Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. This week’s movie is “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
This selection “The Best Years of Our Lives” for Memorial Day was inspired by an interview with Sebastian Junger talking about his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.
It seems the human race has had war with it forever. Three of our oldest books, The Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and Sun tzu’s The Art of War gave accurate descriptions of war. It didn’t stop there. Ancient Greek works like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and The Persian Expedition by Xenophon were very good at this. Again and again and again, our literature reinforces the belief that the humanity is a violent sort of being.
The Japanese got in on the act with such books as The Book of Five Rings. The Germans too contributed to the literature. On War by Carl von Clausewitz was an important work on teaching us how to do a better job whacking the soup out of each other. T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom screamed that Lawrence won World War I single handedly. Maybe not the whole war but, at the least, the Middle Eastern part.
On and on the list goes. Toward the middle part of the twentieth century, books saying war was not quite as nice as we all thought started appearing. This was the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front, Hiroshima and Catch 22. Still there were those novels and books that continued to argue against the realities soldiers experienced in the field. Those works told us that it was the patriotic thing to be gung ho when it came to sending our children out to fight the good fight.
This rah-rah attitude continued with the movies. Especially the World War II movies. Even today, Hitler and the Nazis continue to be the all-time bad guys. Nobody was nastier. Want to make a supervillain. Make him a Nazi.
John Wayne’s movies were good at this. Since the Duke won the West for us, it was a pretty sure bet that he could win World War II, and he would do it the hard way. On a Hollywood sound stage. After seeing “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “The Longest Day” and “The Fighting Seabees”, it became ever so obvious the Duke did a darn good job too. After all, he was the Fighting Kentuckian at the Alamo. Unfortunately, for the Duke, his contribution to the Vietnam War (“The Green Berets”) left a lot to be desired. It seemed to be that Old Duke Wayne no longer had the cojones to do the job. Maybe it was time for Rambo and John McClane to step up to the plate.
This attitude about war as the best way to solve international disputes began to erode as men returned from combat. We began to realize the real mantra for grunts on the ground in combat was: “I just want to get back home.”
One of the few movies about the toll war plays on a soldier’s psyche was “The Best Years of Our Lives”. “Best Years” is William Wyler’s great film about combat veterans returning to civilian life at the end of World War II. It chronicles the difficulty many, if not all, had re-adjusting to civilian life. It takes the viewer by the hand and gives an up-close-and-personal view of the psychological trauma these men carried with them after leaving combat. And the impact that return had on their loved ones.
The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture. One of the standouts in the movie was Harold Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish. He was one of two non-professional actors to win Academy Awards. The other was Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields”. In addition to this, Russell had lost both hands in a training accident during the war.
The amazing thing is that the film was made at all. By the late forties and early fifties, Americans began to see World War II mythologically. There was little room for doubt in the mind of the public that World War II was the Great Crusade against Evil and that those who went into combat were heroes who stood tall. American society totally ignored the wounds war stamped upon its citizen soldiers. It took the War in Vietnam for our doubts to begin to surface. With films like “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper”, America is finally waking us up to the realities of the psychological damage war leaves on its participants. And makes us realize that war has no real victors.
When soldiers return home from combat the wounds are not always visible. For some, it takes years for those scars to show. And they always show one way or another.
On this day when we honor our veterans, the best thanks we can give those who went in harm’s way for us is to try not making war anymore. Instead of puffing out our chests with our “kick butt” attitude, our words of gratitude would be so much more meaningful if we embraced John Lennon’s sentiment when he sang “Give Peace a Chance”. Just think how much better our world would be if we poured half the effort and the resources into peace that we pour into war. Perhaps. Just perhaps. Anyway I would like to think so.