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150 Films #12: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

In a 1973 interview with Gene Siskel, François Truffaut famously said, “I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar movie. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” He’s not wrong. Even an ardently antiwar film, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s future 150 Films entry Paths of Glory, tends to shy away from actually making the case that war, across the board, is futile. The war in Vietnam was terrible, pointless, and monstrous, says Oliver Stone—and I agree, but would he say the same about the Civil War? Would Kubrick argue that war, itself, is the problem, or would he merely claim that bureaucracy and incompetence lead to unnecessary deaths in otherwise justifiable wars?

Until recently, I don’t think I could have called myself “pro-war” or “antiwar”; my interest in war has always had more to do with an inability to understand why wars happen, what constitutes “war” (as opposed to “police action” or “skirmish”), and whether or not they cause more harm than good (even in the case of so-called “just” wars). As we get deeper into this list, I think my stance will grow clearer. The “war films” that I admire tend to focus more on the psychological consequences of battles than the spectacle of explosions. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love action movies, I love explosions, I love combining the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate. But action movies, even ones with spectacular battles, don’t aim for the same thing as a “war movie.” Generally speaking, war movies take sides: World War II was the greatest, Vietnam was the worst, the Civil War was noble, the Hundred Years’ War was not…

The inherently political nature of war means, of course, that I inherently distrust them. As I see it, wars should only happen in clear-cut cases of self-defense. If someone attacks the U.S.—as opposed to, say, ineffectual saber-rattling by leaders playing to the cheap seats—we respond by decimating them. End of story. Political pressures encroach on that logic. If the government knew an attack was imminent, how could they let it happen? If the government didn’t know about an attack, why didn’t they? Isn’t it their job to protect us?! If a President says, “We’ve been attacked, but we won’t respond until we’ve done a thorough investigation,” he’s criticized for ineffectual leadership; yet, if he jumps on the first scraps of intelligence, we end up playing Whac-a-Mole® in the mountains of Tora Bora while the mastermind slips away to our “friend” Pakistan.

Another aspect of my ambivalence toward war is the moral cowardice of American politicians. I grew up with a military that picked fights like cowards, against enemies they knew they could beat, while backing away from (and often allying with) countries with abominable human rights records spitting in the face of American values. When was it ever necessary and just to use the U.S. military to secretly back Latin American coups (trading a dictator we don’t like for one we do)? Why was it just for Saudi Arabia to face no consequences for attacks perpetrated mostly by Saudis (because of what Saudis are taught to believe), or for Pakistan to face no consequences for housing the mastermind and financier of the September 11th attacks, when we blew up Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a “War on Terror”?

To me, the answer is simple: American politicians are pussies. Neo-cons, especially, have an obsession with “nation-building”—reshaping jerkwater dumps in the image of ‘Murica—but whenever we’ve had neo-cons at the helm, we’ve gone after weak countries we could beat so handily, we often did it in secret. It looks really, really bad to boldly declare we’ve sent American troops to dumps like El Salvador, Chile, and Bolivia, taking sides in their political strife. None of them did anything to us, so why were we even there? Because we want their stuff, and we want a friendly leader to sell their stuff and exploit their labor. That’s not a good enough reason to back somebody else’s war.

Which finally brings me to my reaction to The Best Years of Our Lives, which I’d argue is very much a war film—even if it takes place after the war is over—and a strangely antiwar film, despite its time and place.

Directed by William Wyler and written by Robert E. Sherwood, both of whom served in World War II, the film follows three men who have returned from combat and must readjust to civilian life. World War II is almost universally considered a “just war,” and it’s easy to see why. Not only was the United States attacked, we took the opportunity to help Europe dismantle the worst regime the world has ever seen. Yet, the central characters (Dana Andrews as white-trash soda jerk Captain Fred Derry, Fredric March as wealthy banker Sergeant Al Stephenson, and Harold Russell as hook-handed Petty Office Homer Parrish) don’t view themselves as heroic. They don’t view the war as a great experience preserving truth, justice, and the American way. They’re rattled by their experiences, and they struggle to integrate what they’ve been through into a world that feels…off, not quite what they remembered when they left.

