It is often assumed that the issue of disaffected veterans first came to a head in the years following the Vietnam War, when ex-soldiers found it difficult to assimilate into a society that often rejected their role in such an unpopular conflict. In reality, the problem of old soldiers not easily fitting back into the society from which they came runs throughout history. The ancient Greeks were aware of the issue. After the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was full of ex-soldiers who could not find work or resettle, and were often depicted as troublemakers in their peacetime communities.
The problem became particularly acute after the First World War, when vastly improved medical facilities meant that many more men survived what previously would have been fatal wounds. The sight of limbless ex-soldiers on street corners, often holding a begging bowl, became a regular feature of towns and villages across Britain during the Depression of the early 1930s. And for those without physical scars but who had been mentally traumatised by the war, suffering from what at the time was called ‘shell shock’, life could be immensely challenging. Wives and families found it especially hard to cope with a husband or father, usually tranquil and peaceful, who could suddenly turn violent and abusive for no apparent reason.
Even the slightest sound or sight could bring back terrible memories. For one poor man, the phut-phut-phut of a passing motorbike reminded him of the sound of a German machine gun, and he would throw himself screaming under whatever cover he could find in the street to the obvious alarm of passers-by. Others suffered from nightmares that would awaken them, crying out in the night to the terror of their wives.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was one of the first films to deal with such issues and the wider context of American servicemen returning home after the Second World War. Samuel Goldwyn had become interested in veterans’ issues and commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a story on the subject. Kantor, who had been a war correspondent in London, had met and interviewed several soldiers and airmen, and wrote Glory for Me in 1945 about veterans returning home. Robert Sherwood adapted the book into a screenplay, but Kantor objected when changes were made to his storyline. He subsequently walked off set in a huff.
The movie was directed by William Wyler, who himself could have been classed as a veteran. He had spent the years 1942-45 as a major in the US Army Air Force and had flown several B-17 combat missions over Germany, making the documentary Memphis Belle in 1944. He was already a highly successful Hollywood director in the 1930s, turning Laurence Olivier into a movie star in Wuthering Heights (1939) and directing the Oscar-winning Mrs Miniver (1942), about a British family living through the Blitz. He was eager to tackle the subject of the homecoming of veterans after the war, as many struggled to reassimilate into civilian life.
Decorated and wounded
The Best Years of Our Lives follows three men returning from the war who meet up on their way to their hometown of Boone, an archetypal city in middle America loosely based on Cincinnati, Ohio. Fred Derry (superbly played by Dana Andrews) is a captain in the US Army Air Force, a B-17 Flying Fortress bombardier. He looks glamorous in his uniform full of medal ribbons and is confident in his behaviour. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is an infantryman who has fought his way through island after island across the Pacific. He is an older man, whom it turns out has been married for 20 years. Homer Parrish, a sailor, is the only one with a physical disability. He has lost his hands in a fire at sea and has had prosthetic hooks fitted. With them he can do everything from light a cigarette to pour drinks. He is brilliantly played by non-actor Harold Russell, who himself had lost his hands in an accident. Homer is very aware of how everyone pities him and looks on with horror as he tries to behave normally.
All three men are finding the prospect of their return a challenge. ‘I feel as if I’m going in to hit a beach,’ says Stephenson as he approaches the smart condominium where his wife and teenage children live. Homer has a girlfriend, Wilma, who knows of his wounds, but he is convinced she will reject him when she sees him. And Derry has only been married for a couple of weeks before leaving for the war. He is surprised to find his wife has been working in a nightclub for some time.
The city they return to looks outwardly the same as the one they left, with its grocery stores, soda fountains, and banks. But there are many differences. Stephenson’s teenage son is learning about atomic science at school. Homer is told that after wartime prosperity a new depression is coming, and thousands will be out of work. Derry is told, ‘We’ll be okay unless we have another war, but then there’ll be nothing to worry about because we’ll all be blown to bits on the first day!’
All three veterans are given a warm welcome home by their families. Stephenson’s wife Millie (the elegant Myrna Loy) is delighted to see him back. Homer’s family are equally pleased to see him return but he is cool towards his girlfriend Wilma, the classic ‘girl-next-door’ (Cathy O’Donnell), who struggles to re-establish their relationship. Derry is startled to find his wife (Virginia Mayo) living in a small flat downtown, near to the nightclubs she works in.
After a drunken first evening back home, Derry ends up at Stephenson’s home. In the night he screams about a B-17 being shot down, and yells at his friend Gadovsky to bail out of the burning plane. Stephenson’s daughter Peggy, who is supposed to be 19 but who is mature for her years (a finely tuned performance from Teresa Wright), comforts him. In the morning, as Peggy makes him breakfast, Derry is embarrassed and apologetic about the incident.
As the story unfolds, the three men all face difficulties. And their careers do not correspond to their military status. Derry, the glamorous ‘flyboy’, cannot find work. When asked what skills he has learned, he says all he has done is ‘drop bombs’ and knows nothing else. He is forced to return to the store he had worked in before the war as a soda-jerk, serving ice-cream sodas. The boy who had been his assistant, who never left Boone, is now his boss. It is low-paid, demeaning work and does not keep his wife in the style of living to which she has become accustomed.
Stephenson is invited back to the bank he had worked in before the war and is promoted to be Vice President of Small Loans. ‘Last year it was kill Japs,’ he says, ‘this year it’s make money.’ This brings his narrative right up against the GI Bill of Rights. This bill, signed by President Roosevelt in 1944, offered a range of benefits to returning GIs, including loans and funds for college and university education that had been interrupted by the war.
