William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) was not the first movie dealing with America's readjustment to life after World War II. Predating it by almost a year was the ironically titled, due to its obscurity, "Identity Unknown" (1945). This was a low-budget, 71 minute drama produced by Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures, directed by the forgotten Walter Colmes, and starred veteran actor Richard Arlen. The movie opens on a hospital ship where a doctor asks one of the patients (Arlen) how he is doing and then casually says "By the way, I don't think I know your name." Arlen starts to answer the question ("Neither do I sir...don't you know who I am?"), then hesitates, and realizes that he has no idea who he is either. The doctor asked Arlen the question to see if he might spontaneously remember his name and identity if he asked it casually. The doctor informs Arlen that, when he was found, he had no dog tags on him because they were blown off. Arlen was discovered alongside the bodies of three other men who took cover at an abandoned farmhouse in France where they had been holding off the Germans for days. After a German dive bomber blew the house to bits, the Allies attacked and pushed the Germans back so they could reach the house. When the Allies reached the ruins of the house, they found the bodies of three men burned beyond recognition, and Arlen still alive but injured and suffering amnesia. Because the dog tags of the four men were blown off due to the explosion, the Army medical personnel were unable to determine who he is because all four men were of approximate height and weight.
The Army doctor, Major Williams (Ian Keith) shows Arlen a list of the men whose dog tags were discovered: Paul MacGregor, a married man who ran a trucking company in Bridgeton, Connecticut; Joseph Loring, an architect from Chester, West Virginia; Carl Granowski, an aspiring doctor from Chicago, Illinois; and Peter Anderson from Knoxville, Iowa. None of the names appear familiar to Arlen. When Major Williams asks Arlen's character what temporary name would he like to go by until they can establish his identity, Arlen picks "Johnny March" when he overhears a nearby patient playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" on his harmonica. After the ship arrives stateside, and Johnny is on an Army train being transported cross-country to a military hospital, he decides to disembark when the train, by chance, makes a stop in Bridgeton, Connecticut. He is going to look up the homes of each of the four men on the list to find out which one of them is his actual identity.
Johnny stops at the home of the first man on the list, Paul MacGregor. When Paul's widow Sally (Cheryl Walker) answers the door and has no reaction, he immediately rules out being MacGregor. He stays and talks with Sally, pretending to be a friend of Paul's, and accepts Sally's invitation to stay a few days with her. Sally shares the home with two other women who also work at the local aircraft plant. When Johnny takes Sally out to dinner, she begins to enjoy herself until she runs into her late husband's employers. She feels ashamed for being out so soon after his death, and asks to go home. Back at home, Johnny urges Sally not to retreat into herself to where she is unable to enjoy life anymore. He urges her to try her best to move on with her life. When Johnny lets slip a piece of information that betrays the fact that he didn't really know Paul, Sally becomes angry at him and tells him to leave immediately. Sally grows despondent and attempts to commit suicide by turning on the engine of her car inside a shut garage. Johnny saves her life and takes her out for a drive where he explains his situation. Sally begins to understand Johnny and the two fall in love.
But Johnny cannot stay for long, as he heads next to Chester, West Virginia where he looks up the home of architect Joseph Loring. When Johnny rings the doorbell, he is greeted by a little boy named Toddy (Bobby Driscoll) who immediately throws his arms around Johnny saying "Daddy? Oh Daddy I'm so glad you've come back! You are my Daddy aren't you? They told me you wouldn't come, but I knew different!" Johnny befriends Toddy as he takes a tour of the house. Johnny starts to believe that he is Joseph Loring until a nosy neighbor shows up and demands to know who he is and what he is doing in the house. Johnny realizes that he has made a mistake and that his search must continue. Toddy, feeling betrayed by Johnny, asks him "Why did you tell me you were my Daddy?" Johnny tries to put things in perspective to Toddy and explains that "Your Daddy sort of sent me to you. He was one of the finest and bravest men in the whole world. And I want you to always remember that. He was a good soldier and good soldiers don't cry. Now you've got to be a good soldier. You've got a job." Toddy begs Johnny to stay, but Johnny insists he has to leave, explaining that he has a job to do as well.
