Thursday, November 11, 2010
November 11, 2010: A Veteran Performance
There are no shortage of memorable World War II stories in our national narratives—of course there are the overarching narratives like The Greatest Generation and Rosie the Riveter; there are the explicitly and centrally celebratory texts, such as in films like Midway or Saving Private Ryan; the more complex mixtures of celebration and realism, films like From Here to Eternity or Flags of Our Fathers; and the very explicitly critical and satirical accounts, as in the novels Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. One could even argue, with some accuracy, that if there is any single event or era that doesn’t need reinforcing in our national consciousness, it is this one; similarly, one could argue that if there’s any group of American films that can’t be considered generally under-exposed or –known, even if some have waned in popularity or awareness over time, it’d be those that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Well, I guess I like a challenge, because I’m here to argue that a World War II-centered film that in 1947 won not only Best Picture but also Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Editing, and Music has become a much too forgotten and underappreciated American text. That film was The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s adaptation of MacKinlay Kantor’s novel about three returning World War II veterans and their experiences attempting to re-adapt to civilian life on the home front. It’s a far from perfect film, and features some extremely schmaltzy sections that, perhaps, feel especially dated at more than sixty years’ remove and have likely contributed to its waning appeal. But it also includes some complex and powerful moments, and a significant number of them can be attributed directly to Wyler’s most famous and important casting choice: his decision to cast former paratrooper Harold Russell, an amateur who had lost both of his hands in a training accident, in the role of Homer Parrish, a similarly disabled vet with hooks replacing his hands. Homer’s relationship with the extremely supportive Wilma (played by Cathy O’Donnell) offers its share of the schmaltz, but in other ways his character and performance are much more dark and complicated, affecting the emotions through their realism and sensitivity rather than just overt heartstring-tugging.
That’s especially true of the scene that stood out to me most when I watched the film (as a college student in the late 1990s) and that has stuck with me ever since. Homer, once a star high school quarterback who was used to being watched and admired by younger boys in that earlier role, is attempting to work on a project in his garage but struggling greatly with his prostheses; he knows that a group of neighborhood boys are spying on him in fascination and horror but tries to ignore their presence. He can’t do so, however, and in a burst of anger releases much of what he has been dealing with since his injuries and return, breaking the garage windows with his hooks and daring the kids to fully engage with who and what he has become. The moment, big and emotional as it is, feels as unaffected as it gets, and manages to do what few of those more well-known World War II stories can: celebrating and critiquing in equal measure, recognizing the sacrifice and heroism of a Homer while mourning what war does and takes and destroys. Ultimately the scene, like the film, provides no definite answers, no straightforward adulation of its veterans nor darkly comic takedown of war myths, but instead simply asks us to think about what life (in and out of war) has meant and continues to mean for someone like Harold Russell, and all his veteran peers.
Like Glory, and like my favorite war novels The Killer Angels, The Things They Carried (both of which might show up here sometime), and H.M.S. Ulysses (which probably won’t since it’s British), Best Years is ultimately about precisely that—the experiences and identities of the soldiers themselves, at their best, at their worst, and everywhere in between. On Veteran’s Day, and on every other day as well, I think it’d be ideal to focus not on wars at all, horrific and cold and impersonal and, yes, hellish as they always are, but on remembering those Americans whose lives were and continue to be so impacted by these experiences—not least, I have to add, because I think we’d be a lot less cavalier about starting wars if we did so. More tomorrow, on the most depressing and inspiring baseball game ever played in America.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Another strong scene from Best Years, featuring the film’s main protagonist, Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU0d3DVcKoY
2) Some interesting info on a Harold Russell collection of materials at a BU archive: http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/archives-cc/app/details.php?id=8504&return=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bu.edu%2Fphpbin%2Farchives-cc%2Fapp%2Fbrowse.php%3Fletter%3DR%26sort_column%3Ddeath_year%26sort_direction%3DASC%26per_page%3D10%26offset%3D53%26set_page%3Dlast