Hours of war movies are broadcast on Memorial Day. The overwhelming majority of them are a mixture of battlefield combat and emotional scenes of life on the home front. By no means are all these treatments of a terrible human experience unrealistic; indeed, a fair number of them have become favorites of mine.
This blog post is about a trio of fictional films that address infrequently encountered aspects of war. They are “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) and “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1967). The first two movies are of particular interest because they were released so soon after the war’s end.
Three veterans from the same small town are the main characters of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” adapted from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor. Captain Fred Derry is an Army Air Corps bombardier returning to a failing marriage; Sergeant Al Stephenson is returning to a family that’s changed since he went away; and, Sailor Homer Parish is tormented by the loss of his hands. (Harold Russell, who portrayed Homer, wasn’t an actor: he was an actual Navy veteran injured in a wartime accident.)
Fred, Al and Homer bond while flying home together, and they keep in touch as they readjust to civilian life. Each faces his own challenges and struggles but in time they overcome them, if only in a bittersweet fashion. The portrayals by both principals and supporting cast are superb.
“Gentleman’s Agreement,” based on Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, illustrates a darker side of the triumph over Fascism. Widower and journalist Gregory Peck (my favorite actor) is assigned to write a series of magazine articles on anti-Semitism. Seeking a unique angle for his writing, he hits upon posing as a Jew. Peck soon finds that, even as the American public learns about Nazi atrocities, the role he’s playing leads to prejudice against him, threatening his young son and his relationship with the woman he loves.
Once again, the acting is magnificent. John Garfield is cast as a Jewish soldier who is the journalist’s close friend. Astonished that Peck would voluntarily act as a Jew, he educates him about the deep prejudice he’ll encounter in “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”
The last film is a comedy-drama. Gregory Peck is the officer in charge of the psychiatric ward of a military hospital in the Southwest, in the middle of World War II. Captain Newman’s patients are airmen and sailors left mentally damaged by their experiences. His job is to restore these men’s sanity – so they can return to combat or leave the service.
Nurse Angie Dickinson (Peck’s love interest, of course) receives a brutal education about the inner demons that afflict the ward’s patients, while shyster Tony Curtis does all he can to provide them with food and other things that ease their burdens.
Yes, there’s plenty of comedy here but the essential message of “Captain Newman, M.D.” is that war affects people in what can be unpredictable, soul-destroying ways.
I recommend all these movies, each of which offers viewers the opportunity to gain an understanding of war that others do not. Let me know what you think about them!