But loans supported by the GI Bill still had to come from a bank, and when Stephenson is generous in making a loan to a veteran who wants to buy his own farm, he is upbraided by the management, who tell him he must be more cautious in future. A drunken speech at an evening Bankers’ Gala threatens to lose Stephenson his job but he ends on a patriotic note and says the bank must gamble – but they’ll be ‘gambling on the future of America’. The bankers clap enthusiastically.
Homer meanwhile is having real difficulty in settling in and turns Wilma away, much to her distress. She is loyal to him and still loves him. Others offer him help. But Homer increasingly becomes a loner and says, ‘I’ve got to work at it by myself.’
There are various twists and turns in the plot revolving around the relationships of Derry and Peggy, Homer and Wilma. It is clear that those back home have very little idea of what their menfolk have been through in the war: at sea, on land, or in the air. It is a gulf that has divided generations of soldiers, who, having been trained to fight and kill, struggle to return to a normal domestic lifestyle.
In one scene at the soda bar, Homer is confronted by a man who tells him his wounds were suffered in vain. The US should never have gone to war with the Japs and the Nazis, he says – they were the wrong enemies. The man says they should have fought the ‘Commies’. ‘I’m just talking plain American good sense,’ he insists. A fight ensues. Derry knocks the man out and is fired from the store.
In another powerful scene, Derry decides he must leave Boone and start a new life elsewhere. The military airfield he is about to depart from has been turned into a boneyard, where hundreds of aircraft have been lined up to be broken into pieces for scrap. As he wanders among the upturned fuselages and the rows of engines and wings, he sees a B-17 hulk and climbs up to his old position in the bomb bay. Here he has another flashback to a wartime bombing run. This sequence was filmed at the Army Air Field in Ontario, California, where more than 2,000 aircraft had been decommissioned and were being broken up for scrap.
There is a slightly improbable 1940s Hollywood ending, which is very much not in today’s style. And the syrupy music never leaves the viewer in doubt as to the emotion they should be feeling. But overall, the story is well told and magnificently performed. Derry, who appears so glamourous in his captain’s uniform, looks far more unkempt in his soda-jerk outfit. Homer seems to gain in stature and confidence as he realises that Wilma does still genuinely love him despite his disability. And Stephenson struggles with a drink problem but just manages to hold it together.
The Best Years of Our Lives was immensely popular in 1946, resonating with audiences’ experiences, both those facing the challenges of returning from a violent war and those who had to relearn how to relate to their menfolk who had been away. It was the most successful film at the box office in both the US and the UK since the historical romance Gone with the Wind six years before.
The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler (he had already won one for Mrs Miniver and would win a third for Ben-Hur in 1959), Best Actor (Fredric March), and best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell, the man who had never acted before, as Homer. In a rather rose-tinted way, the film provides a fascinating insight into the emotions of many in the difficult transition from war to peace.
The Best Years of Our Lives Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay by Robert Sherwood. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Cinematography by Greg Tolland. Starring Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime.
New release: The Great Escaper
A different take on veterans’ issues comes in this new British film written by William Ivory, directed by Oliver Parker, and starring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson. World War II veteran Bernard Jordan hit the headlines in June 2014 when he supposedly ‘escaped’ from his care home in the south of England to attend the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Caine was 89 when this film was made, the same age as Jordan was when he made his daring breakout. He is reported to have said that he never expected to star in a film so late in life – until this one came along.
And the legendary actor gives a superb, frail performance as an old man who can’t escape from his memories. Glenda Jackson is equally moving as his wife Rene. It was her last role, as she died soon after filming was complete. A series of big close-ups take the viewer into their minds as the story unfolds.
Bernie and Rene both have flashbacks to when they met, just before D-Day. Bernie cannot escape from haunting memories of being a seaman on board a landing craft tank on Sword Beach under fire. At first his flashbacks are violent and fragmented but slowly a story emerges. Bernie encourages a Sherman tank captain, Douglas, to advance on to the beach. But the tank is hit and explodes. Bernie blames himself quite unreasonably for Douglas’s death. Rene’s flashbacks, on the other hand, take her back to their first meetings and the glamour of falling in love with a handsome young sailor.
Bernie leaves his care home, The Pines, on the south coast to travel alone to France. He is befriended on the ferry by another veteran, Arthur, an ex-RAF Halifax bomber, superbly played by John Standing. Arthur invites Bernie into his organised tour group and looks after him. The scenes in the French seaside town are well done. The town is full of bunting, with re-enactors almost outnumbering the veterans. There are lots of grateful French citizens and generous Americans buying drinks for the veterans in return for a few D-Day stories. In one moving scene they meet a group of old German soldiers, outsiders to the celebrations taking place. It’s a moment of quiet reconciliation as they all discover what they have in common.
Bernie insists he and Arthur visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Bayeux; Bernie to find Douglas’s grave and Arthur to find that of his brother. Neither man has been before, and, as always, the endless rows of immaculately tended gravestones make for an immensely powerful image.
When Bernie returns to The Pines he is amazed and annoyed to find he has become a media celebrity. Neither he nor Rene see anything special in their lives and in the 70 years they have been together. They just know that they are both nearing the end – a fate from which there can be no escape. They both had to face their mortality back in 1944 and now have to do so again, in the present.
The Great Escaper is on one level the other end of the story told in The Best Years of Our Lives. Unsurprisingly, when World War II veterans first returned home, they were deeply scarred by the memories of what they had been through. This film shows that even in old age, some of the scars have not healed.
Bernie and Rene are not an elderly couple to be pitied. They have resilience, courage, and a strong sense of humour. Both relate well to youngsters: Rene to a nurse in the home (a moving performance by Danielle Vitalis), and Bernie to an Afghan veteran – well played by Victor Oshin – who lost his leg during a tour.
In many ways, the film is more of a meditation on old age than an insight into the long-held trauma of war. But with two standout performances at the core, it deserves to be a big hit.