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The Best Years of Our Lives

The same year, 1946, that saw the release of It’s A Wonderful Life also saw what would become another iconic American film, The Best Years of Our Lives. It garnered seven Academy Awards and became the highest grossing movie since Gone With the Wind. Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen were returning home from Europe and the Pacific after fighting in the worst war in history. The undeniable horrors and death, the total destruction of countries and cities, left their mark on every American, both soldier and civilian alike. The story was inspired by an article about returning servicemen read by Samuel Goldwyn who wanted to see a screenplay finally written by Robert Sherwood. William Wyler, who had seen air combat in the famous B-17 bomber, Memphis Belle, was hired to direct the film. He strove for accuracy in the telling of how the veterans were being treated as they return home.

The cast was headed by Frederic March (as Al Stephenson), Myrna Loy (as Milly, Al’s wife), Dana Andrews (as Fred Derry) and Teresa Wright (as their adult daughter, Peggy). It also featured a real veteran, Harold Russell, who had lost both of his hands, replaced by prosthetic devices. We see the former servicemen as they return home to families and jobs in a fictional mid-western town. What they have seen, what they have done cannot be easily explained or described, if at all (Most veterans would not talk about their experiences for many decades, in fact, until Steven Spielberg started work on Saving Private Ryan). They try to pick up almost exactly where they left off in their civilian lives. But this is easier said than done.

Each man wants to take his place back in society almost as if the war had not happened. In 1946, what is today called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, was labeled shell-shocked. Men had been so unbelievably traumatized by events in combat their minds could not process this as well as the “ordinary” lives they sought to start over; they could not discuss these things with anyone, barely even among themselves. They’d seen death up close, they’d seen the capture and treatment of enemy soldiers, the liberation of concentration camps, the slow painful march of the pacific islands leading to Japan – the destruction of a world now gone.

These same “after-effects” of combat were endured by veterans returning home from Korea and Vietnam. Today we have more servicemen (and women) coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for help and peace in their daily lives. The differences are striking between then and now. Medical science was slowly learning about how to treat the debilitating effects of physical wounds and the best ways to deal with them. Helping wounded veterans to walk or use their limbs took large amounts of time, study and attention. Today, modern science and medicine have combined to help servicemen to do miraculous things with new prostheses and exercises. But I’m afraid that the mental effects of combat are still high on the list of problems to be solved.

The Best Years of Our Lives attempted to portray American life in the after-the-war era in an honest, hitherto not- seen fashion. War, once glorified in propaganda films during the war, was now being slowly examined for the truly horrific event that it was. The United States had tried to stay out of World War II (just as it had World War I) as long as possible. FDR knew what was coming privately; he worked in secret to prepare the country and assist Great Britain. The incredible loss of life and the inhuman acts perpetrated in just six short years still defies our imaginations and beliefs. Soldiers wanted to speak of all this but they too, as first-hand witnesses, could not and did not want to replay what they’d seen.

The movie beat out It’s A Wonderful Life at the box-office. It would take that film another thirty years to become the iconic classic we all know and love so well.

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