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An award-winning WWII movie is newly resonant this Memorial Day

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ reminds us of the long journey facing many veterans after their service

Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) comforts Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) in a scene from the 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images)
7 min

As we pause this Memorial Day to remember those who have died while serving in the armed forces, it is worth considering the veterans among us, particularly those who are dealing with mental health issues.

Hollywood has given us images of these veterans since the earliest days of film. From “The Big Parade” (1925) to “Cherry” (2021), popular movies have attempted to portray this struggle realistically, so that viewers can empathize with the characters — and, in the case of veterans themselves, they can see their own experiences with war trauma mirrored on screen.

In the wake of a recent study showing that the pandemic has exacerbated post-9/11 veterans’ existing mental health issues, it is time to revisit “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a Best Picture winner and an important film about war trauma.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) told the intertwining stories of three veterans and their rocky readjustment to life in the fictional Midwest town of Boone City in the years after World War II. Hollywood stars Fredric March and Dana Andrews portrayed these veterans alongside Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who had lost both of his hands during a military training exercise and had acted just once before in “Diary of a Sergeant,” an Army training film.

“Best Years” became an instant success and, within a year, the highest-grossing movie behind “Gone With the Wind.” It went on to win seven Academy Awards and two honorary Oscars — including one that went to Russell for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”

From the average moviegoer and lowest-ranking veteran to the most celebrated officer, viewers were deeply affected by “The Best Years of Our Lives.” By the time the film hit theaters in December 1946, Newsweek was reporting that approximately 100,000 returning veterans per month were developing disorders related to what was then called war trauma. Today, that figure ranges between 11 and 20 out of every 100 veterans annually, and it applies to those who have served in both Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. This data clearly shows that war trauma, which by 1980 was called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), still exists.

“Best Years” began to take shape in the weeks immediately following Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, when producer Samuel Goldwyn pressed screenwriter Robert Sherwood to adapt MacKinlay Kantor’s postwar novel “Glory for Me.” Commissioned by Goldwyn and inspired by a Time magazine article, Kantor’s novel focused on three returning veterans and their bitter struggle to adjust to their postwar lives.

Sherwood, who had written speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was still grieving the leader’s sudden death that April, turned Goldwyn down. He thought the country needed to look forward, and leave the war behind, to heal. Even as Goldwyn persisted, Sherwood told the producer he thought the material would be “terribly out of date” by the time the film hit theaters.

Believing that the three characters in Kantor’s story would not reflect the experiences of the vast majority of returning soldiers, Sherwood made the case that most veterans would be moving on, and only a rare few “will still be afflicted with the war neuroses” depicted in the novel.

Sherwood was wrong, as he soon learned.

Director William Wyler ultimately demonstrated the long-term traumas of war to Sherwood, persuading him to participate in the project. A European Jew who immigrated to Hollywood, Wyler eagerly enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was sent overseas to make documentaries about the war effort for the Air Force, and he flew on multiple bombing missions. He was injured while shooting footage in a B-25 bomber over Italy and returned from the war deaf in his right ear. He feared that his filmmaking career was over and sank into a depression, further isolated by his hearing loss.

As Wyler explained to Sherwood, a film about the difficulties of coming home could “prevent a lot of heartaches and even tragedies among servicemen who were confronting demobilization.” Who better to make a case for the picture’s potential healing power than Wyler, himself a wounded vet?

With Sherwood on board, the project moved forward. Sherwood and Wyler visited a few military hospitals and heard about Russell, who had been a member of the 513th Airborne Division stationed at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Preparing to teach a demolition training exercise (on D-Day), Russell had his hands blown off by a faulty explosive. When Sherwood and Wyler saw Russell in “Diary of a Sergeant,” which he had made while rehabilitating, the pieces of the project began to fall into place.

In “Best Years,” the characters meet when they catch the same transport plane back to their hometown. Fred (Andrews) is a traumatized Air Force captain in need of a job. Homer (Russell) is a sailor who lost both of his hands when his aircraft carrier was torpedoed. Sgt. Al Stephenson (March) is conflicted about resuming his prewar position as a banker. As Fred searches for employment and tries to cope with lingering war trauma, Homer struggles to find purpose, and Al develops a drinking problem as a way to deal with his disillusionment at the bank.

It is the film’s willingness to address the characters’ struggles in a relatable way that keeps “Best Years” modern. Cartoonist and war correspondent Bill Mauldin may have put it best in a letter he wrote to Goldwyn praising the film as “the first honest-to-God sincere thing I’ve seen about the war and its aftermath.”

And this sincerity keeps “Best Years” relevant and beloved for its hopefulness, especially in its characters’ willingness to look forward, hardships and all. Russell shared this message with the public in 1947, as he toured the country speaking about his experiences as a disabled veteran in cities where the film was playing. He later wrote about the optimism underlying the film’s portrayals of trauma: “For me, that was and is the all-important fact — that the human soul, beaten down, overwhelmed, faced by complete failure and ruin, can still rise up against unbearable odds and triumph.”

Russell went on to serve as an adviser on veterans’ issues for eight presidents, retiring just before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, legislation Russell helped to shape with his decades of advocacy on behalf of disabled veterans.

Today, “Best Years” continues to find new fans. One of these is Jeremy Haynes, a retired Army major who introduced the film when Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Best Years” last Veterans Day. Inspired to join the military after witnessing the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, Haynes served in Afghanistan as part of OEF. He was shot four times during a 2014 mission in Kabul and was eventually sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for rehabilitation, the same hospital where Harold Russell struggled to learn to use the steel hooks that replaced his hands.

Haynes’s injuries left him paralyzed. His journey to regain his strength and adapt to life as a paraplegic was lengthy and difficult, much as Russell’s had been 70 years earlier. Watching “Best Years, Haynes recognized in its characters his own initial reluctance to “give in” to the “thought process” necessary to readjust.

In his introduction for TCM, he noted: “One thing that’s also shared in the movie is that when a warfighter returns home, it’s this mind-set that you can reset and everything goes back to normal. But for most warfighters, the battle is just re-begun. … Now you’re fighting the mental piece or the physical piece.” The battle to readjust, which Sherwood initially assumed would be short-lived for most World War II veterans, continues even today.