A few months back, I compiled a playlist of songs that reminded me of specific scenes, themes, or characters in Diana Gabaldon’s third novel, Voyager. Some of those songs have also been featured in multiple film soundtracks, so I began thinking of films that shared a common element with Voyager, upon which the third season of the Starz series is based. Every Friday up to the season premiere in September, I’ll suggest a film to watch over the weekend alongside the Starz Channel’s rebroadcasting of previous episodes in order.
How a film made the Droughtlander film list:
In selecting each title, I looked at one or more aspects in common with Voyager or the Outlander series up to the third book. A film may contain a character who reminds me of Jamie, Claire, Frank, or any other person in Diana’s world; it may share a similar theme; it may be remarkable for its costume design, set direction, or cinematography. At the least, you will watch (or rewatch) an outstanding film.
Film #1: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)
Why It’s Included: Themes of isolation and reconnection
Wyler’s 1946 drama deals with post-traumatic stress disorder before that was even a term (it was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980). In World War I, it was called “shell shock”; in World War II, a soldier may return home with “battle fatigue.” According to the website of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, an Austrian physician named Josef Leopold identified symptoms of trauma in soldiers such as “missing home, feeling sad, sleep problems, and anxiety” and referred to this as “nostalgia.” An excellent, if heartbreaking, documentary on this subject and the treatment of veterans is HBO’s Wartorn: 1861-2010 (2010).
Having three main characters in the Outlander universe -- Jamie, Claire, and Frank -- also military veterans in the very different realms of combat, field hospital, and espionage (or maybe more where Frank is concerned), the presence of post-traumatic stress in their lives after war is viscerally felt. PTSD isn’t relegated only to situations of combat, either: Jamie experiences it after his torture and rape by Jack Randall, Claire after the loss of Faith and return to her previous life in the late 1940s, and Frank by the abrupt reappearance of his missing and now-pregnant wife.
In Wyler’s film, three American soldiers are returning to the same hometown of Boone City after serving in World War II. It is important to note that none of the men knew each other prior to the war, as each lived in different parts of town and came from different backgrounds and economic situations.
Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to the swanky high-rise apartment he shares with his doting wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), a son now in college, and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), who has graduated and works as a hospital nurse. His first glances at Milly are exultant and delighted, but he looks at his now-grown children with pointed curiosity, as they have changed markedly in his years overseas.
Pilot Fred Derry briefly stops in on his elderly father and stepmother, who live across the tracks in tenement housing, before trying to get into his own apartment, only to find his wife not home. Derry and his gorgeous bride, Marie (Virginia Mayo) barely knew each other before the war; now, she has made a living as a cocktail waitress and enjoys the carefree independence of socializing and dancing in nightclubs. Having to regress back to housewife while Fred tries to find work puts them both at odds.
Ensign Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is the youngest of the three and the most outwardly affected by the war, as both his hands had been burnt off in an explosion. The Navy fitted him with a set of prosthetic hooks and trained him how to open doors, lift a glass, smoke a cigarette. On the plane, he’s excited to be home and shows downright pluck among his new friends (the servicemen immediately have that unspoken connection that grows stronger throughout the film), but, once his taxi pulls up in front of his middle-class home on an ordinary street, he is hesitant and fearful. Suddenly, the ordinary does not include him, and he’s almost a spectator viewing all the comforts and memories of his old life, including his childhood sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).
Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood (adapting the novel by MacKinlay Kantor) place as much emphasis on the men’s transition back to life in Boone City as that of their families and friends. Al and Milly have been married twenty-five years, yet their first days back together are full of tentative steps of reconnecting with the subtle familiarities of each other as well as the new characteristics that emerged with time and experience. Fred and Marie united in the romance, passion, and fantasy of a soldier going off to battle and leaving behind his lady fair, but the harsh realities of unemployment and negative attitudes toward veterans taking scarce jobs leave Fred in an identity crisis and Marie frustrated by a fizzled second honeymoon. Homer is, at once, distant from Wilma, whose love for him never falters, as he can’t see how she can accept and love him in his current state, and worries how he will be able to support her and how they can make a life together. His only respite from the crushing pressure and isolation at home (Wilma’s house is right next door, but it might as well be ten miles away) is at a downtown pub owned by his Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), who is well accustomed to sad eyes behind wide smiles and sees through the wall his nephew has built around himself.
Time and time again in Jamie’s two decades after Culloden, he finds himself lost in the most familiar surroundings. Children grow around him, husbands and wives are tender to each other, farms grow crops and animals have babies, but he is, at once, immersed in a life and excluded from it. It takes great presence of self and mind to exist beyond basic survival. For the veterans in Wyler’s film, returning to life in Boone City is like crashing into Oz and finding the color palette completely different due to the sacrifices they made to get back there. Suddenly, the life they were fighting to preserve overseas is right in front of them, and it’s almost like each man is a blurry avatar of that soldier back on the battlefield or ship or plane, trying desperately to become whole again and rejoin the world.