With our war in Iraq officially over and the one in Afghanistan finally winding down, military men and women are struggling to return to civilian life, often after multiple combat tours. Yet to me, the best cinematic representation of that effort is still "The Best Years of Our Lives," the 1946 film by director William Wyler about World War II
veterans returning to civilian life.
Wars have come and gone, our culture has radically changed, and the role of women in both the military and on the homefront has, too. Yet this story still hits a nerve. Joe Pantoliano of "The Sopranos" fame chose "The Best Years of Our Lives" for his night of co-hosting Turner Classic Movies, calling it "the best movie ever made."
Wyler, who directed Oscar-winning best actress performances of Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn and Barbra Streisand — take that, George Cukor — does feature a tart. Or slut, in today's parlance. And a gold-digging one at that. But though war, peace and gender roles don't look like they did in 1946, the resilience and courage of women hasn't changed.
This aforementioned tart, played by Virginia Mayo, is the wife of Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews). They met, they got married just like that and 20 days later he shipped out. Now the war is over, and Fred is flying home to her in the nose of a B-17 bomber.
Sharing the observation cone with Fred are two more returning veterans: Al Stephenson (Fredric March), flying home to his wife of 20 years and two grown children, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) a
Navy man who now has mechanical hooks in place of hands.
Homer has a woman waiting for him too. They were high school sweethearts, and had planned to marry. She's a swell girl, Homer says. When he falls asleep, his two companions wonder how "that girl of his" will react when she sees him. "I hope Wilma is a swell girl."
Is she? The audience doesn't yet know. But when Homer gets home, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) runs up and puts her arms around his neck while his mother stifles a sob after she gets a look at his hooks.
Next on the taxi route is Al's high-rise luxury apartment building, which seems out of place in the fictional midwestern town of Boone City (said to be based on Cincinnati). Al surprises his daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright), and wife, Millie (Myrna Loy), who seems thrilled but a little overwhelmed.
One senses that the family had, in his absence, established a rhythm. Even though this homecoming was their dream come true, the ground has now shifted. Adjustment will take time.
Last stop for the taxi is Fred's home. His wife is, natch, absent. She's out night-clubbing.
The three new friends meet up at a bar called Butch's Place, where the glorious Hoagy Carmichael, as Butch, plays a cool tune on the piano while he tries to convince his nephew to go home to the family, and Wilma.
Homer explains they got him nervous, that they keep staring at his hooks. Or not staring at them. Butch replies, "Do you mean, whatever they do is wrong?" (Oh Hoagy, I think I'm in love.)
Back in the booth, Fred and Al's daughter strike up a conversation. Peggy is a light-hearted but deeply serious (and very pretty) woman — exactly what the combat-fatigue doctor ordered. Despite Fred's horrible job prospects, nature takes its course.
Their town, Boone City, is a community, a place to heal. Not everyone is rooting for you, and the ones who are rooting for you don't always do it the right way. But there is sustenance. Maybe that explains the film's lasting appeal.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn read an article in Time magazine about the challenges facing returning servicemen. Goldwyn hired war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a script. The 434-pages of blank verse was fine-tuned by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table and a World War I veteran.
Director William Wyler, also known as "90-Take Wyler" because of his perfectionist ways, himself served in the Air Force from 1942 to 1945. He flew combat missions in order to shoot several documentaries, including "Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress."
In an interview, fellow director Billy Wilder revealed that he "dissolved in tears" within three minutes of the opening credits despite the fact that he's "not a pushover," he said. "I laugh at 'Hamlet.' ''
For me, the most touching scene was the one in which Wilma makes one last stand for Homer.
Homer tells Wilma he wants her to be free. He doesn't want her to stay because she feels sorry for him. "You don't know what it would be like to live with me," he says. "Have to face this every day, every night."
"I can only find out by trying," Wilma replies. "And if it turns out I haven't courage enough, we'll soon know it."
Wilma acknowledges that she may fail. All she can do is try. Which is all Homer can do, too. Try to make a life.
These three men in the movie have been through hell. It's the women who will bring them back, body and soul.
Now, of course, women go to West Point. They die beside their male colleagues. Women come home with artificial legs, or with hooks for hands, like Homer. And the men and women who’ll bring them back can still only find out by trying.
Donna Trussell is a Texas-born writer living in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @donnatrussell.