It seems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a modern problem. It started to come more to the forefront with soldiers returning from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has now been extended to include a whole host of other experiences. People who have been through any event that involved prolonged exposure to situations hazardous to your physical and/or mental health take a toll on those people. Life is hard enough without being shot at on a battlefield, or abused by a loved one, to name but a few. Films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), demonstrate that these issues have been with us longer than we would care to acknowledge. It focuses on veterans coming home from World War II. Back then, it was understood that warfare could damage people in unseen ways, but it was usually dismissed as something to simply “get over,” much less a problem for which to seek therapy. While that “time heals all wounds” approach to the subject guided the making of today’s film, it is still a great story about triumphing over our demons.
As mentioned, The Best Years of Our Lives is about soldiers who have completed their service to their country during World War II. Our three are Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Petty Officer Second Class Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March), and they each hail from the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City. They have been given their discharges, and they are awaiting the army to arrange for their transport to Boone City. They end up on a decommissioned B-17, which happens to be going in their direction. Once on the ground, they share a cab back to their respective homes, though they each have a moment of hesitation when they reach their destinations. For Homer, who had lost both of his hands while serving in the Pacific, he did not want his family to treat him any differently than they had before, particularly with the metal hooks he now has at the end of his arms. The intense fighting that Al endured in the Pacific makes him rougher with his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and he has trouble connecting with his children who had not seen in years. For Fred, he, too, has a wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), that he is eager to return to, but who has developed a lifestyle that is beyond his humble means. When they each have trouble adjusting on the first day, they all meet at Butch Engle’s bar (Hoagy Carmichael), and proceed to get drunk. At Al’s insistence, Milly and his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), have come along. Since Butch is Homer’s uncle, he does not let his nephew go out on the town. This is what Al, Fred, Milly, and Peggy do, which leads to Fred being taken back to the Stephenson residence when he cannot remember where he lives. Peggy gives him her bed, and in the middle of night she is awakened by screams. Fred is having a flashback to his time flying as a bombardier over Europe, and the nightmare brings Peggy to his side to help him. The next morning, our three soldiers attempt to get back to the lives they once led. Al is able to resume his position at the bank at which he served as a loan officer before the war. Clearly, his drinking problems continue because he gets hammered at an award ceremony and attempts to compare the world of finance to a the taking of a hill his unit had to undertake in the Pacific. Fred attempts to go back to being a soda jerk (hey, kids, that means he poured sodas and shakes for people). Peggy visits the drugstore (again, kids, things were different in the 1940s) where Fred performs his duties, and it is clear by the kiss they later exchange that a bond is growing between them. This is coupled with Marie’s extravagance, and her desire to live beyond their means, which all adds up to further troubles for Fred. Later, Al visits with Fred, and the banker tells the soda jerk to break things off with Peggy, mainly because it does not seem like Fred has his life in order. As for Homer, he is having his own problems with love, this with his once and current sweetheart from next door, Wilma Cameron (Cathy O’Donnell). He feels unworthy of the unconditional love she wants to give him because he believes himself to be less of a man without his hands. It takes him showing her what he must do at night with taking off his clothes and putting on his pajamas, and seeing her patiently bear with it, before he finally accepts her and they agree to marry. The person Homer chooses to be his best man is Fred, who is continuing to have a rough time. After Marie leaves him for another man, he loses his job at the drugstore when he punches a customer who said disparaging things about the military. He thinks he should leave town for good, but as he is waiting for a plane he wanders through a field full of disused bombers. While doing so, he comes across a crew dismantling the former warbirds, and is able to sign on with them as a new source of employment. At Homer and Peggy’s wedding, Fred sees Al there and the banker gives Fred his blessing to pursue Peggy, seeing that he has turned his life around. Our film closes with Fred telling Peggy that he does not have much to offer, but they kiss nonetheless.
Interestingly, one aspect of the healing process that is not covered in The Best Years of Our Lives is Faith. This is surprising when you consider that the movie was produced at the height of the Production Codes’ grip on film content. These were guidelines that stated that films must abide by certain rules, and they were written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord. Father Lord, by the way, was a key figure in the Legion of Decency, the organization that inspired this blog. Still, there is no denigration of Christianity in the film, which is probably how they got away with not mentioning Faith. What is also somewhat unexpected, given the times, is the openness about the struggles with which each of the three main characters had to contend. In 1946, this was a reality for many people, which helps explain why the film had such critical acclaim. At the same time, these were problems about which people typically did not discuss with their peers. In this social media age when airing our problems for the world to see is common, looking at how things were usually handled back then must seem alien. The Church, of course, has always had God as the ultimate coping mechanism. Further, when the rigors of the Faith life get to be too much for our clergy, for example, they deal with it by going on retreats. These are not exact parallels, I grant you, but I bring them up only to mention their absence in the film and suggest an alternative. God really is the answer to all questions when you come down to it.
Not only is The Best Years of Our Lives an older movie, it is a longer one. The way in which the characters find ways to cope is interesting to this reviewer, but may seem boring to many other audiences. I still think it is worth seeing. It underscores how people react to situations out of their woundedness, and that is how Jesus saw the world. As we are called to model Him, getting to better understand the actions of others can only help with that goal.