I caught a portion of David Lynch’s The Straight Story on television very late one night recently, and was struck again by not only how naturalistic and charming the late Richard Farnsworth (above left) is in the title role of Alvin Straight, an ailing Midwesterner who sets off on a 500-mile trek on a riding mower to visit his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) after the latter has suffered a stroke, but also just how completely devastating is the scene he shares with a fellow World War II veteran.
It’s a time-whiling sequence between two strangers. Sharing the scene with Wiley Harker (above right), Farnsworth’s character opts for a glass of milk instead of a beer, and glancingly relates, in a single line of dialogue, how a pastor, after many years, finally helped lead him away from the bottle. The duo start talking about their war experiences, and Straight tells how he can still read and translate the unique pain from battle in a man’s face, decades on. “That’s one thing I can’t shake loose — all my buddies’ faces are still young,” he says. “And the thing is, the more years I have, the more they’ve lost.”
The scene culminates in a long monologue about Straight’s training as a sniper and his experiences in Germany, and it’s perhaps the most low-key but emotionally overwhelming passage of personal combat experience I’ve ever seen put to film. You already have sympathy for Straight, a decent and honest guy. But in this span of just a few minutes — which ostensibly has nothing to do with the main narrative of reconciliation with his brother — this story paints a detailed portrait of a man gripped by despair and loss. And it absolutely wrecks you.
This reminds me of my grandfather, a Marine during WW II and a quiet, honorable and unassuming man back home, who speaks of his time overseas reluctantly, and only in the broadest terms. And it makes you realize what in your heart of hearts you already know — that war doesn’t really end with air-quote victory, whether fully realized or courtesy of cooked-book historical re-framing. And that there’s now another generation of scarred young men and women, waiting to take their place — in pained, swallowed silence — on barstools and in easychairs across America.