Johnny heads to Chicago, Illinois next where he looks up the family of Carl Grawnowski, the aspiring doctor. He learns that Carl's brother Joe makes a living working for gangsters as a cashier in a gambling house. When Johnny arrives at the gambling house, and Joe has no reaction upon seeing Johnny, he realizes he is not Carl and scratches that name off the list. Another gangster named Rocks Donnelly (Roger Pryor) shows up demanding payment from Joe for money he had given him days earlier to bet on a horse. When a hitman shows up gunning for Rocks, Joe jumps in front of Rocks and takes the bullet and saves his life. Joe is rushed to the hospital, asking for Johnny to come along with him. At the hospital, a grateful Rocks asks Joe why he saved his life. If the hitman had killed Rocks, Joe wouldn't owe him the money anymore. Joe says "Why did I do it? I guess it's just that I'm a sucker." Johnny says "You think a guy that thinks enough of something to stop lead is a sucker?" Rocks tells Joe that he no longer owes him the money and offers him a job in his organization. Johnny helps Joe to realize that the best way he can honor his brother Carl is by fulfilling Carl's aspirations of becoming a doctor. Rocks, grateful to Joe, promises to pay for Joe's tuition to become a doctor. Rocks takes Johnny to a party he is hosting at his lavish home that night. Johnny meets Rocks's sophisticated girlfriend, Wanda (Lola Lane) who takes a liking to this soldier. However, Wanda senses that Johnny's attention seems elsewhere and she encourages him to use Rocks's phone to call the person he is thinking about. Johnny calls Sally back in Connecticut and admits that he misses her. He gives her the update as to the progress he is making and tells her the only person left on the list is Peter Anderson from Iowa. Johnny asks Sally to meet up with him in Iowa so they can be together. Sally tells Johnny that she can't visit him because, even though she loves him, he doesn't even know if he's married. Johnny promises to call Sally once he gets to Iowa to inform her what he discovers there.
Johnny next heads to Knoxville, Iowa to find out if he is Peter Anderson, farmer. When the family dog happily greets Johnny, and the lady of the house, Mrs. Anderson (Sarah Padden), faints at the sight of Johnny, he thinks he has finally found his identity until Mr. Anderson (Forrest Taylor) comes out and does not react to seeing him. The Andersons invite Johnny to stay for supper and Johnny learns that Mr. Anderson has put the farm up for auction because he has lost all faith and hope. Despite Mrs. Anderson's protests, Mr. Anderson feels that there is no purpose in keeping the property now that he no longer has a son to leave it to, and also because everything about the farm reminds him of his son. Johnny is invited to stay overnight and further learns that Mr. Anderson realizes he has made a mistake of putting the farm up for auction, but feels he is unable to reverse his agreement with the bank to auction the farm. On the day of the auction, Johnny speaks to the attendees and dissuades them from bidding on the items up for sale. Johnny tells the bidders, "I don't think this auction should be held. I know that Mr. Anderson decided to sell this farm. But when he made that decision he wasn't himself. I think you all know the reason why. You see this just wasn't a farm to him. It was something far more precious, something that he and his son had built together. Now that son is gone. But as long as this farm endures, something of that boy will remain to give hope and consolation to two hearts, his father's and his mother's. Mr. Anderson doesn't see it that way now, but he will. For there isn't anything more important in the whole world than the love of a mother and a father for a boy that's gone. Unless it's the happiness they may still find in keeping faith with that boy's ideals. Especially if keeping faith with those ideals means helping to feed the millions of hungry kids that are waiting for the things that this farm can produce." As a result of Johnny's speech, none of the attendees have the stomach to buy any of the products and start to leave, as the bank's auctioneer tries vainly to interest them in the items.
As the Anderson's thank Johnny for his gesture, Johnny receives word that Sally has taken the train to the nearest town and has followed Johnny all the way from Connecticut to see him. Johnny borrows the Anderson's truck and drives over the speed limit all the way to the train station while being pursued by a motorcycle cop. When he arrives, he hugs Sally, but is soon arrested by nearby MPs who recognize Johnny as someone who has gone AWOL from the train before being officially discharged. Johnny is taken into custody as Sally returns the truck to the Andersons and the Army completes its investigation to discover who he is. Back at the post, Colonel Marlin (Nelson Leigh) scolds Johnny for taking matters into his own hands and not allowing the Army an opportunity to figure out who he is. After taking Johnny's fingerprints, and researching Army personnel records, Colonel Marlin calls Johnny into his office (with Sally present) and asks him "Do you know the date of the Austrian succession?...and how about the Counsel of Nicea?...and do you happen to know just why you remember those dates?"
