In the wake of a most horrific injury, Harold Russell is in hospital facing a tough decision. Not long ago, he was an able-bodied American soldier serving his country in the midst of World War II. But now medical practitioners are asking him to choose between metal hooks or plastic extremities to replace his lost hands. Russell’s life has now changed forever, but more twists await.
Russell lost his hands because of an incident which took place on the infamous date of June 6, 1944. This, of course, was D-Day, when waves of Allied soldiers invaded the German-occupied French region of Normandy. The incursion involved about 156,000 American, Canadian and British soldiers arriving on heavily defended beaches. In terms of scale, no other amphibious military assault compares to the Normandy landings.
The extent of death and injury that occurred on D-Day is difficult to fathom. According to the United States National D-Day Memorial Foundation, almost 2,500 Americans were killed on that date. On top of that, some 1,914 other Allied soldiers died. Over all, that amounts to 4,413 deaths – and that’s to say nothing of the injuries.
June 6, 1944, was unquestionably a bloody day. Harold Russell’s life was forever altered then, too, yet he wasn’t involved in the Normandy landings himself. In fact, he was still in America, training fellow soldiers in handling explosives. Nonetheless, something horrific occurred: the TNT that he was holding detonated in his hands.
The day after the incident, the remnants of Russell’s hands were surgically removed. Now, he was going to have to choose between hooks or plastic hands as a replacement. He ultimately opted for the former option, and he quickly figured out how to use them. This was a positive outcome – and it ultimately led him to Hollywood.
Yet life as an actor had never looked remotely like a possibility for Russell. He was, after all, born into a normal family in the town of North Sydney in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Sadly, though, the young Russell experienced tragedy at the age of just six, when his father passed away.
Following the death of the family patriarch, Russell and the remaining members of his clan relocated to the United States, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, Russell’s mother worked as a nurse, while the young boy himself went through high school. When he finished up with this, he took a job at a grocery store.
While Russell was still in his 20s, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers on December 7, 1941. This historic event had a tremendous effect on the young man. After hearing the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the bombardment, Russell decided to sign up with the military.
Once he had completed his basic training, Russell then put himself forward to become a paratrooper. He gained these further skills, as well as a good working knowledge of demolitions. Apparently, all this gave the young man a feeling of direction in his life. And eventually he was given the task of instructing others in handling explosives.
Sadly, it was in the midst of his teaching that Russell’s life took a horrific turn. On the very same date that Allied soldiers were landing on the beaches of Normandy for D-Day, he was at a military facility in North Carolina. He was showing others how to handle TNT, but the fuse mechanism he was holding turned out to be faulty; horrifyingly, the charge exploded in his hands.
The injury that Russell experienced was dreadful, and whatever remained of his hands had to be removed. Naturally, this event sent the young man into a depression for several months. Eventually, the time had come for him to think about prosthetics. He was offered some vaguely aesthetic plastic hands, but he actually opted for something else.
Russell had viewed a medical clip concerning a new sort of instrument which was made up of hooks. He noted that these appeared capable of allowing their user to perform tasks quite well. So, he chose these hooks instead of the plastic hands and set about trying to master them.
The instrument allowed Russell to open the hook on his left side when he moved his right shoulder, and vice versa. Of course, it can’t have been easy to learn how to use this device, especially given the trauma of the incident that Russell had experienced. But he nonetheless persisted with his occupational therapy regime.
Over time, Russell learned how to use his hooks. Through determination and treatment, he was able to once again perform everyday tasks. He could, for instance, take a sip from a cup. He could use a door handle and even fasten the buttons on his clothes. In fact, he was once reported as remarking that he was able to gather up anything – except the bill for a meal.
Russell’s uncanny dexterity with his hooks soon made him stand out. He’d learned the skill very quickly, even catching the attention of some military seniors. It was decided that Russell should be cast in a military movie titled Diary of a Sergeant, which would be shown to personnel who had lost their hands. The production would show Russell undertaking regular tasks.
Diary of a Sergeant did rather well. It was screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and was utilized by the Department of the Treasury in its search for war funding. It was even put forward for the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art, which took place in the Italian city of Venice. And perhaps more importantly, it was shown to patients in medical facilities all over the United States.
Russell’s performance in the medical film was specifically worthy of note. He was an enthralling presence onscreen, somehow taking an extremely harrowing subject matter and injecting it with a degree of joy. He was so good in the film, in fact, that he even caught the attention of one William Wyler.
Before his passing in 1981, William Wyler had been one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. His 45-year career as a director was filled with masterpieces, starting in the silent movie era and taking him up to 1970. He won a total of three Best Director statuettes at the Oscars.
In the mid-1940s Wyler was getting to work on a new movie called The Best Years Of Our Lives. He needed an actor to play the part of Homer Parrish, a soldier who had lost his hands and required hooks to replace them. This might well have seemed like a tough role to cast – but then the director stumbled across Diary of a Sergeant.
Wyler was extremely impressed by Russell’s performance in Diary of a Sergeant. And so he tried to persuade his producer – a man named Samuel Goldwyn – to cast the rookie in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Goldwyn eventually relented, and Russell was cast. This bizarre turn of events presumably came as something of a shock to Russell; by now the amputee was a student on a business course at Boston University.
