surprise wife Myrna Loy who is in the other room on the phone.  Through some psychic talent she senses a strange silence in the house, something a bit out of she hangs up the phone and looks down the hallway from the kitchen and sees her husband, away at war for four years.  The look that husband and wife exchange, the absurd hesitancy to rush each other,  the silent fear that something might have been lost during those four years, then, at last, the embrace, the kisses and the comforting reassurance that two hearts are again "one" is spellbinding.  

Even greater poignancy is offered as they walk together into the bedroom for the first time in years.  Not a single reference to the sexual is said, or even implied as these two go through the motions of loosening a tie, extracting a pair of pajamas, laying out bath towels...but somehow that bed is "the elephant in the room" and the two life mates are as tentative and shy as newlyweds.  

For those who have not seen the movie, let me offer one more scene.  The sailor, played by amateur actor, Harold Russell, has withdrawn from his high school sweetheart, not wanting to commit her to a life of having to care for a man who no longer has hands.  After several days of being rebuffed, his sweetheart comes into the house and confronts him and asks about their future.  He then takes her up to his bedroom, shows her the rigor of his nightly ministrations as he dons pajamas, then removes his steel claws, and is at that moment helpless to do anything.  Without ever saying it, simply with small gestures, and with facial expression, she assures her love that she fell in love with him, and not his hands.

There are other stories, and other scenes here, all wonderful in their tender unfolding.  And yes, there is some mental anguish that must be dealt with, the after affects of war and death.  But director Wyler makes it all okay, at least for these three vets.  And there is not a false note anywhere in the film...and the adjustments these vets  must make is universal and timeless and true...and so this film touches the heart of anyone who has one.

If you haven't seen the movie, or if you might want to see it again, tune in to TCM on Memorial will be one of the best "two hours of your life".  


Ken said...

I saw this movie for the first time within the last year. I thought it was, for sure, a piece of film work that was way ahead of its time.
While watching I couldn't help recalling how frequently my Mother would tell me how the war years were the best years of her life, but then she talked about one guy who she promised her hand in marriage to that never returned home. He was MIA on one of the Pacific islands, some of the worst fighting of that war. Then another she met and fell for who came home and refused to see her, feeling shame over his injuries. She's pushing ninety now and still wonders about him, asking me to search for him after she learned of the internet capabilities. I can't find the fun in that.
Wasn't it amazing how that movie was also so realistic without all the trash slipped into today's movies to make them seem so realistic?
I think the best part of that movie was the man who dressed for bed in front of the love of his life showing her why he had avoided her after coming home. Amazing how that scene was done without obscenity. I could almost feel his pain. Without giving it away, I loved the ending. In today's world I don't know how realistic that was.
I think of all the war movies I have scene it is probably one of the most "realistic" war movies I have ever scene on a subject not to often talked about. I still don't understand "The best years of our lives". Thanks for the reminder, I'll look forward to watching it again.

A Modest Scribler said...

Ken, maybe I can explain "the best years of our lives". From a civilian standpoint, World War II required that the entire world be involved and committed. Commitment is a fine thing; it ennobles a sets before him a cause greater than himself. It required sacrifice (war workers, rationing, surrendering a loved one for three or your years...or forever. In WWII there were not shades of gray; it was either Hitler, and savagery, or freedom.

And from a personal standpoint, I can tell you that my three years in Vietnam were the best years of my life...not because it was a wonderful experience, but because the constant threat of imminent death forces you to live every moment of every day; something that we simply cannot do normally.

I suppose part of it was because I was young and full of piss and vinegar, and a small part of it was because I was young and innocent enough to accept the politician's view that the Vietnam was important (and truly many good politicos believed in the Domino Theory and believed our cause was just)...but, as I said, the biggest reason for living life to the fullest was the real possibility that it might be a short one.

Oh yes, there are ramifications that I had to deal with, having PTSD when I didn't know I had it, or even what it was back then, or, after coming back to stateside duty and hitting the deck every time I heard the base siren go off to signal the noon hour, or dealing with anti-war protestors, of reacquainting myself with family...and not being able to tell them how it was...or why I am the way I am now.

But, while war is going on, and especially when Americans had our "back" during WWII, it was the best years of our lives.

Folks can't even comprehend that today because so little is ask of them..and so few serve.

Donald Moeser said...

What a different America we now live in.

While history teaches that "all was not perfect" by any means, there was a respect and commitment that is missing today.

Words like virtue, responsibility, character are almost missing in today's vocabulary.

A Modest Scribler said...

Sadly, are right. We are rapidly becoming a nation peopled by "small people", where the pursuit of pleasure overwhelms the soul's ultimate need to be something far better.

Thanks for your visit and for taking the time to comment.