Vietnam was not the first war in which thousands of soldiers returned home with new anxieties, feelings, disabilities, and obstacles which made it difficult for them to readjust to their dramatically changed homefront.
The President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities was initially created as an effort to ease the transition of these veterans with dis abilities into productive jobs after World War II. While it is seldom noted, the veteran’s transition to post World War II America was not as easy as what was so commonly shown on the glossed over images of the silver screen we are so familiar with today.
One motion picture from this era, took a realistic look at this transition and was awarded well for its honesty. The Best Years of Our Lives, starring Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Myrna Loy, Fredric March and Harrold Russell won seven Academy awards for its acting, production and screenplay
According to the movie’s promotion, it is the story of three veterans, a medaled Air Force captain who finds his wife a tramp, a middle-aged sergeant who dis covers that his children have grown up in his absence, and a sailor who comes home to his family and fiancée with hooks instead of hands. Each of these men find their new world completely changed. It even begins to seem that the familiarity of war were more comforting. All three soldiers find that the heroics of war don’t translate well into their resumes.
Each man left a part of himself on the battlefield, only to return there nightly in their dreams and night mares. Harrold Russell plays the amputee sailor and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and a Special Award “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” While this would be the end of Rusell’s film career, it was the beginning of a long public role as a spokesperson for people with disabilities and eventually as chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
The beginning of the film is filled with all the hope and optimism that most war related pictures of the era contain. The three veterans reminisce about the war and their return home. They fly over their hometown and see it just as they remembered. However, when they touch ground and hail a cab together, they realize their world has changed. Harrold Russell’s character, Homer. Parish, has what seems to be a happy reunion with his family and his girlfriend next-door-until he raises his arm to solute his superiors as they drive away in a cab. The looks upon his family’s faces depicts their discomfort with his new disability.
Fredric March’s character, a middle-aged sergeant, has an all too common reunion with his family. All is well, until he brings up his war experiences. His children have grown and changed without him. They seem to know more about the war and the world than he does.. He finds his old job lacks the excitement of the war. “Last year it was kill Japs: this year it’s make money.” He returns to his work as a loan officer and gets in trouble for giving loans to veterans with no collateral.
Dana Andrew’s character, an Air Force captain, comes home to find his wife has moved out of his parent’s home and on without him. His aspirations are to: leave the war behind for a better life than what he had left to fight the war. His transition to civilian life is not as easy as he had thought it would be. He can’t find a job with an income to meet the needs of his wife’s new lifestyle. Instead he must deal with the temptations of new found love with the sergeant’s daughter.
While the film is, by far, more honest than any of the period it still contains prejudices and stereotypes specific to the time. The movie has a happy ending as most films in this day did. Homer marries the girl next door and all three find jobs and their way in a new America.
What is most notable about the film is that a leading. role, was played by an actor with a disability, won an Oscar. Ironically, Harrold Russell was never able to translate this into future roles on the silver screen. But what Hollywood lost, America gained with his leader ship role within the Disability Rights Movement. However, there is more to the film than this novelty and it is deserving of its Academy Awards and is therefore a must see for anyone interested in the realities of post-war America.
by Mark Grey