An award-winning WWII film resonates again this Memorial Day
Following a recent study showing that the pandemic exacerbated existing mental health issues for post-9/11 veterans, it’s time to revisit ‘The Best Years of Our Lives,’ a Best Picture winner and movie important on war trauma.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) told the intertwined stories of three veterans and their difficult readjustment to life in the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City in the years following World War II. Hollywood stars Fredric March and Dana Andrews portrayed these veterans alongside Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who lost both his hands during a military training exercise and had only performed once before. in “Diary of a Sergeant”, an army training film.
‘Best Years’ became an instant hit and, within a year, the highest-grossing film behind ‘Gone with the Wind’. He went on to win seven Oscars and two honorary Oscars – including one that went to Russell for “bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans”.
From the average movie buff and lowest rank veteran to the most famous officer, viewers have been deeply touched by “The Best Years of Our Lives.” By the time the film hit theaters in December 1946, Newsweek reported that about 100,000 returning veterans a month were developing disorders related to what was then called war trauma. Today, that figure fluctuates between 11 and 20 out of every 100 veterans each year, and it applies to those who served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. These data clearly show that war trauma, which in 1980 was called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), still exists.
“Best Years” began to take shape in the weeks immediately following Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, when producer Samuel Goldwyn pressed screenwriter Robert Sherwood to adapt MacKinlay Kantor’s post-war novel “Glory for Me”. Commissioned by Goldwyn and inspired by an era magazine article, Kantor’s novel focused on three returning veterans and their uphill struggle to adjust to their post-war lives.
Sherwood, who had written speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was still mourning the leader’s sudden death in April, refused Goldwyn. He believed the country should look to the future and leave the war behind to heal. Even if Goldwyn persisted, Sherwood told the producer he thought the material would be “terribly outdated” by the time the film hits theaters.
Believing that the three characters in Kantor’s story would not reflect the experiences of the vast majority of returning soldiers, Sherwood argued that most veterans would move on and only a select few “would still be afflicted with the neuroses of war” described in the novel.
Sherwood was wrong, as he soon learned.
Director William Wyler eventually demonstrated the long-term traumas of war to Sherwood, persuading him to take part in the project. A European Jew who immigrated to Hollywood, Wyler eagerly enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was sent overseas to make documentaries about the war effort for the Air Force, and he participated in multiple bombing missions. He was injured while filming in a B-25 bomber over Italy and returned from the war deaf in his right ear. He feared his career as a filmmaker was over and sank into a depression, further isolated by his hearing impairment.
As Wyler explained to Sherwood, a film about the hardships of returning home could “save much heartache and even tragedy among servicemen facing demobilization.” Who better than Wyler, himself an injured veterinarian, to make the case for the image’s potential healing power?
With Sherwood on board, the project moved forward. Sherwood and Wyler visited a few military hospitals and heard of Russell, who had been a member of the 513th Airborne Division stationed at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Preparing to teach a demolition practice drill (on D-Day), Russell had his hands ripped off by a faulty explosive. When Sherwood and Wyler saw Russell in “Diary of a Sergeant,» that he had made during the rehabilitation, the pieces of the project began to fall into place.
In “Best Years”, the characters meet when they take the same transport plane back to their hometown. Fred (Andrews) is a traumatized Air Force captain who needs a job. Homer (Russell) is a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was torpedoed. sergeant. Al Stephenson (March) is conflicted over resuming his pre-war post as banker. As Fred searches for a job and tries to cope with lingering war trauma, Homer struggles to find purpose and Al develops a drinking problem to deal with his disillusionment at the bank.
It’s the film’s desire to address the characters’ struggles in a relatable way that keeps “Best Years” modern. Cartoonist and war correspondent Bill Mauldin put it perhaps best in a letter he wrote to Goldwyn praising the film as “the first sincere and honest thing to God I’ve seen about war and its aftermath “.
And that sincerity keeps the “Best Years” relevant and beloved for its hope, especially in its characters’ willingness to look ahead, hardship and all. Russell shared this message with audiences in 1947, as he traveled the country talking about his experiences as a disabled veteran in the cities where the film was shown. He later wrote of the optimism that underpinned depictions of trauma in film: “To me it was and is the most important fact – that the human soul, dejected, overwhelmed, confronted to complete failure and ruin, can still stand against unbearable luck and triumph.
Russell went on to serve as an adviser on veterans’ issues to eight presidents, retiring just before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, legislation which Russell helped shape with his decades of advocacy on behalf of veterans. disabled fighters.
Today, “the best years” continues to find new fans. One of them is Jeremy Haynes, a retired army major who presented the film when Turner Classic Movies aired “Best Years” last Veterans Day. Inspired to join the military after witnessing the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, Haynes served in Afghanistan as part of OEF. He was shot four times during a 2014 mission in Kabul and was eventually sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for rehabilitation, the same hospital where Harold Russell struggled to learn how to use the steel hooks who replaced his hands.
Haynes’ injuries left him paralyzed. His journey to regain his strength and adapt to life as a paraplegic was long and difficult, just like Russell’s 70 years earlier. Watch “Best Years,” Haynes recognized in his characters his own initial reluctance to “give in” to the “thought process” necessary to readapt.
In his intro for TCM, he noted, “One thing that’s also shared in the movie is that when a fighter goes home, it’s that mindset that you can reset and everything goes back to normal. But for most fighters, the battle is just beginning again. …Now you fight the mental piece or the physical piece. The battle for readjustment, which Sherwood initially assumed would be short-lived for most WWII veterans, continues to this day.