I was recently motivated to watch the classic drama, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” because it won eight 1946 Oscars that included best picture, actor, supporting actor, director, original score and adapted screenplay. This powerful drama follows the difficulties three soldiers encounter when adjusting to life af-ter returning from WWII.
It was particularly poignant, but uncomfortable, to watch one of the characters, Homer Parrish, who lost two hands in the war and is trying to get used to his new prosthetic hands. It was shocking in its day, because Homer was played by Harold Russell, a navy veteran and a real double amputee. Pro-ducer Sam Goldwyn was criticized for his “tasteless” use of Harold, but his amazing performance helped greatly to raise the consciousness of Americans to the plight of returning injured war veterans.
Russell, an untrained actor, won an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” Although he was also nominated for best supporting actor, the board voted for the special award because they thought he had no chance of winning. But he did win it, and deservedly so, the only time an actor has been given two Oscars for the same role.
His performance is at once both mesmerizing and heart-wrenching. Undoubtedly for me the most powerful scene was when he invites his fiancée up to his bedroom for the purpose of showing her what is involved in getting ready for bed so she will understand why he thinks she shouldn’t marry him. He tells her, “This is when I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get any-thing except to cry for it.” You then witness the heartwarming response of his fiancé. The unflinching, sobering visuals blew me away.
Flash forward 63 years from 1946, and Brendan, a member of the U.S. Army infantry, is fighting in the Iraq war. On April 12, 2009, he suffered catastrophic injuries in an explosion that rendered him a quadruple amputee. In describing the prosthetic arms given to him, he said they were “heavy, hard to use and cumbersome” much like those of Homer Parrish. But medicine had advanced greatly since 1946, and a general of the Marine Corps offered something different: transplanted arms and hands from a donor via a new miraculous, breakthrough proce-dure.
It took two years to find a donor, and the procedure was finally per-formed. The double surgery of two complete arms was successful, but that was just the start; it took two years for the nerves to grow back into his new hands plus 6 hrs/day of intensive therapy. Thanks to the generosity of the donor and her family, he now lives independently and can bathe, cook and care for him-self. They could only dream about such things in 1946.