War wounds

Dana Andrews, Frederic March and Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

This week in Essential Films Rewatched: William Wyler’s perennially great The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which a snarkier viewer might be tempted to dismiss as dominant ideology at its most sentimental and middlebrow.  (Robert Warshow and Abraham Polonsky made arguments to that effect the year after the film came out.)  As for being middlebrow, one has only to compare it with, say, Wyler’s own Mrs. Miniver (1944) to see that The Best Years of Our Lives is singularly attuned to the psychic violence of war on everyone it touches, veterans and civilians alike, in ways that a more conventional propaganda picture like Mrs. Miniver can only begin to fathom.  And if The Best Years of Our Lives is guilty on the charge of sentimentality, its is a sentimentality informed by so much raw pain that it never feels gratuitous or innocent.  The film is, in fact, all about the impossibility of ever being innocent again after the trauma of war, and about trying to be decent and happy in spite of that; its belief in striving for goodness and happiness even in the wake of devastation, but without ever for a moment pretending that the devastation isn’t there, seems to me one of the quintessentially American things about the movie.  Even at its hokiest, most banal-seeming moments The Best Years of Our Lives is never unaware of how deeply its characters are suffering.  That may be why it remains so affecting to watch.

As for dominant ideology, well…I would point to the scene at the soda fountain late in the film in which Fred (Dana Andrews) cold-clocks a dissident who hypocritically sports an American flag pin in his lapel, which the amputee Homer (Harold Russell) later picks up off the floor and puts in his own pocket.  This would seem to be a moment in which the film’s patriotic sentiments approach the level of kitsch: even if the villain of the scene is coded as a right-wing fanatic (and The Best Years of Our Lives was accused of being pink by members of the right), the scene’s invitation to us to get off, along with its characters, on violence and suppression in the name of the American flag is a fundamentally conservative move, and a particularly distasteful one.  But even this moment is complicated by the mere fact of Homer having to pick up the pin with the prosthetic hooks that have replaced his hands—a reminder that whatever pride or love Homer may feel for his country is bound up in wounds and loss. 

Homer retrieves the American flag pin with his prosthetic hooks.

The same emotional complexity can be felt in the scene in which Homer undresses to show his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) what remains of his arms.  The scene is extraordinarily moving because we’re watching Homer and Wilma be vulnerable with each other, bearing witness to each other to a degree that is rarely seen in classic Hollywood films.  As a love scene it’s shockingly intimate and emotionally naked and scary, perhaps the closest a classic Hollywood movie ever came to depicting a loss of virginity onscreen.  But perhaps the frankness of the scene is not so surprising, given that this is a film that elsewhere addresses PTSD, alcoholism, nuclear war, the ethics of bombing Hiroshima, and a wife’s nervousness about having sex with her husband for the first time in years.  The Best Years of Our Lives espouses good American values—God, country, family—at the same time that it constantly, almost doggedly, refuses to forget about their costs and their fragility.  It insists, in its very American way, on smiling through pain, on choosing hope in the face of despair, while at the same time honoring the pain and the despair that cannot be ignored.

Cathy O'Donnell and Harold Russell.

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