Al, a middle-aged man with a wife, kids, and a good job, faces the greatest pressure to return to “business as usual.” His wife and kids try to understand but can’t; his job wants to exploit his veteran status to run a new program for G.I. Bill loans. All Al wants to do is drink and forget the war. Homer, on the other hand, lashes out at his parents and fiancée, because he can’t shake the feeling that they pity him and/or view him as a freak. Fred, on the other hand, needs money to get by and keep his new wife (Virginia Mayo) happy, but PTSD makes it difficult for him to succeed in the workplace. With the possible exception of Fred, they’re surrounded by loving family members who are willing and able to help—but they don’t think these civilians can ever understand what they went through, and even if they could, they don’t want to burden their innocent loved ones with what they’ve experienced.

This is a fairly bold take on any war, especially one with the enduring popularity of World War II. What makes it all the bolder is that it came out a little more than a year after V-J Day, made by men who truly understood the experiences of these characters. I’ve read a million nonfiction books about various wars, and I could read a million more without ever tapping into what it feels like to return home after war. Like Odysseus, war has changed these characters, made them unrecognizable even to themselves, and they have to adjust to the people they’ve become.

I didn’t see The Best Years of Our Lives until early 2008, after reading about the struggle to get it to the screen in Peter Bart’s Boffo. The major issue for most of the campaign was the War on Terror, a difficult fact to remember since the economy collapsed shortly before the election and diverted the focus of the entire country away from war and foreign policy (attention that remains largely diverted). The film forced me to actually think about what the experience of war does to the individual soldier. The standard rhetoric, either for or against war, rarely focuses on this subject. The left usually focuses about what war does to the innocent victims on the other side—civilian casualties, wanton destruction of historical and/or religious sites—while the right tends to sculpt a soldier in the image of propaganda: they’re all noble heroes with a clear idea of what they’re fighting for and why it’s right, and because righteousness fuels them, they come home feeling totally okay about what has happened.

The narrative that has emerged about World War II (specifically the European theatre) serves both sides. Nazis were objectively evil, and all Germans were Nazis, so did collateral damage really matter? Soldiers fighting Nazis, obviously, were doing the right thing at all times. They all did heroic things at all times. They all fought to preserve freedom at all times. It’s an easy narrative to buy into, even when errant facts don’t quite support it.

I spent seven years watching war unfold and spiral out of control—and now, a little more than fourteen years after that war started, things have only gotten worse—while an aloof President clearly didn’t care about casualties on either side or the increasing quagmire he’d ordered them into. That made it easy to develop a general distaste for war, but like many, I made exceptions for the few “good” and “just” wars Americans can point to and say, “Nothing bad came from that!” The Best Years of Our Lives made me consider, for the first time, the fact that even these wars can impact individuals negatively. Even if the “greater good” is preserved, it can hurt or even destroy individuals.

The most striking aspect of the film, and possibly the reason it endures as great drama instead of coming across like a dated polemic, is that it was not conceived as antiwar film. Though the characters suffer, The film goes to great pains to portray the war in a positive light. I’m not merely referring to the scene where Fred gets fired for beating the hell out of an obnoxious antiwar customer. It notes the generous military pay and benefits, the fact that the Navy provided Homer with his hooks and meticulous training on how to use them, the camaraderie of the soldiers, and the meritocracy of hard work (in which young, poor Fred can rise to the rank of Captain while middle-aged, wealthy Al only reaches Sergeant). The idea that these characters face challenges reintegrating into civilian life is not an antiwar claim; Wyler, Sherwood, and producer Samuel Goldwyn simply wanted to depict what many men had gone through or were going through. It was also a major box-office success and winner of nine Oscars, testaments to its warm reception by the largely pro-war audience of 1946. Nobody, at the time, looked at it as a statement against war in itself; more than anything, the film asks for patience and understanding from non-combatants.

It’s the passage of time that has evolved this film into an antiwar film. It’s a film whose ultimate statement counters the rosy perception of World War II. Even in a good war, soldiers suffer life-changing physical and emotional injuries. Even in a “good” war, combat experiences haunt soldiers. Even in a “good” war, fought for the “right” reasons, soldiers can come home feeling unheroic and empty. Regardless of the intent or outcome, wars leave scars on everyone affected by them—directly or indirectly.

Like the other war films I admire, The Best Years of Our Lives enhanced my understanding of soldiers more than reading about historic battles in a book. They say history is written by the winners, but it’s also written about the winners: the generals and the politicians planning the war. I’m less interested in strategic ingenuity than how combat can rattle the souls of soldiers. This should be required viewing for all leaders. That wouldn’t end war, nor should it; sometimes wars are necessary. However, assuming they aren’t complete sociopaths, our leaders might actually start viewing war as a last resort in self-defense, instead of just telling us that’s what they’re doing.

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Up Next: The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)

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