Till the End of Time (1946) examines the difficulties of post-war adjustment for three returning Marines, their families, and a war widow for whom the post-war world – as it was for anyone who lost someone in the war -- is not so much an experience to be adjusted to, but to just endure. Despite being a good film in its own right with good performances, it lacks the beauty, the inspiration, and the dramatic punch of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), discussed here, which was released some five months later. Though Till the End of Time apparently did well at the box office for being a timely film and was popular in its day (taking its title from an already popular song of the era), today it has been pretty well eclipsed by The Best Years of Our Lives as the most beloved movie about returning World War II vets.
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Guy Madison stars as one of the returning Marines, a handsome fellow who has to remind himself occasionally how lucky he is to have returned without any physical or psychiatric wounds from the war, plagued only by a feeling of restlessness that takes him weeks to understand and accept as part of the process of adjustment to peacetime life.
Dorothy McGuire plays the war widow in a role quite different from most of her other work. This was her sixth film, and the five preceding this were quality films in which she produced quality work (we covered Claudia, Claudia and David, The Spiral Staircase, and The Enchanted Cottage), so apparently, with the reputation of being a discerning and mature young stage actress, she was allowed to play the part of a woman who copes with the loss of her flier husband by attaching herself temporarily to several men, breezing through relationships with no intention of settling on any one of them. This would have been a floozy role in the hands of anyone else, but McGuire brings depth and sympathy to a character that can be flippant, bristling, showing her pain, her intelligence, and her capacity to still empathize with others despite wanting to shut herself off from such feelings.
She seems much more mature emotionally than Guy Madison, and just as Miss McGuire was actually some five or six years older than he in real life, we might assume her character is older, which makes their relationship even more unusual for the era and more interesting. Though she has played ingenues, Dorothy McGuire is the world-weary woman of experience who, after steamy moments, smiles amusedly at Mr. Madison.
Robert Mitchum plays Madison’s Marine buddy, who is being released from a military hospital for a head wound suffered on Iwo Jima, for which he has a metal plate in his head. He is an easy-going cowboy who wants to buy a ranch back home in New Mexico. He’ll go broke in Vegas before he ever gets his ranch, and a couple of fights will bring warning headaches that may threaten his life.
The third Marine is a pal of Mitchum’s whom he met in the hospital, played by Bill Williams, who has had both legs amputated. He has returned home to a widowed mother and a younger brother, ashamed to be a burden to them. He had been a boxer before the war, and his career is obviously over, with no interest in another one.
The movie opens with the discharge process, the awarding of service record documents, of mustering out pay, and with stern advice given by William Gargan, who will pop up through the movie as a Marine rehabilitation officer, trying to get the boys on a firm path to civilian life and to avail themselves of any advantages the military has for counseling, pensions for the wounded, etc. Mitchum balks at applying for a pension for the brain injury that will likely debilitate him in years to come.
Guy Madison takes a cab home to his parents’ stucco house in Los Angeles. His folks are out, so he has a quiet homecoming, entering through the back door with the customary hidden key. He lifts the service flag from the window and drapes it over a family photo in the living room, signifying the missing family member has returned. However, he walks through the house rather briskly, with seemingly little reflection. He enters his boyhood room with all its juvenile trappings of pennants, street signs, a deflated football, and we might be reminded of Homer’s room in The Best Years of Our Lives. He is amused an old jacket does not fit him. With nothing to do here, goes to a local hangout. Unfortunately, moments like this which could have been dramatized to greater effect were sort of breezed through. The movie has strong dialogue, especially in scenes between Dorothy McGuire and Madison, but much of director Edward Dmytryk’s work pales by comparison. In many scenes, we might consciously miss the strong, sensitive intuition of William Wyler, who would have made more of such simple things.
Jean Porter is the bouncy girl next door, a comic hepcat who makes eyes at Madison. Guy’s mother, played by Ruth Nelson, would like him to date her, but she’s just a kid. On a skating double-date, she refers respectfully to Dorothy McGuire as “Mrs. Ruscomb,” stressing her age, but which Dorothy regards only with wry amusement. Jean Porter would later marry director Edward Dmytryk.
