Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, newest Republican candidate for president, and Iraq War veteran (as a Navy JAG), said a poignant thing in a recent speech in Iowa that is worth recalling this Memorial Day weekend. Addressing the mounting attacks on him not just from the left but from many on the right, led by a popular yet vindictive ex-president, DeSantis put the incoming fire in perspective:
I used to think about this when I was flying into Washington D.C. If you’ve ever done it, there’s sometimes when you go into Reagan Airport that you can fly flush parallel to the National Mall. And if you look out the left side of the plane, you can see beautiful panoramic views of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument, all the way up to the Hill, the Capitol building perched on Capitol Hill. And you think to yourself, man, this is what America is all about.… But what I realized was the best monuments of freedom were not out the left side of the plane. Because if you look out the right side of the plane, you would look over the Potomac River, you saw a lot of nondescript monuments arranged neatly over rolling hills in a place called Arlington National Cemetery. And it occurred to me you can have the best Declaration of Independence in the world, you can have the best Constitution in the world, but if you don’t have people that are willing — throughout all our history — to stand up, put on that uniform, risk their lives, and in many instances give that last full measure of devotion, then it isn’t going to amount to very much.
There was a time when the vast majority of Americans believed the same, even liberals. Several Democratic lions of the Greatest Generation were war heroes: George McGovern (Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, World War II), Fritz Hollings (Bronze Star, WWII), John Glenn (six DFCs, WWII, Korea), Charlie Rangel (Bronze Star, Korea). Later in Congress, they would disagree with their Republican counterparts on the best future for the country, but they had helped to ensure that future. As boys, they had shared the same culture, admired the same military legends — George Washington, Davy Crockett, George Armstrong Custer, Teddy Roosevelt, Alvin York — and read the same books about them. And seen the same films. (READ MORE: The Case for Ron DeSantis)
Two stirring war pictures became big hits in 1941, right before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — Sergeant York, starring all-American Gary Cooper as the beloved title hero of World War I, and They Died With Their Boots On, featuring Errol Flynn as a rather fanciful Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer in the Indian Wars. Both movies, and others like them, inspired millions of young men to leave their safe homeland and fight in enemy territory, where many lost their lives. But that was long before Hollywood became Hollywoke and began trashing soldiers as dysfunctional jerks.
Soon enough, young people with no conception of conflict or history were assailing George Washington for having owned slaves. Or forcing the removal of an 80-year-old horseback statue of Teddy Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History because it featured a black man and an Indian afoot. Such woke lunacy was partly due to the cowardice and apathy of the baby boomers in failing to bequeath the values of their heroic fathers to their spoiled offspring, and to confront the leftist academia brainwashing them.
They literally left their children to their own devices — the mobile kind with mindless videos, addictive games, and social media blather — rather than showing them great patriotic art created for a larger screen. These were films that depicted the true selflessness and courage of their fathers and grandfathers, made by top auteurs who understood them, since they had witnessed the same war — John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, and William Wyler.
Wyler directed the greatest movie about what these men went through — not in World War II but right after it — when they came home to a strange new world, postwar America. It’s the story of three newly returned veterans — rich banker Al, drugstore clerk Fred, and blue-collar Homer, whose lost hands and forearms had been replaced with hooks — and how each readapts to their new status while rejecting the old.
A fine new book, Making The Best Years of Our Lives: The Hollywood Classic That Inspired a Nation, by Alison Macor chronicles the conception, construction, production, reception, and legacy of the 1946 classic. Reading it makes you truly appreciate the artistry of cinema when produced by masters and bearing a heavy weight — to reflect the feelings, fears, and frustrations of millions of heroes and their loved ones. The cases of badly wounded men like Homer especially required maximum sensitivity and care. So even going in, the filmmakers knew that their medium had to match the message, and a false note would kill them at the box office. Learning how they achieved the perfect balance step by step is the real pleasure of Macor’s book.
The author engrossingly describes how producer Samuel Goldwyn came across a Time magazine article about returning servicemen. How he commissioned a journalist-novelist to turn the article into a novel and playwright Robert Sherwood to adapt the screenplay. How Goldwyn hired his ace director, William Wyler (joint films These Three, Wuthering Heights), who just happened to be a wounded World War II veteran, having gone deaf in one ear filming an actual bombing mission over Germany. How Wyler found his Harold on a training film for wounded veterans demonstrating his aptitude with hooks. How Wyler and Goldwyn assembled the rest of the sublime cast (Fredric March as Al, Myrna Loy as his wife, Teresa Wright as their daughter, and Dana Andrews as Fred, Virginia Mayo as his wife). How every creative decision turned out to be pretty inspired. How the picture came together beautifully. And how audiences, critics, and military families rewarded it with awards and blockbuster international success.
This is the appropriate weekend — and week — to see The Best Years of Our Lives, again or for the first time. And if you want to learn more about it, now you have the best book to do so.
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