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Date Created: 06/15/16
Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert The Woman’s Role in Best Years of Our Lives (1946) America entered World War II (from now on WWII) in the year 1941 after the Japanese staged a surprise attack on the American military instillations. America’s entrance into WWII brought with it millions of men who were husbands, brothers, uncles, friends and employees. Many of the men who fought in WWII had an extremely hard time sacrificing the life they had known for a life filled with hellish nightmares. But they knew that the right thing to do was to fight for America, which to many soldiers meant fighting to go home to his loved ones. It was the companionship of a woman that kept many soldiers motivated to continue on through the war in hope that they would return home to normalcy. Unfortunately, for many veterans this was only a dream because of the distance the war created between soldiers and civilian life. American troops were away from “normal life” from 1941 to 1945, which left years for families to change and move forward, often times, without the dominate male figure. The returning soldier needed considerable assistance to put the ruthlessness and pain of the war behind him, such assistance was often found in the altruism and understanding of a women. William Wyler’s 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives exhibits some of the real issues veteran’s faced returning to postwar America. The film follows the lives of three veterans, who come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, and their journey back to normalcy after WWII. Wyler places a large role on the women in the veteran’s lives and how important woman were in helping veterans build a future in this new postwar America. The film gives us an inside look of what veteran’s dealt with after Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert being away from their families for years. For veterans, holy matrimony was vital to reconversion to domestic life and women played a very significant part in helping their soldier cope with the brutal scars that remained. The film shows us problems in prewar marriages, selfconsciousness of disabilities, and social alienation. None of the veterans in the film can return to complete normalcy without receiving understanding and support from a loving woman. Despite the characters very different socioeconomic backgrounds, each veteran finds civilian life extremely troublesome and depends upon the assistance of a female to overcome those troubles. Homer, a former sailor, is now a double amputee who is extremely hopeless in his future for a normal life and is reluctant to make himself a burden on anyone else. The injured soldier is particularly worried about returning to his high school sweetheart, Wilma, whom he is supposed to marry. He battles with his demons by pushing Wilma away, stating that he wants her to “be free” of his disability. But Wilma, a model of postwar feminine understanding, is persistent in her effort to show Homer that she loves him for who he is. Homer asks Wilma to come to his bedroom so he can show her exactly what she is getting herself involved in. He explains to Wilma that he is really no man at all; he admits that he can’t even dress himself for bed and that he is as “dependent as a baby.” Much to Homer’s surprise, he finds an adoring female who is ready to assist his helplessness by promising him that she will never leave his side. It isn’t until he feels accepted by his companionship that he can let his guard down and pursue a normal life with Wilma. Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert Fred, a former Air Force Captain, is welcomed home by returning to the working class and to his wife who has enjoyed a little too much independence while he was away. Fred not only battles with a wife whose been less than faithful, he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder from his bombing runs over Germany and the inability to find a wellpaying job despite his wartime service. His return to his prewar menial job as a soda jerk does not fit in to his wife’s new independent and scandalous life. She expects Fred to wine and dine her and to do it in his decorated Air Force uniform, leaving him unable to put it away and move past his wartime scars. His floozy wife is so entangled in her own ambitions that she doesn’t feel inclined to submit to his needs, nor does she care to remain faithful to someone who doesn’t fulfill her frivolous lifestyle. Fortunately some light is shed on Fred’s path to readjustment when he receives attention from Al’s daughter, Peggy. It is evident from the beginning that Fred and Peggy fancy each other. Peggy quickly notices that Fred’s wife is not at all interested in helping him return to normalcy when he doesn’t even know her whereabouts on the night of his return. Peggy shows Fred support and affection whenever she runs to his bedside after hearing his loud cry from the nightmares of his bombing runs. Fred even goes so far as to note the next day that it was extremely nice of her to help him and not bring it up, he tells her she’s been great in everything she has done. Peggy’s feelings for Fred grow strongly, she even tells her parents that if his wife won’t help him she will and she planned to break the marriage up. Luckily for Peggy, Fred’s floozy wife asks for a divorce and the two end up together. Divorce was extremely common post WWII because of the amount of wartime Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert marriages that took place before soldiers shipped out, leaving them very little time to get acquainted. At the end of the movie Fred tells Peggy, “You know how it’ll be, Peggy. It may take us years to get anywhere. We’ll have no work, no decent place to live. We’ll get kicked around.” This is another prime example of the important role women played in aiding with veterans return to civilian life. It can be said that Fred only felt like half the man he truly was when Peggy was around, and he needed her love and support to overcome the troubles of postwar life. Al, an Army Sargent and former banker, returns home to his upperclass family only to realize that not only has he changed, but his family has too. He has been gone for so many years that he doesn’t even recognize his children or know who they are. When Al tries to discuss war experiences and souvenirs with his son he only wants to talk of science and radiation from atomic bombs. Al quickly notices that his son has changed and become extremely sensitive while he was away. Another extremely common factor of post WWII, returning veterans often found their sons had grown “soft” in the absence of a dominant male figure. His daughter, Peggy, is no longer the little girl he left behind; she is now a woman who partakes in domestic duties around the house and holds a job at the Hospital. Al finds it extremely hard to conjure up small talk with his wife and children so he suggests that he and the girls go out for a night on the town to celebrate his return. Al, as well as many other WWII veterans, turns to alcohol to help cope with the social alienation he felt. Al’s wife, Millie, sits back and allows her husband to engage in belligerence. After a day filled with tension and awkwardness, she finally bonds with Al Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert by playing along with his wartime seduction script. Rather than putting an immediate stop to her husband’s alcoholism, Millie silently watches him medicate himself with alcohol and confiscates as many drinks as she can. While Al was overseas, Millie had to work and do what she could to keep their family stable, making her develop qualities of selfreliance and independence. As Al struggles to get back on his feet, Millie continues to do what she can to keep the family stable. She has learned to be strong in Al’s absence and remains extremely patient as he adjusts to this new society. The admission of America into WWII brought with it millions of men who had to, sometimes unwillingly, sacrifice their normal lives to fight for their country. For a lot of soldiers fighting for America actually meant fighting to return home to the families, mainly the women, they left behind. Knowing that there was a woman waiting on them back home gave many men a reason to serve and a promise of peace. Unfortunately, for many veterans the reconversion into civilian life was not as easy as they had idealized because of the distance the war created between families. For many men, putting the brutal memories of the war past them required the help from a patient, loving, and understanding woman. William Wyler’s 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives gives us a first hand look at what it was like for veterans to return to normalcy and the important role women played in aiding that journey. Even though the three veterans are from extremely different socioeconomic backgrounds, they each have complications they must over come in this new life. It is safe to say that Best Years of Our Lives is a magnificent Caroline Guillot HIST 4195 Sec 1 01/25/16 Dr.Culbert movie that explores the true realities of the returning veteran and how women played a substantial role in making that transition possible.
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