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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

(9 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 23, 9 June 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


The task which confronted the fabricator’s of The Best Years of Our Lives was to inhibit the explosive possibilities of the veterans’ problem so as not to menace the capitalist mythology about the present system but yet to secure a maximum emotional impact. Inevitably a falsification of’ the veterans’ world took place.

The movie perpetuates the myth of the classless American society. The plot, contrary to the ballyhoo, does not concern typical GIs in typical situations. In real life the rich and poor alike do not equally suffer the ravages of war. Unlike in the movies, middle-aged bankers with two grown children do not ordinarily become sergeants in rifle companies. Nor do slum boys ordinarily endup as air corps captains. It happens, of course. The point is, it is not typical, as the movie infers. Harold Russell, the amputee, is a credible person, but his presence does not change the dominant impression given.

How were the homecoming problems of these untypical men resolved? In truly Hollywood, that is, truly untypical style. The banker is rudely put back to work (with a promotion!) by his boss. That was a problem! His second crisis is overcome with equal facility: a maudlin speech at a dinner secures him the right to make small loans to veterans without collateral. The field for the Little Entrepreneur is still wide open, the movie suggests. If individuals have economic difficulties they are not resident in the system but are caused by a few hard-fisted bankers, who, in the end, turn out to have a heart, if not of gold, then of something closely resembling it from a Hollywood prop room.

Nor can we doubt for a moment that the captain’s emotional storms will be followed by fine weather. He comes home to discover simultaneously that his wife is a floozy and that he is in love with the banker’s daughter. To point out that beautiful bankers’ daughters who marry dissatisfied drug store clerks from the slums (thereby solving their economic and biologic needs) are a rare commodity is no doubt only bad taste.

The only profoundly moving part is that portrayed by Harold Russell, the amputee. His strength lies in a number of things: his face, which is the face of a person, you know, his utterly natural speech, and the real and irrevocable nature of his problem even in the story’s terms. (It could have been you yourself!) To this tension a tragic surcharge is added by the knowledge that this man’s problem is real, that the fairy tale once told, he cannot, like the other actors, return to the real world a whole person. For him it is not make-believe.

But with all of this, his role, much as we desperately want to believe in it, ddes not, in the end, quite inspire conviction. Life (you only have to look around) is too often not quite so good, not quite so pat. Nevertheless, whatever dignity this movie has, whatever memories of dead days, dead places, and dead men it stirs, whatever tears it brings is due to this real man with the real hooks.

Some Faults of Commission

All of Hollywood’s phony symbols for “The American Way of Life” are there: The general plushiness of the decor, broken only by the briefest shots of the captain’s slum home and his almost two-dimensional parents. Women so uniformly beautiful as to be uniformly boring. The Completely Hygienic treatment of sexual matters. Characters as complex as figures in a medieval allegory: The Understanding Wife, the Prissy Floorwalker, the Hard-hearted Banker, etc. The dehydrated dialogue (“It’s really not bad after you get used to it, men.”)

The story is choppy and is lacking in intensity. This is caused in part by concentrating on too many characters. Mostly, however, it is caused by breaking off emotional passages before they drive too inescapably deep. Scenes of the most terrible potential power, such as the one in which the mother answers her child’s accusation of parental insensitivity to her problems by telling of the rocky, road of her marriage, are pulled up short ... of life itself. The crude drunk scenes, done within the movie convention, lower the whole intensity of the drama.

Faults of Omission

Of that burning hatred of the army which consumed every vet there is not a trace. Nor of his hatred of the officers. Nor of his cynicism about the war. The enemy, the picture would have us believe, was the civilian. And just to nail down the point that the vet considered it a just war, the amputee was made to attack a civilian who raised a question about it.

“It is a stupid, sad story like yours or mine,”’ says a character in a finer film, Les Enfants du Paradis. But a “stupid, sad story like yours or mine” is just what is not recognizable in The Best Years of Our Lives. Where are the actual problems – the housing shortages, the miserable factory jobs, the lives without perspective, the good wives – not the floozies – who cracked up, the dead who deserted the living, the Cinderellas who weren’t real princesses, the clocks that ran down?

There were good things in the show. The hesitancy of the vet before entering the house was a good insight. (The strangeness, the guilt of being alive when others were dead, the embarrassment of being thought a hero when you knew your own cowardice, the fear of the man in the bed, the. inability to sense the reality of civilian life, the loneliness of unshared experiences.)

Another excellent symbolic scene was the one of the air corps officer Wandering in silence through the bomber-graveyard where thousands of planes lay with their engines jerked out, empty of present meaning, but echoing with memories of tremendous combined effort, high stakes, comradeship, purposeful activity, even dignity.

But they are only scenes, of more indicative than of actual value.

It is difficult, in a way, to be harsh. The haze of memory settles over everything, and you say, “Why bother?” But when you hear people beginning to say, “Frankly, don’t you think this veteran stuff has been exaggerated?” You have to rise and say of the movie, “It’s a lie! It’s not like that!”

It is necessary only to contrast The Best Years of Our Lives with such an anti-war film as All Quiet on the Western Front to see that the current film is only a slick rationalization for the past war and, thereby, an emotional preparation for the next one.

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