Of Jerks and Soda Jerks: The Best Years of Our Lives

We talk about old movies the way we talk about old people, in front of their faces and condescendingly, as if they’re incapable of surprising us.

I saw The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) on the big screen last week, and can’t get it out of my head. It’s easy to see why, just looking at the headlines. The V.A. can’t sort out its hospital problems. Iraq is cracking apart, as predicted. And most tellingly, the Bowe Bergdahl case is inspiring all kinds of emotionally transparent opinions. Is this normal?

If you believe The Best Years of Our Lives, it is.

Here’s a great movie setup for ya: Fred is a soldier who gets discharged months after World War II, and he’s looking for a commercial flight to his hometown, if he can afford one, and finds out the flights are booked solid for days. So he goes to the military transport office, a free service that gave rides to a few vets at a time in the extra space in planes making cargo runs around the country. While on the flight, he befriends two other vets from his hometown. One is a working sap just like Fred, but he’s had the bad luck of losing his arms. The other was an officer, going back to his secure job as a bank vice president. They all struggle with the adjustment to civilian life, and/or suffer alone through PTSD, and Fred not only finds he has nothing in common with the wife he married on a lark before deployment, he also falls in love with the bank vice president’s daughter.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews.

Screenwriter Robert Sherwood was 50 when he adapted the MacKinlay Kantor novel The Best Years of Our Lives. Sherwood was George S. Kaufman’s writing partner for a time, and had previously written scripts for Rebecca and many other films. He was a hired hand at adaptations, and a dialogue polisher, but also had a number of “story by” credits, meaning he pitched ideas to producers just like the rest of us. Today, he’d probably write for a TV series, and that’s a good thing. Watching Best Years of Our Lives, I wasn’t thrilled the way you are when you watch a genre classic from the ‘40s. More sprawling and episodic, its situations were more memorable than its action, and it lacked the “Oh my God, this character’s so screwed!” urgency we look for in a feature script. This kind of story does better as a TV miniseries.

Which explains why, though it was a giant hit and swept the Academy Awards, it hasn’t enjoyed nearly the half life of, say, Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. Even Laura (1944), the other film Dana Andrews (Fred) is remembered for, seems to get screened and talked about more. There is no race to the waiting airplane. No bottom of the 9th rally. No fight to the death. It’s more about the dull pain. Iwo Jima and Battle of the Bulge were about adrenalin, but the times called for subtler hormones.

A friend of mine recently posted an excerpt from a letter his grandfather wrote from Germany right after Berlin fell. Part of it reads, “As the smoke lifts silently from yesterday’s battle field exposing the bodies of the men who sacrificed their all, I wonder how the people at home can be quite as gay as the papers lead me to believe….I wish the people could have seen the front-line doughboy when he heard the news. The looks on their faces seemed to say, ‘That’s over – what now’ – No merry- making – no shouting…”

Spoiler Alert – and I admit, it feels goofy offering a “spoiler” alert for a movie that’s almost 70 years old, but it was new to me: In all that slow burn, Fred does eventually face an urgent problem. He’s had to go back to his old job as a soda jerk – an indignity he swore he wouldn’t resort to – and his friend the double amputee shows up to check on him. Coincidentally, a political malcontent is having a sandwich at the counter, and tells the guys they were suckers for fighting: The system is still rigged against them, and the world is just as dangerous. So Fred does what any sexually frustrated, PTSD-suffering vet would do when his fellow vet, an amputee, is having an argument with someone who thinks their sacrifices were all for nothing: He jumps the counter and slugs the guy across the face.

Detroit, 1945.

Detroit, 1945.

Although Sherwood, or maybe director William Wyler, was careful not to politicize the encounter too much – the guy’s a nihilist crank, not a Red agitator – the scene shines a light on a wound in the American soul that makes us politically lame to this day. It is against the rules to ever tell a soldier, “Your good intentions, and your sacrifice, got abused.” And if you do say so, that soldier and his friends are within their rights to pop you one.

Apparently there were people in 1945 willing to make that case, even when we had just beaten a global enemy that really was, as the saying goes, “just like Hitler.” And the predictable response from the war vets was to lash back, to make no concession to anyone who questions the war’s purposes or effects, and to go ahead and channel all that frustration you’re feeling about the very thing the critic is talking about into an ad hominem attack against him. In The Best Years of Our Lives, this scene is treated matter-of-factly, as if a political argument with a cynic that gets out of hand was something that just happens. The only thematic meaning that sticks to it is Fred’s transformation from a broken man settling for his old soda jerk job to a confident man who’ll stick up for his friend, even if it means throwing away the job he doesn’t need.

I can forgive a Fred for serving up a knuckle sandwich or two in 1945, but I can’t forgive someone today who exploits this impulse to dumb down the long overdue national conversation about peace. As the case of Bowe Bergdahl (no relation!) shows, we can’t even say the two words that need to be said first just to place any conversation about Iraq and Afghanistan here in the real world: “We lost.”


  1. Soham Mehta says:

    Thanks for the great reading in my break!


  2. Great post. What’s really complicates discussions of contemporary wars, the verbal “knuckle sandwich” that I constantly hear veterans–especially young ones–say, is “I fought for your freedom.” It is a residue of the Cold War “police actions” that were defended that way, perhaps out of a real sense that those military interventions were doing just that. Regardless of why it is said or how sincerely, it is intended to be a discussion closer. For me, though, the statement itself opens even more avenues of discussion.

  3. Thanks. A film that still has resonances. I enjoyed your thoughtful review and I’ll be back to your blog. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

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