Remember Rambo? Of course, how could you forget Hollywood’s premiere guerilla superhero? In a lot of ways, he was pretty typical of popular culture’s view of Vietnam veterans. Sure, by the later installments of the franchise his story had become rather farcical, but there were other movies that portrayed similar men with varying degrees of nuance. Vets in movies like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Jacob’s Ladder were damaged, haunted men who returned from war to an America that had little use for them. Things were so much different for the men who came home after defeating the Nazis and the Japanese Empire. After being greeted by a civilian population united behind them, they settled into the comfortable prosperity of the 1950s and all moved out the suburbs. Vietnam vets had no V-J day and returned to social and economic malaise, and so “just couldn’t leave the war behind.” Or so one would think from TV and movies. Eventually Hollywood would tone down the stereotype of the deranged Vietnam vet, but the idea of WWII as the “Good War” persisted. The Best Years of Our Lives might make you rethink how easy veterans of the Second World War had it when they came home. The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three servicemen returning from the war. They meet while catching a long ride on a bomber back to their hometown. Fred is an Army Air Force officer seeking his wife from a rushed pre-deployment marriage, with no interest in returning to his previous job as a soda jerk. Al, an infantry sergeant, already has a family and established career in banking. Homer is a young sailor with terrible injuries; both his hands were lost in the war and replaced with prosthetic hooks. All three men struggle with the adjustment to civilian life in one way or another as their paths repeatedly cross.
As with many of the older films, I became more interested by and impressed with this film when we actually forced ourselves to sit down and watch it. It’s true that I have my own prejudices against older films. It’s why doing this project is good for me – it has opened my horizons. My interest was piqued for several reasons – my deceased grandfather was a German immigrant who fought in WWII and eventually became a colonel, my father also served in the military, and I worked for several years at a veteran-serving organization. The human effects of war have become painfully clear to me over time, and this film presents the challenge of reintegration sensitively and succinctly. Homer’s character was especially compelling, and played by an actor who actually had lost both of his hands in a military training due to a defective explosive. The actor, Harold Russell, was also one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for his performance in the film. Continue reading