If Till the End of Time does not have the same power as The Best Years of Our Lives, it does, however, have a gritty quality that makes it especially interesting in comparison. Till the End of Time goes to areas where Best Years does not go. Where Best Years may show the floozy wife played by Virginia Mayo telling her husband, Dana Andrews, who is plagued with nightmares to “Snap out it” and get over the war, we have Guy Madison’s parents, particularly his mother, actually refusing to allow him to talk about his war experiences because what her son has gone through to save the world is upsetting and disgusting. Other civilians, like Harry von Zell, who used to run the malt shop and now runs the local bar, welcomes Guy Madison home with, “You’re back from the thing! You all in one piece?”
The vets in Till the End of Time, including Guy’s old boyhood pal played by Loren Tindall, acknowledge that the only people they confide their experiences to are other vets. They make the decision to shut out the civilians. “Sometime you’ll tell me what you did, and I’ll tell you what I did.”
A case of PTSD is shown when McGuire and Madison grab a coffee at the skating rink snack bar and they notice a soldier, played by Richard Benedict, hunkered down over the counter, shaking wildly. They both move in to cover him and talk him through it. He is on leave from the local VA hospital, fearful to go home to his folks when he’s eventually released. He doesn’t want them to see him like this. This is not just a nightmare to be comforted from as it is only a dream, as Fred's nightmare was in Best Years, but rather this is a waking, conscious moment of utter panic and physical disability. It is ugly, and we don’t know what his family will think if he ever gets the nerve to go home to them.
Miss McGuire, the war widow, confronts Madison with her own particular gripes and burdens when he calls her a tramp for seeing other men. Though early in the movie he says that war widows should be given a Purple Heart, he demands that she get on with life just as other have demanded that of him. She laments that she bought into the dream of a post-war world with her husband and she was cheated out of it. “The war is over and John isn’t coming home and I’m stuck with my dream.”
His parents nag Madison to get a job as he is floundering at home doing nothing, even Dorothy McGuire encourages him to go work. She asks what has he done for work?
“Go to school. Go to war.” As for so many of his generation.
She gets him a job where she works in a factory manufacturing radios. She works in the office. He works in the plant where a young Blake Edwards is his foreman. After starting a fight with the foreman, Madison explains to McGuire, who has followed him to a hamburger stand, “Okay. I’m back from the war. I’m lucky. I’ve got two arms, two legs, and two eyes. Nine out of ten fellows are going to be in the same shape. Normal. Then what’s bothering me? I’m edgy. I feel out of things. You know why? Because I’ve been scrounged. I’m robbed of three and a half years. Somebody stole my time.”
It’s a movie where the hero gets to be a petulant whiner, and that is honest, because only a superhero could undergo such sacrifice for so many years and not complain. And the Greatest Generation were human.
Even Bill Williams, wallowing in angry self-pity over his double amputation, is brought to action by his mother, who reminds him of a man who lost the use of his legs. “He didn’t quit. He got to be President.”
It even takes one step farther a political warning raised in Best Years. In that movie, we see Ray Teal confront Homer and Fred about “Americanism” and how we should have been fighting on the side of the Nazis. Fred satisfyingly socks him. Till the End of Time hints throughout the film that veterans’ groups are contacting vets through the mail and soliciting their membership, some of the groups have far-right leanings. Madison’s dad, played by the wonderful Tom Tully, warns him against them. In a climactic scene at the end of the film, Robert Mitchum, Madison, and Bill Williams are in a bar and they are confronted by one such belligerent far-right vets’ group, the American War Patriots. They don’t allow Catholics, Jews, or Blacks. The Black soldier who has been playing pinball with Mitchum watches them and leaves in disgust. The Nazi sympathizers aren’t just civilian malcontents; they’re actual veterans of whom we now need to be afraid.
We may remember Caleb Peterson as being the Black soldier helping to move the airplane engine in the opening scene of The Best Years of Our Lives.
Mitchum responds, telling them about a war buddy of theirs, Maxie Klein. “If Maxie were here, he’d probably spit right in your eye. But Maxie’s dead on Guadalcanal. So just for him, I’m going to spit in your eye.” And he does. The fight that breaks out seriously reinjures Mitchum’s skull injury, and they rush him to the hospital.
The film does not conclude so much as it decompresses, with the operation a success, and Dorothy McGuire suddenly chummy with Guy’s mother, but we don’t know when or how that happened.
Till the End of Time is not as polished as The Best Years of Our Lives, but it stretches further into uncomfortable areas that are worth taking a good hard look at. And then, too, there’s a nice beach scene between Dorothy McGuire and Guy Madison which we discussed in this previous post.
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Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally. Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.