Home of the Brave

In 1946, Samuel Goldwyn produced and William Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, which went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (by Robert E. Sherwood). It was widely regarded as having given a voice to the interests and concerns of the returning American veterans of the Second World War — including those who, like one of its stars (Harold Russell), had returned home maimed and disabled. If you watch it today you may be struck, as I was, by how desperately its veterans — including poor Mr Russell, who lost both his hands in an accident — want to be re-integrated into society, to pick up the lives they had left before the war with as few changes as possible. The word “normal” resounds throughout the film as if it described some beautiful dream.

In this respect if in no other, it is the polar opposite of Irwin Winkler’s new movie, Home of the Brave, which is bound to be compared to and seems to have been modeled on it. Both pictures take a group of veterans from the same home town — the fictional Boone City, USA, in Best Years and the real Spokane, Washington, in Home — and show the difficulties they face on returning home. But Winkler’s Iraq vets are (mostly) the enemies of normality. “You want us to come back like nothing ever happened,” growls Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson), a traumatized combat surgeon, to his long-suffering wife (Victoria Rowell). “You don’t want to get your hands dirty with the details.”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact that’s exactly what we do want. Some of us anyway. And it was once what the veterans themselves wanted too. But things have changed since 1946. There are, I think, two reasons for this. One is that, about halfway through the intervening 60 years, the imaginations of both the general culture and of Hollywood were captured by a new idea, an illness first diagnosed in the aftermath of Vietnam called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Ever since then you would be hard put to it to find a war movie in which one or more of the characters didn’t suffer from the psychological after-effects of combat. To judge by the movies, war is now less a political or military matter than an excuse for loss of impulse control.

The second reason is that both Hollywood and the larger media culture of which it is a part are probably at least as anti-war today as they were pro-war in 1946. In one scene of the earlier film, a Nazi sympathizer suggests that America had fought the wrong enemy and that the sacrifices of her soldiers had been in vain. One of the sympathetic vets (Dana Andrews) decks him with a single punch to the jaw. Such straightforward patriotic fervor (as it would have been seen at the time) is long gone from American movies — in case you hadn’t noticed — and the returning heroes today are meant to be admired (like the heroes of the anachronistic Flags of our Fathers) not for their heroic deeds or their patriotism but for their sufferings — and the more so when they can be portrayed as sufferings in a bad cause.

In one scene of Home of the Brave, Billy (Sam Jones III), the troubled son of the troubled surgeon, is sent home from school for wearing a T-shirt with an obscene and insulting message about President Bush. Mr Jackson’s character, suffering from insomnia, alcoholism and “anger issues” — long recognized as being among the symptoms of PTSD — responds by cursing out the principal. Then, when his son tells him that “We went over there for oil and the rest is bull****,” dad doesn’t deny it, though he puts the opinion down to typical teenage rebellion. “All 15-year-olds hate their parents,” he says. “If I were a pacifist, he’d be in Fallujah by now.” Apparently the permissions for anger conferred by post-traumatic stress, unlike guilt, pass down from father to son.

Another of the veterans, played by someone calling himself “50 cent,” goes on a rampage with a gun and is shot by police. A third (Brian Presley) assaults his father when he is urged not to show weakness by getting all weepy about a friend who died. This guy, unable to fit back into civilian life, ends up re-enlisting in the army for a second tour in Iraq. Only Jessica Biel’s character, a single mother whose loss of a hand to an IED makes her possibly more attractive than if she had two — and certainly more attractive than if, like Harold Russell, she had none — looks anything like the heroes of Best Years in trying to pick up the threads of her life and returning to “normal.” And even she pops pills and has to explain to her adorable moppet that “mommy just gets a little bit sad sometimes.”

As a result, Home of the Brave bears an uncomfortable resemblance to one of those disease-of-the-week daytime soap operas. So much dysfunction, so little time! It’s one thing to recognize that warriors often come home scarred by the war and quite another to milk their sufferings out of a combination of voyeurism and pity. Pity is, of course, just what the heroes of The Best Years of Our Lives didn’t want, which is why they strove so mightily to return to normal — by which they meant acting, in Samuel L. Jackson’s scornful phrase, “like nothing ever happened” in spite of their sufferings. Thus when, in the earlier film, Dana Andrews’s minxish wife, played by Virginia Mayo, for once shows a bit of what, for her, amounts to tenderness and asks him: “Are you all right in your mind?” he replies: “In my mind? What do you think? That I’ve gone goofy or something?”

The old-fashioned idea that mental disturbance was something to be ashamed of may not have much to be said for it, but on the movie screen it does, paradoxically, elicit more genuine feeling than the more recent idea of making a parade out of such afflictions. Best Years is also like Home of the Brave in presenting us with a character, played by Fredric March, who is like Samuel L. Jackson’s in being an obvious alcoholic. But those were the days of the comic drunk, and March’s character fits comfortably into the stereotype. Never is it suggested that his job or his loving relationships are impaired by his drinking, or that it is in any other way a reason for compassion. On the contrary, as he gets at the booze early, even before the ceremony, at a wedding, the others only admire his capacity. “He can take it,” one of his comrades says.

This could sum up the whole movie as well as the ethos that got us through World War II. Home of the Brave, by contrast, tells us that its heroes can’t take it. They have to “act out” — and it’s all somebody else’s fault when they do. Could this have anything to do with the fact that it is now beginning to look as if we don’t have what it takes to get us through the current war? Though Mr Winkler’s movie’s politics are mostly un- or under-stated, apart from Billy’s outburst, there is an unmistakable subtext of reproach to our country’s leaders in the loving display of neurotic, psychotic and anti-social behavior, all supposedly caused by the war “for oil.” I make no judgment on the politics of Home of the Brave, but I think that, even if I were a pacifist, I would find its message far less affecting in the way that movie drama always strives to be than the simple patriotism and the heroic repressions of The Best Years of Our Lives.


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