As I mentioned last week, I’ve decided to revisit some of my favorite classic films to see how they rate with regard to female representation. This week’s installment is a post WWII drama.
The Best Years of Our Lives follows the lives of three servicemen as they readjust to life after World War II. Fred, a bombardier with the Army Air Corps, Homer, a Navy amputee, and Al, a hardnosed Infantry sergeant, find that the world they are returning to no longer fits with the people they have become during their years of military service.
The three meet completely by accident on their return flight home to Boone City, a fictitious town located somewhere in the Midwest. Initially, they each share an excitement about the possibilities that life out of the service will hold. As they draw nearer to their homes, that excitement turns to anxiety at what that future will actually be. After quickly reuniting with family, they find themselves together at Butches, a local bar owned by Homer’s uncle. In many ways, they seem to feel more comfortable with each other than they do with their own families.
While many other films of the time reflected the national patriotism with a fervor never since matched, The Best Years of Our Lives digs deeper into the human toll of war. This film takes an in depth and honest look at the difficulties service members face when the battle ends and they return to normal life. There is no sugarcoating of the issues here. These men deal with PTSD (known at the time as shell shock), anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and injuries that never heal. In short, they deal with the same emotions and hardships that servicemen and women deal with today. There is adultery and a broken marriage. There is disillusionment with the establishment and with the corporate ladder. And there is frustration with the difficulties of getting the benefits these veterans deserve.
Directed by William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives features an all-star cast including Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Hoagy Carmichael, Virginia Mayo, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell. Released in 1946, it quickly garnered international critical acclaim and soon became the highest grossing film since Gone With the Wind with over 20 million tickets sold in the United Kingdom alone. It took home seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell’s portrayal of an amputee veteran. This film is frequently rated in the top 25 of all films ever made. As an interesting note, this is the first film to feature a disabled individual in a major role. Up until this time, all roles which featured a physically disabled character were played by able bodied actors. Unfortunately, this movie became the exception rather than the rule in that regard.
Granted, this movie doesn’t include any female veterans nor does it address the female service members who served during WWII. It does not include any minorities or any diverse ethnic group. This may seem odd or bias looking back at this movie now, but historically speaking this makes sense for the time. Of the 16 million members of the US Armed Forces, only 350 thousand were women. Only fifteen percent of those members were African American. The Armed Forces would not be desegregated for another two years after the release of this film. Consequently, many areas of the US would not see desegregation for several more decades. For better or worse, this movie serves as a realistic representation of what America looked like in 1946. Women wouldn’t see full integration into military combat roles until 2013.
As such a realistic film, how does it stack up with the informal modern Bechdel and Mako Mori tests? First let’s look at the Bechdel Test. The Best Years of Our Lives has eight named female characters; four of those are major characters. Furthermore, they do have conversations with each other although many of the conversations are in reference to the men in their lives. There is one conversation, however, between Marie and Peggy in which Marie points up to the sign on the ladies restroom and says, “I never pay attention to the sign. I just go right in.”
As far as the Mako Mori test, it requires that a female character have a character arc that is independent of the male characters. In other words, she needs to be her own person. Many of the women in this movie follow the traditional paths available to women during that time. They marry and raise a family. Sometimes those marriages are happy. Other times they are not. Regardless, society expects to follow the traditional path of homemaker. Marie, however, does not hold to that notion. She is unhappy with her marriage and charts her own course. She is the one who decides the marriage is over, not her husband.
I would rate this film as passing both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori Tests.
Personally, I would put it in my top 5 favorites of all time. It is one of those films I can watch every time I see it on. It never seems to get old for me. There are moments that punch me in the gut each time I watch it even thought I know these moments are coming. For my money, few other films hold up as well or feel as modern as this production. The cars may be different, but these men could easily be returning home from any war since 1946.
I highly recommend watching The Best Years of Our Lives if you haven’t already seen it. With Veterans Day around the corner, I can’t think of a better movie to honor the veterans in your life.