Johnny finally remembers he is a professor of History named Charles Aldrich, 33 years old, who grew up an orphan, and is unmarried. Colonel Marlin informs Sally that CPT Aldrich/Johnny was a pilot in the Army Air Corps who was flying his aircraft over the farmhouse that McGregor, Loring, Granowski, and Anderson were barricaded in to drop food and supplies. The German dive bomber whose aircraft killed those men also knocked Aldrich/Johnny's plane from the sky and somehow he ended up injured amidst the rubble of the farmhouse. As Aldrich/Johnny and Sally leave Colonel Marlin's office to begin their new life together, the senior officer remarks aloud, "He's a father, a brother, a son, a husband. He's a doctor, a farmer, an architect, a truck driver. He is all men. The principals they believed in and fought for are still living in him. From now on, it's going to be his job to stand for those things. Because when Johnny March came home, they came home too."
"Identity Unknown" remains a quietly powerful drama whose themes of duty, sacrifice, and honor still resonate deeply 68 years later. It is a movie that acknowledges the immense suffering and sacrifice that military personnel, and their families, face in times of war. At the same time, the movie never takes on the defeatist attitude, or hindsight second-guessing, that "The Best Years of Our Lives" occasionally suffers from in questioning whether fighting World War II was worthwhile to the United States. "Identity Unknown" never forgets the individual sacrifice made by all military personnel during World War II, but underscores how fighting the war was still worthwhile in the end because the long term consequences of not fighting were much worse. The movie never takes on an insensitive, unrealistic attitude about the war because we never forget the level of grief on the faces of the characters Johnny meets throughout his journey.
During the course of "Identity Unknown," we see a young widow (Sally) attempt suicide rather than go on living without her husband; a lonely and traumatized child (Toddy) in denial that his father has died; a sibling (Joe) who feels bitter feelings of resentment and abandonment against his brother for joining the Army and getting killed; and parents (Mr. and Mrs. Anderson) who openly grieve over their child to a degree where they almost lose their sense of purpose. Rarely in 1940s cinema do you see such raw, exposed emotions that are meant to represent the grief and agony of family members of fallen military personnel during wartime. Director Walter Colmes, who had a very brief career producing and directing comedies, thrillers, and mysteries at Poverty Row studios, created a heartfelt and timeless movie that resonates deeply today. Even though Colmes's staging and composition is nothing to write home about, the characters, performances, and situations in "Identity Unknown" are always truthful and compelling. On the basis of this one movie, he should have had a much more prolific career.
Richard Arlen gives a beautiful rendered performance as the enigmatic "Johnny March." Because the character is a sounding board for the sadness and loneliness of all the people he encounters in the course of the story, Arlen doesn't get a chance to give a tour-de-force performance. But he still gives the character sensitivity and depth so that Johnny never comes across as an archetype. When we learn at the end of the film that Johnny is an orphan and a bachelor, we being to understand why he was able to fit in so easily with the families he encounters. In going from home to home, Johnny has an opportunity to experience the sort of home life he previously has never been able to enjoy. In essence, in the course of the movie, Johnny is subconsciously looking for the family he has yearned for all his life. At times, the movie is sort of a precursor to the TV shows "The Fugitive" and "Run for Your Life." Both shows featured characters either running from the law, or suffering from an ailment, who move from town to town, trying to fit in, and helping the lost and lonely people they encounter.
The characters Johnny encounters in "Identity Unknown" are all kind, decent people who richly deserve the help they get from him. Each of the families he meets welcome him into their lives unselfishly. (Even gangsters like Rocks turn out to have a sense of nobility about themselves. Frustrated that the Army refused him because of his bad liver, Rocks and his men lay off the alcohol so that they can all donate their blood to the Red Cross for the war effort. Unlike "The Best Years of Our Lives," there's a refreshing lack of cynicism in "Identity Unknown" about the people living back at the homefront during World War II.) In return, Johnny helps every family he meets to come to the realization that the best way they can honor their fallen loved one is to carry on with their lives to the best of their abilities, as if they are fulfilling their uncompleted aspirations. Concurrently, Johnny himself will also continue to honor these four men he never actually knew by living his life in a manner that allows him to represent what they each personally stood for. Because it is able to accomplish so much, with comparatively little resources, "Identity Unknown" remains a forgotten masterpiece, still awaiting rediscovery with a wider audience.