Archive for May 29th, 2010

Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives”

It’s Memorial Day weekend and every year at this time, TCM shows films with  military themes as a way of honoring the holiday.  I see that tonight they’re showing The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946.  It’s a movie I have watched a number of times and am always reminded of one of its stars, Harold Russell.

Harold Russell was not an actor.  He had been an Army instructor during World War II when he lost both hands in an accident while handling explosives.  Near the war’s end, he was the focus of a film about the rehabilitation of disabled vets which is where director William Wyler first saw him and decided to cast him as Homer Parrish, a sailor who loses both hands in the war.

Though not a trained actor, Russell gives a spectacular performance as Homer.  There are many memorable scenes with Homer that linger with you long after the film ends.  One that stands out for me is one in which Homer is in the garage and his young sister and a friend are watching from outside and Homer, tired and frustrated at the stares and pointed fingers from the curious, smashes his hooks through the window at the girls.  The visual impact of the scene is brilliant.

There are many other scenes  that shine as well and they came together to bring Russell the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film.  He holds a unique distinction as the only actor to have two Oscars for the same performance.  You see, the Oscar board thought Russell had no chance at winning and wanted to honor his performance for bringing attention to the plight of disabled vets so they chose to honor him with a special Oscar.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a compelling film.  Sure, there are moments of sentimentality.  How could there not be?  But this is no rosy view of the world in any way.  It has a dark grim tone and shows the damage the war has inflicted on the returning vets, both physically and emotionally.  It has an honesty about the subject of the effects of war that you didn’t often see in contemporary films of the time.  The vets returned to a world that was changed from that which they remembered and they were often forced to deal with indifference and sometimes scorn from a public that soon forgot their sacrifice.   It seems to me to be the jumping off point for the dark realism of  many films from the next decade.

So, if you get a chance tonight take a look.  It’s a great film and you’ll be reminded why we honor the sacrifice of those who served.  Here’s a great scene with Harold Russell as Homer and his girlfriend, who he has felt alienated from because of his disability. He’s trying to show her what she will face in the reality of  a life with him.

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