Cinematographer Gregg Toland, left, William Wyler, Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo on "The Best Years of Our Lives" set.

Editor’s Note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of “Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.”

Story highlights

Many will watch "It's a Wonderful Life" this Christmas season, Nicolaus Mills says

Mills: But the movie we should watch is another 1946 classic, "The Best Years of Our Lives"

Oscar-winning film shows peacetime difficulties faced by three World War II vets, he says

Today, veterans aged 20-24 have an unemployment rate of nearly 30%, Mills says

CNN  — 

This Christmas season the classic film most of us will watch on our televisions is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” With good reason: It’s the perfect feel-good Christmas movie. In celebrating the quiet good works that Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has done in running his family’s savings and loan bank for the benefit of the residents of Bedford Falls, “It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of American modesty at its best.

But the movie we ought to be watching this Christmas season is another 1946 classic, William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” With a script by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, who also was a speechwriter for President Franklin Roosevelt, “The Best Years of Our Lives” tells the story of the difficulties three World War II veterans overcome on returning to their peacetime lives in the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City.

What makes the Academy Award-winning “Best Years of Our Lives” so relevant are the problems today’s veterans – now coming home in increased numbers with the end of the Iraq war – are having finding a place in civilian life.

Veterans in the 20-24 age bracket have an unemployment rate of nearly 30%, more than double the 14.5% unemployment rate of nonveterans in the same age group, and veterans of all ages have an unemployment rate of 11.8% compared with the civilian unemployment rate of nearly 9%.

Nicolaus Mills

Equally alarming are the mental health figures for today’s returning vets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans account for about one in five of the more than 30,000 suicides committed annually in the United States, and the problem is only getting worse. This year 10,000 combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder entered Veterans Affairs hospitals every three months, pushing the number of vets ill with PTSD to 200,000, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” does not present us with a programmatic answer for how to help returning vets. Wyler does not even mention the GI Bill of Rights, which eventually made it possible for 4.3 million vets to purchase homes at low interest rates and for 2.2 million vets to attend college. But what “The Best Years of Our Lives” does emphasize is that for those who fight them, our wars continue long after they officially end.

In “the Best Years of Our Lives,” Al Stephenson, a banker played by Fredric March, is the best off of the three vets, but only because of the patience of his wife can Al settle back into the routine of office work.

Fred Derry, an Air Force bomber captain played by 1940s leading man Dana Andrews, discovers his wife has been unfaithful to him, and gets back on his feet only because he persuades a compassionate local businessman to give him a job turning old B-17 bombers into scrap that can be used for building houses.

And Homer Parrish, a sailor played by real-life veteran Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in a World War II training accident, is able to accept the notion that he isn’t a freak because the girl he left behind finally convinces him that his wounds don’t repel her.

The result is a series of bittersweet endings that are inseparable from the film’s implicit belief that most vets can’t succeed on their own when they return home. They need help.

The release of “The Best Years of Our Lives” in November 1946 made it possible for Wyler to deliver his bittersweet message during America’s second post-World War II Christmas season. The timing was perfect for a director whose three years of service in the U.S. Army Air Forces did not blind him to the harsh realities that followed even a “good war.”

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The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.