The Best Years of Our Lives
Since watching the new PTSD drama “Thank You for Your Service,” I can’t stop thinking about the greatest PTSD film ever made – William Wyler’s Best Picture Oscar-winner “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Made in 1946 (before most people even understood the concept of post-traumatic stress syndrome, let alone knew what PTSD stands for), this big-budget Hollywood motion picture grabbed Americans by the proverbial shirt collar and didn’t let go for any of its nearly three-hour running time. Billed as the story of three returning World War II veterans, “Best Years” laid bare the difficulties many soldiers experienced re-entering society upon their returns.
Unlike Viet Nam, WWII fighters were highly celebrated, with ticker tape parades and plenty of media attention. But, as with anything, news cycles change and we soon forget. Many of the adaptation issues faced by returning soldiers of yore mirror those of today’s servicemen – as deftly portrayed in “Thank You for Your Service.” But 1946 was a different time than 2017. In my “Thank You” review, I wrote that while I greatly admired the movie and consider it one of this year’s best, I don’t know that I learned anything about PTSD that I didn’t already know (or couldn’t have imagined).
But in the years following WWII, most Americans expected soldiers to simply pick up their lives right where they left off several years earlier. A soldier could literally be fighting for his life one day, and home with his family two days later. It’s quite a culture shock, and one that Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood adroitly address. Featuring a big-name cast, “The Best Years of Our Lives” followed the intertwining stories of three servicemen who hail from the fictional town of Boone City.
Fredric March won his second Best Actor statuette for playing Al, a loan officer at a local bank with a loving and supportive family. Myrna Loy is his wife Milly, and Teresa Wright is their adult daughter Peggy. Al and Milly also have a son in college, but that character spends most of his time away at school. Al has returned with a very severe case of alcoholism. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Al, Milly, and Peggy go out to a local nightclub to celebrate his return. They then proceed to hit about a half-dozen more nightclubs as Al becomes increasingly inebriated. It is at this point Milly realizes her husband has turned to drinking to forget the horrors of the war. But in the days before Alcoholics Anonymous, there was a social taboo against admitting a drinking problem.
Dana Andrews plays Fred, a soda jerk whose young wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) reveals in no uncertain terms that she expects greater accomplishments from him now. Their marriage is strained when both have extramarital affairs. Fred’s is with Peggy, Al’s adult daughter, which obviously strains the men’s relationship. Eventually, Al’s drinking causes his marriage to become troubled. Not only was divorce not as common in the ‘40s as it is today, but it was rarely discussed in public or portrayed on screen. “The Best Years of Our Lives” was one of the first Hollywood pictures to seriously deal with this issue.
In the most heartwrenching story of the three, Harold Russell plays Homer, a high school football hero who lost both his hands in combat. Because of his injury, he pushes away his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), assuming she’d want nothing to do with a man in his condition. Their interplay is well-written, well-acted, and tragic. Russell actually lost his hands stateside when a bomb accidentally detonated during his training. He became the first non-actor to ever win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor).
“The Best Years of Our Lives” ranks as one of the ten best pictures of the 1940s, and the best film about PTSD ever made (even though that wasn’t even a term back then). The new “Thank You for Your Service” is also a very good film. Watch the new movie first; it has a modern sensibility about it, and (obviously) doesn’t seem dated. Then seek out “The Best Years of our Lives” to see one of the great landmark achievements in Hollywood history.
Andy Ray’s reviews of current films appear on http://www.artschannelindy.com/