Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Was it you that changed, or only me?
It's rare to view a sixty year old film and feel like it could have been made yesterday. Such a movie is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. I don't think this film will ever really be dated because it deals with one issue that will, sadly, always be a part of this world: soldiers returning home from war.
The movie opens by introducing us to three men all trying to catch a flight back home. Al Stephenson (Frederic March) is a middle aged sergeant returning to his family and his old job as a banker. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was an officer with an airborne bombing crew. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a sailor who has lost both of his arms and is now forced to use steel hooks for hands.
The movie quickly begins to drop each of the three men back into their old lives but, it seems none of them are ready to readjust. So rather than try, they each decide to go out for a drink. One by one they all - along with Fred's wife, Milly, (Myrna Loy) and daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright) - end up at Butch's bar. The rest of the night consists of drinking, laughter and the common knowledge that nothing will ever be the same. War has changed the soldiers, their families and their country as a whole.
This is truly a wonderful movie. It has several scenes that work on such an emotional level the audience can actually feel the pain of these men. One of the most heart breaking lines occurs at the beginning of the film. When Homer is leaving, Fred turns to Al and says, "You gotta hand it to the Navy, they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al solemnly states: "They couldn't train him to hold his girl, or to stroke her hair." Homer knows this is true. He has a girl waiting for him back home, Wilma (Cathy O'donnell), but now he isn't so sure she'll still want him.
Another reason we react so strongly to the character of Homer is because Harold Russell actually was a soldier who lost his hands in the war. Every time the film allows him to open up about his loss, we know that he isn't merely acting. There is a scene towards the end of the film where he takes off his hooks and tells Wilma, "This is when I know I'm helpless." It is a scene of tremendous power. Russell actually won two Oscars for this role. He was given an honorary Oscar and won for best supporting actor.
William Wyler constructed such a well made film. He never falls into cliches or allows his characters to act in ways we know they shouldn't. He, and his cinematographer Greg Tolland, allow the camera to penetrate each character. Each scene focuses so deeply and for such an extended amount of time we really begin to understand these characters. I have always thought that some of the most powerful scenes in film were done with a stationary camera and no lines at all.
Such a scene occurs in this film. Fred goes to a field that is harboring several hundred military planes, the type that he was on during the war. He crawls into one and begins to relive every excruciating moment he ever went through during the war. No words can explain what he feels here. Pain like this can't be explained, it has to be felt.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie full of pain but, in the end, we are left with so much joy. I almost want to stand up and cheer every time I reach the wonderful ending scene.
This is a movie made for veterans of World War II but, it has held meaning for every soldier who has ever returned home to a place they couldn't quite remember.
What should you be watching this Friday?
The Best Years of Our Lives