Thought for the Day – “The Best Years of our lives”

Builders,

Here is a companion piece to Thought for the Day: “12 O’clock High”The Best Years of our Lives is a 1946 movie, an unflinching look at the lives of three men returning home from WWII. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece, winning 9 Academy Awards, but today 70 years later, it is gone from the national awareness.

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If you have never seen it, I highly recommend it. It really isn’t just a WWII film, the messages in it are timeless. The craft work of the film, the direction, the shooting and sound stand up decades later. Many people consider it Dana Andrews finest performance, but the film is captured by Harold Russell who had never acted before. He was a WWII veteran who lost his hands in an explosives accident. In the film he offers a brutally honest look at a disabled veteran returning to his home, family and fiancée, now a young man without hands. It is very difficult to watch.

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Opening scene of the film, where the three men are flying home in a B-17, to an uneasy welcome in the town they left. It turns out that it hasn’t changed at all, but the men are changed and can not find an easy path ‘home’.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scXCe1i_hJQ

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Above is a YouTube link to the best remembered part of the film. Dana Andrews, who has returned to find his marriage gone, his job meaningless, and outspoken civilians who mock his service, wanders out into an aircraft graveyard and questions why everything has happened.  He walks past hundreds of  B-17s and P-39s being scrapped. Sitting in the nose of a B-17 he dissolves into a flashback of being under attack on a bombing run.  Listen to how effectively the sound track supports the somber film.

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Your Aviation Connection: At Oshkosh, our booth is just 100 yards from the Warbird area. We are so busy during the day that I hardly leave the booth, but it stays light very late in the summer months in Wisconsin, and long after the crowds fade away I often walk over to the warbird area and quietly look at the planes. I find it a better setting to consider the struggles their crews faced, both in combat and coming home.

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If you have the emotional fortitude, read the chapter “Speaking of Courage” in Tim O’Brien’s 1990 book The Things They Carried.  Norman, the central character in the chapter, a young Vietnam vet returning to his small Midwestern town is destroyed by his inability to find anyone to listen to a bitter truth he knows. In some of his other writings O’Brien explains the genesis of the chapter, and how post war stories are a different set of experiences. It is the same relationship 12 O’clock high has to The best years of our lives.

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-ww.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

9 Responses to Thought for the Day – “The Best Years of our lives”

  1. Ray Klein says:

    William, All great films and stories of a past few consider anymore. So sad that the collective consienceness of americans has drifted so far from basic truthes as these. To expose myself to these films and thier bitter messages all at once would wreck me for days.

    • Ray,

      I understand your thoughts, coming form our world of bumper sticker slogans, twitter length messages being considered an essay, moronic consumer celebrity endorsements, etc, watching a film, or reading a book of substance is a shock to the system. While I have a positive national outlook, I do prefer a bitter frank reality to a ‘nice’ non-offensive fiction.
      -ww.

      • Ray Klein says:

        William, Thank you for your fast reply. You truly are a benchmark in many peoples lives. You speak words and thoughts that too many keep inside. Press on my friend.

  2. Bruce Culver says:

    For me, this film, deservedly honored, is one of the trilogy (’12 O’Clock High’ and ‘Command Decision’ being the other two) I personally consider the most evocative of the cost of war. ’12 O’Clock High’ dealt with the stress of command at the group level, ‘Command Decision’ dealt with the political battles fought at the air division level, and perhaps most important of all, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ dealt with the personal experiences of individual servicemen, returning from a war that had changed them in the deepest way possible, even if those changes might not have been visible as Harold Russell’s were. All three films came out after the fighting was over and we could talk about, and bear to see films about, the inner costs we usually try to hide. Fir that alone, these films should be in the library of anyone who has read about the war, any war really – these truths are with us still, as the new books by Matt Gallagher about Iraq show so well.

  3. Bruce Culver says:

    Another thing about “The Best Years of Our Lives’ is that it was one of the greatest propaganda films of the 1940s. It not only presented the stories of these three men and their friends and relatives, but it also painted a picture, an idealistic picture of post-war America, a place where people of good will could find a new life, where there were possibilities. It presented a future of hope, of new beginnings, especially in the final wedding scene, one of the most beautifully shot examples of American tradition and hope I have ever seen. Perhaps strangely, I am also reminded of another movie ending that also carries a message of hope, from ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’: “And every night we does the tell, and we turn on the lights, not just for him, but for all of them who are still out there. Because we know there will come a night, when they see the lights, and they’ll be coming home…..” I rest my case.

    • Bruce,
      The Mexican painter Diego Rivera was supposed to have said “art which is not propaganda, is not art at all.” When the quote comes up, some people are quick to point out that Rivera was something of a communist, but to me the thought holds merit, no matter what the politics of the guy holding the paint brush are. I agree that the film does sell America a little ideally, but I guess that was reality to most people who had just participated in the world wide defeat of Fascism. To me I always saw the wedding scene not as an indication that everything was resolved and going to be fine, it just suggested that the people back home were mostly good, and they would try to be as understanding as possible of the changed men which had returned. Like all good art, what you get out of it gives you some indication of what is going on in your own perspective.

      -ww.

  4. Dan glaze says:

    William, my youngest brother is a gulf war veteran and suffers from PTSD. A lot of people don’t understand what these men go through just to get through each day. I hate to say it but every morning I fear I will get that phone call that tells my he can’t take it any more. The VA. Doesn’t offer much help, I guess they are overwhelmed themselves with returning soldiers. Hug a Vet. Dan-o

    • Dan-o,
      Up to the point my father was 68 years old, I never once, ever, saw him have any moment of emotional difficulty with things he had seen. Dad never told war stories, just a few brief dispassionate comments. He was from the old school where men never spoke of horrible things, their unspoken motto was FIDO – “F–k it and drive on” When tragedy struck, it was given hardly more than a nod, there was always the next mission or task to focus on. This may have been a military necessity at the moment, but we now know it comes with a long term cost.

      In the last 22 years, many of my fathers days have been great, but there are hours when he struggles to come to terms with events that happened as many as 73 years ago. I share this in hope that your brother and others may find solace in something that has made life manageable for my father: Writing Letters. Sounds simple, but it has worked for him. My father can not speak of the most horrific things he saw or the tragedies. He will start a sentence about a good man who died young, or civilians in wars, and he can not finish what he wants to say. The solution for him has been to write these things down on paper, where he can express what he wants to share, but it also serves to collect and contain his thoughts for himself. I have every letter he has written me, several hundred of them, carefully stored about 10 feet from where I am typing this. At a casual glance it is a wooden box filled with old papers, but from where I am sitting it looks like the source of my fathers sanity and stability. It is my strongest wish your brother may find the same peace.
      -ww.

      • dan glaze says:

        I have suggested this to my brother and hope some day he will do this. his reply is maybe someday he will, right now it bring back too much hurt and pain for the good friends that left there in body bags that to many times he had to help fill. he rarely sleeps and ten years ago at age 44 he had a massive heart attack that almost killed him, followed by a quadruple bypass surgery. doctors attributed to stress. I wish I could help him with his pain but cannot find a way. my war was not as up close and personal as his as my time was spent at 35,000 feet watching for the tell tale white streaks that might spell the end for me. still stressful but not quite as gory as the front lines. blue skies my friend!

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