War films are a dime a dozen, so much so that even individual wars are now their own genre of film. There’s a distinction between World War II films, Vietnam Films, the wars of old, and even fictional conflict. I’m a big fan of war films; my favorites are the ones with the best photography of conflict – All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line – are but a few. These films aim to instill in the audience the same fear and despair that is felt by soldiers during battle. As a history student, I am a big fan of war films that recount stories, such as Joyeaux Noel, Downfall, and Gallipoli. Although dramatised, they offer insight into the events in a way that differs from regular sources. I also love war films set in real wars, but are complete works of fiction designed to tell a good story, such as Inglourious Bastards and Dr. Strangelove. Regardless of their appeal, though, there is something about war that almost all war films lack – the aftermath.
William Wyler’s Best Picture winning film tells the story of three men who come home from war as men who appear the same but are fundamentally different.
All men, in some way, return home from war changed. Some take to alcohol, some grow disaffected from their families, while others have to learn to deal with new disabilities. The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that deals with all of these issues. Set and released a year after World War II, William Wyler’s Best Picture winning film tells the story of three men who come home from war as men who appear the same but are fundamentally different. There is the sailor, now with hooks for hands, who tries to adjust to a staring family; there is the Sergeant, who grows distant from his family and work, takes up drinking as his form of comfort; and there is the captain, jobless and haunted by war fatigue, watching as his once vibrant marriage turns loveless. Each of them has to readjust to their new lives, while attempting to help each other out on the way. After wading through dead bodies, some close friends, some their own kills, how could they simply go back to being normal? For 1946, the film acted as a zeitgeist for the generation, but the film’s theme is timeless, remaining significant for any war.
Thirty years later, former soldiers were getting over another war, this time Vietnam, and another such film was made. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver explores Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although it barely ever mentions the actual war. Travis Bickle, the film’s anti-hero, is lonely and depressed. We see his body slightly damaged and his mind completely shattered by the war. We know nothing of his service, except that he was a marine and that he was wounded. Still, we get the sense that he must have been through hell to come out as confused and misanthropic as he does. Taxi Driver deals with the issue more subtly than The Best Years of Our Lives, but there is no doubting that war’s aftermath is the real theme for both films.
…characters also choose suicide rather than continue to live with the horrors of what they saw
There are a few other examples, but they are often more heavy handed. We see Tommy Lee Jones’s character die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Hell. Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken’s characters also choose suicide rather than continue to live with the horrors of what they saw in Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, respectively. Rambo launches a one-man war at the slightest provocation from Washington police officers – the list could go on, but my point is, the horrors returning veterans face is seldom treated as honestly or as thoroughly as it was in The Best Years of Our Lives or Taxi Driver.
It’s an issue that is harder for filmmakers to deal with than war itself. Whilst war is certainly hell, it is also relevant for every generation and historically has captured our collective imaginations. Everyone has a friend or a relative who has served, surely feels proud of his or her service. The transition home is, in many ways, just as hard on the soldiers, but much less glorious. However, the few films that have been made on the subject are in every way as important to the genre as any other war film.
Author: Malcolm Coates
Image: Bigger Forgotten War