- - Thursday, May 19, 2016


Saturday is Armed Forces Day, a day set aside to honor the men and women serving in the various branches of the military. Seventy years ago, one of the best movies about soldiers representative of branches of the armed forces was made. “The Best Years of Our Lives” recounts the story of eager-to-return-home servicemen from World War II living once again in their hometowns.

The 1946 film focuses on three combat-fatigued veterans, the first, Infantry Sgt. Al Stephenson (played by Fredric March), returning to his ritzy apartment, his job as a banking officer, and to wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two grown children, daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and son Rob (Michael Hall). The second returnee is Air Force Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a former soda jerk returning to shantytown and an unloving wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), who wants a divorce. And the last is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who served in the Navy, losing both hands (an actual fact of his war service) and relying on what all regard as “hooks,” not prosthetics. He is going home to his solid middle-class parents and longtime, next-door girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).

All three men come home on the same plane, and their lives intermingle, meeting at the same saloon the same night of their arrival. They drink and laugh, and an inebriated Al dances with his wife to their favorite song, is shuffled home and immediately falls asleep. Rebuffed by his wife, Fred soon becomes interested in Peggy, Al’s daughter, and Homer simply dreads the uncomfortable emotion of coming home to parents and Wilma.

As the story unfolds, Al, who drinks too much, finds his upgraded job at the bank is without merit because the institution has no interest in his having served his country and even less in providing loans to returnees without collateral. Fred is forced to return to his drugstore employment, and Homer is embarrassed before all, especially Wilma, who loves him dearly.

In one of the most poignant scenes, Homer takes Wilma to his bedroom to illustrate his total dependency were he to marry her. “This is when I know I’m helpless,” he tells her firmly. “My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody to help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If the door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.”

In spite of its nearly three-hour length, the black-and-white movie is lean on words and heavy on shifting scenes of subtle disquiet, and although Homer and Wilma marry at the end, the revelry is nuanced by Al’s boozing, workplace tedium and opposition to Fred’s interest in his daughter. And Fred, still hoping one day to wed Peggy, ends up in the junk business, converting old bombers into scrap metal, no matter that it is discovered at movie’s end — only by his family rummaging through his duffel bag — that Fred was highly decorated for bravery.

What the movie conveys is that the best years of these three men were in the service. There they knew the rules of engagement, as well as their risks and rewards. Each man had the other’s back, whereas at home they confront not only the recurring nightmares of their combat experience but strained and speechless loved ones.

The film was the first to win eight Academy Awards, including best picture, and was second at the time only to “Gone With the Wind” in box office receipts. Harold Russell was the only person in moviedom’s history to win two Oscars — one honorary in support of all veterans, the other for best supporting actor. Tragically, the film became the actual history of an ungrateful nation. In 1992, Russell, like servicemen to this day not fully backed by their government, had to sell one of his Oscars to make ends meet.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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