Before accepting the part, however, Russell had been reluctant. He didn’t want to be an actor and was nervous that his inexperience would be evident to anyone watching. Russell had never felt like a success, and it appears that he was afraid of demonstrating weakness on-screen. Nonetheless, he eventually signed on for the movie.
And it’s a good thing that he did, too. Russell’s turn as Homer Parrish was remarkable. Plus, it allowed him to show off his skills using his hooks. In one scene, he takes out a cigarette and lights it with a match. “Boy,” he says, “you ought to see me open a bottle of beer.”
Of course, a performance that glossed over the difficulties of life as an amputee wouldn’t have been as powerful. In another scene, the character of Homer expresses his concerns about how his girlfriend will react to his injuries. He says, “I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in the jukebox. But Wilma’s only a kid. She’s never seen anything like these hooks.”
Despite the character’s fears, though, Homer and his girlfriend get their happily-ever-after. In an uplifting scene, the pair wed. Using his hooks, Homer places a ring on his wife-to-be’s finger. She, meanwhile, holds onto the man’s hook throughout the service. It’s a hopeful scene which illustrates a triumph over adversity.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times newspaper in 2016, Mark Montgomery remarked of the film, “The scenario of Best Years is incredibly relevant even today. As three veterans of World War II readjust to civilian life, they soon face a changed and intolerant society. Realizing nothing will ever be the same, the soldiers valiantly struggle to mend broken relationships as they try to recapture a semblance of normalcy. The drama continues to strike a familiar chord.”
However, The Best Years Of Our Lives was also recognized for its quality during its own era. In fact, it picked up a total of eight Academy Awards. Moreover, it even proved to be a hit at the box office. And it’s amateur star Harold Russell – well, he picked up an Academy Award of his own.
Actually, Russell collected two statuettes from the Academy for his part in The Best Years Of Our Lives. To this day, such an achievement is unique, in that no other thespian has ever won two Oscars for one role. This occurred because he won Best Supporting Actor and also an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
Yet despite this tremendous success in the wake of The Best Years Of Our Lives, Russell didn’t act all that much afterwards. In fact, he even returned to college on the recommendation of Wyler. They believed, after all, that acting work would be in rather short supply for an amputee.
Russell completed his education and graduated. After that, he moved into the field of public relations, even setting up his own company. Aside from his professional dealings, though, he also became an activist. His cause was to help the disabled. The message that he tried to spread was, “It’s not what you lost, but what you have left and how you use it.”
Russell went on to represent an organization known as American Veterans or AMVETS. He became the group’s national figurehead, a role which saw him championing former soldiers and their loved ones as the organization’s chairman. And in 1950 the Oscar-winner set up another group, which was called the World Veterans Foundation.
In 1954 – eight years after it first came out – The Best Years Of Our Lives once again hit screens. Around this time, Russell was questioned by a member of the press as to why he hadn’t continued to act. He responded, “I decided to quit while I was ahead of the game.”
However, Russell didn’t give up acting entirely. You see, over the years, he made a handful of other appearances. For example, in 1980 he popped up in a movie called Inside Moves. And 17 years after that, he had a part in a flick called Dogtown. But really, acting wasn’t his primary pursuit.
Russell’s inspirational story even caught the attention of U.S. presidents over the years. Firstly, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy gave Russell the role of vice chairman of the so-called President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson later appointed him as the chairman, with President Richard Nixon then upholding this decision.
Despite all his success and status, Russell was seemingly not immune to financial troubles. He reportedly collected no more than $10,000 for The Best Years of Our Lives and received no subsequent royalties. By the early 1990s, the veteran needed some cash – and he had an idea for getting some.
Russell decided that he would put his coveted Best Supporting Actor award up for sale to raise some funds. He was heavily criticized by some for this move, but he insisted that the money was going towards medical treatment for his spouse. As he reportedly said at the time, “My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons.”
Nonetheless, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of that time tried to intervene. Karl Malden attempted to get his hands on the statuette by proposing a loan for Russell worth $20,000. The actor refused, however, and he shifted his award for a reported figure of more than $60,000.
Perhaps Russell’s decision to sell off his award was made easier by the fact that he still had another. He had, after all, picked up two. Indeed, the honorary award for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures” seemingly meant more to him than the supporting actor one.
Indeed, it seems that Russell was generally more dedicated to helping the disabled than to acting. For half a century, he worked hard to raise awareness for people in a position similar to his. All over the globe, he acted as a representative for those who had lost their limbs to injury.
Russell passed away in 2002, aged 88. He had lived quite the life, and it remains a source of inspiration to many people today. In fact, his good work has continued in a practical sense, as well. That is, after his death, the Harold Russell Foundation was set up to help those with disabilities.
As for The Best Years of Our Lives itself, the film has remained a poignant and important piece of work. Even now, some 74 years after its initial release, the movie has retained its power. As celebrated critic Roger Ebert once remarked, “As long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded, The Best Years of Our Lives will not be dated.”