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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Article 1

Re-evaluating my perceptions of post-war life after seeing 
The Best Years of Our Lives

by Elizabeth,

April 10, 1996

The following is a paper I wrote for my English course on War Literature during my senior year in high school, after I first saw the film The Best Years of Our Lives.

Because I was born in 1977 instead of 1937 or 1957, I have relatively little first hand experience with war. By the time I came around, the World Wars were over. Korea was over. Vietnam was over. Even the Cold War had dwindled down to insults. As a result, what I have learned about war has been from the stories my grandfathers and uncles told, the facts, dates and main characters I have read about in various history classes at school, and the movies I have watched. However, it was not until spring break of this year that a certain aspect of war and the poignant problems it implied were called to my attention. Everyone has heard of the typical horrors of war -- blood and guts, losing friends, hunger and filth, monotony and boredom, anxiety and stress, death and destruction -- but few people consider how difficult it is, not only to fight in a war, but to stop fighting; few people consider how hard it is to come home.

Over spring break, I watched a movie that I had recorded several weeks earlier entitled, The Best Years of Our Lives. It was made in 1946 and starred Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, and Virginia Mayo. I had recorded it, however, because it also starred Teresa Wright, a young (early twenties) actress who made many films during the 1940's including one of my favorite World War II films, Mrs. Miniver (1942). Because I had recorded it on the basis of Teresa Wright's acting reputation, I really had no idea what the film was about or if it would be any good. All I knew was that it was close to three hours long and would require a substantial period of time lacking in NCAA basketball action on TV to get it watched uninterrupted. When I did get the chance, however, I discovered what a great movie it actually was, and I realized (as I learned after looking it up) why it had won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1946.

The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three service men who return to their home town after World War II. One, who served in the infantry, is a banker, married for over twenty years with two late-teenage children. The second, who was a pilot, is a soda jerk who married a girl he hardly knew about two weeks before he left. The third and youngest, a sailor, had just proposed to his high school sweetheart via letters home when he had his hands burned off in an explosion. He is now reconsidering his proposal, not knowing how his family or his girlfriend will react toward his new hooks. The movie follows these servicemen from their anxieties on the trip home, through their arrival and the trials of readjustment to civilian life. Though I had seen several war movies of this era, ranging from battle movies, to love stories, to outright pro-war propaganda films and news reels, I had never seen a war movie about life after the war. I had always thought, "The boys are coming home! Strike up the band! Prepare the ticker-tape parade! Then everyone will be happy and things will go on just as if the war had never happened." After all, the United States didn't suffer much at all compared to many other nations. We experienced many fewer casualties and almost no homeland destruction for which to mourn and rebuild. It seemed natural that when the confetti was swept up and the band went home, things would return to normal. But, as The Best Years of Our Lives showed me, this was not necessarily the case.

I had never considered before what a strain it could put on a marriage, even an established marriage, to separate the couple for the duration of a war -- not just a few weeks, or even a month or two, but years -- two or three or four whole years without seeing one another. People change over time, especially during a war. And, as opposed to the changes a married couple experiences together during peace time, changes during times of war are experienced separately and are therefore dealt with separately, creating a great potential for a couple to grow apart whereas otherwise, they might have grown closer together.

A similar situation exists with the separation of a parent and a child. Especially when they are younger, but even when they reach the double digits, children grow very quickly. They physically look different to a returning parent who has not seen them in a few years, but they also act different as they have begun (or continued) to develop into individuals, more mature and self-sufficient. From the child's point of view, it is also very difficult to suddenly have someone around the house and part of your everyday life who for many yesterdays simply wasn't there, and today, seems almost like a stranger because both have changed in his absence.

Another problem I had never considered was the individual pressure of finding a satisfactory job after being a serviceman for so long. Suddenly, a desk job reading loan applications seems very dull and pointless, being a soda jerk after flying fighter planes doesn't seem very worthwhile, and finding a job performable by someone with a physical handicap seems next to impossible. Furthermore, with post-war production cutbacks and war-time employees already in place, even an equivalent job to the one previously held could be hard to find.

Finally, I realized that The Best Years of Our Lives dealt only with these and many other problems as they pertained to the lives and families of returning servicemen. What about those whose loved ones never returned? Though it was difficult for many of the families to readjust, having their relatives back after such a long absence, it must have been especially hard for those families who now had to deal with the permanence of that once-thought temporary absence. On the other hand, it is probable that many had prepared themselves for this possible outcome to war, and were less prepared for the extenuating trials of life when the loved one did return -- for the relationship strains, the restlessness, the flashbacks, the disappointment that the world did not wait for them, and the changes in character. I guess determining which would be harder to deal with depends on the specific circumstances.

Despite its length, I watched this movie three times over spring break because it was so thought provoking. Every time I watched it, I found myself considering aspects of war and life after war I had never thought about before. And, though it ends happily as most movies of this era do, I still came away with the understanding that post-war life wasn't simply a big party and then back to the same old song. Even endings that seem to be storybook happily-ever-afters, upon closer examination can reveal unhappy realities that question the conceptions previously held on the subject. Certainly The Best Years of Our Lives forced me to re-evaluate my image of life after World War II.

© 1996 Reel Classics, L.L.C.

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