Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Between Friends: Disability, Masculinity, and Rehabilitation in the Best Years of Our Lives

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Between Friends: Disability, Masculinity, and Rehabilitation in the Best Years of Our Lives

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's 1946 film about three World War II veterans returning home to a small Midwestern town, has long been notable for its frank treatment of wartime trauma, disability, and the personal and cultural crises of masculinity precipitated by the end of the war. In addition to the film's seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, the Academy also honored Harold Russell, the World War II veteran and bilateral hand amputee who played Homer Parrish, "For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives."1 In his comprehensive history of disability in film, Martin Norden calls Best Years "one of the most forthright, sensitive, and honest depictions of the physically disabled experience in movie history" for its multidimensional portrayal of a physically disabled character and nuanced depiction of "rehabilitation and post-rehabilitation issues" (167, 160). The Best Years of Our Lives has also been central to analyses of masculinity in Hollywood cinema; extraordinary, Kaja Silverman writes, for its failure to shore up the heroes' masculinity. Instead, the film "focuses obsessively and at times erotically on the physical and psychic mutilation of the three veterans" and "sustains the correlation of masculinity and castration until the very end" (53, 69). In this article, I return to this touchstone text to reconsider the film's staging of the disabled male body. Attending to the friendship that develops among the three veterans, I aim to complicate the equation of disability with castration implicit in readings of masculinity and heterosexuality in the film's rehabilitation narratives by considering the role of male homosociality in the film's depiction of masculinity and disability.

On their return to their fictional hometown of Boone City, all three protagonists face crises of normative masculinity in losses of status, difficulties in their relationships, and the lingering effects of wartime trauma. Al Stephenson (Fredric March), the oldest of the three, feels estranged from his wife and two children and struggles with his return to work as a loan officer when his employers want him to deny loans to servicemen. Leaving behind his position as an Air Force Captain, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to a low-paying job as a drugstore clerk, and finds his marriage quickly dissolving when he cannot maintain the image of "Air Force glamour boy." It is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), however, a young sailor who lost both hands when his ship was attacked, who carries the visual weight of the veterans' ambivalent relationship to normative masculinity and able-bodiedness. Homer's disability functions as a "narrative prosthesis" for the film's exploration of postwar experience, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's term for the pervasive use of disability as "a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (49). Homer's prosthetic hooks comprise the visual center of the film's representation of wartime trauma and loss; the story of Homer's reconciliation with and marriage to his childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) is the central narrative thread on which the film's rehabilitation stories hang. This marriage plot, along with its corollaries in Al and Fred's stories, has been central to readings of disability and masculinity in the film. I argue, however, that to focus on heterosexual romance in The Best Years of Our Lives is to tell only half the story; running parallel to the romance narratives is a narrative of homosocial friendship between Al, Fred, and Homer that is equally important for their reintegration into the civilian world. Friendship allows the three veterans to cope with the physical and psychological traumas of the war outside of the narratives of heterosexual romance that structure the film's logic of rehabilitation, offering an ameliorative space that does not demand elision of the war's traumas and the traces, visible and invisible, that it leaves behind. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.