1978 was an interesting year for major motion pictures about the Vietnam War. It was the first year that Hollywood felt that enough time had passed since the end of the war to make a commercially viable movie about it. Holly wood jumped in feet first with “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter”. Not only was a barrier broken, but a fierce competition ensued as the two vied for awards. They also vied for the hearts of the public and critics.
“Coming Home” was loosely based on the book by George Davis and was influenced by Jane Fonda’s friendship with Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July). It was a difficult production as director Hal Ashby was something of a nutcase. It also took several writers to pen the screenplay (which surprisingly won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay).
The movie opens in the spring of 1968 at a Veteran’s Hospital. Actual vets improvise dialogue as Jon Voight (playing paraplegic Luke Martin) wisely sits and listens. The war movie trope of a love triangle develops early as we are introduced to the typical military couple. Capt. Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) is a careerist who is headed for Vietnam so he can earn a promotion and to “see the elephant”. Sally (Fonda) is the dutiful wife who according to Bob “doesn’t understand it all, but she accepts it”. They seem to be happily married and Bob promises to be faithful.
|before and after|
Sally feels liberated once Bob is gone and rooms with a hippie type named Vi (Penelope Milford) whose brother Billy (Robert Carradine) is in the Vet Hospital due to PTSD after only two weeks in Nam. It only took two weeks to ruin this American youth’s life. War sucks! Sally visits the hospital and literally bumps into Luke. It turns out they went to the same high school and yet hardly remember each other. This in spite of him being the star quarterback and her having been the head cheerleader! Credit given for cliché-busting (and reality-defying). They get off to a rocky start as he is abusively belligerent about the shoddy treatment at the hospital and sees her as naively clueless. I wondered if they would hook up because this was the first movie I ever watched. Just kidding.
Sally gets a job at the hospital. All of the veterans are saintly as a contrast to the evil government that sent them off to fight a misbegotten war and then treated them shabbily upon their return. Sally becomes an advocate for them and warms up to Luke. Bob deserves a cinematic chance so Sally meets him in Hong Kong. Things are chilly. He is upset that she is working. He is disillusioned with the war. “TV shows what it’s like, but not what it is.” The movie green lights the affair with Luke.
|thank goodness VA hospitals now treat |
wounded vets appropriately
Luke moves out of the hospital because how will he have sex with Sally otherwise. Plus we now need the war protesting angle to kick in. Sure enough, Luke chains himself to the local Marine Corps gate. Next comes the big sex scene which was groundbreaking due to one character being a crippled vet. Compare this to the movies older brother, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. In that movie, Homer does not get past first base on film. Sally has never felt this way before (and has apparently never been on top before). She has been liberated. We know this because she no longer wears a bra.
If only Bob would get himself killed in Vietnam. Unfortunately he returns home after accidentally (?) shooting himself while going to the shower. He carries the extra baggage of PTSD. Sally and Bob try to return to their 1950s marriage. This is not likely since she has evolved and he is now a tightly wound Cro-magnon. “What the Hell did you do to your hair?!”
When Bob finds out about the affair, he confronts Luke but discovers that although he can shoot himself, he can’t bring himself to shoot the hippie who was screwing his wife while he was off dodging bullets for his promotion (I mean country). Bob leaves because he’s seen enough movies to know how this ends. Dueling scenes: Luke talks to a high school class and Bob gets a medal. Luke tells the students that “[I’m] here to tell you that I have killed for my country or whatever, and I don’t feel good about it.” (At the Academy Awards, John Wayne punched Voight in the nose, just kidding.) Bob is ashamed for his decoration as we all should be.
|"students, don't go see 'The Deer Hunter",|
it's not anti-war"
The movie does have its strengths. The period music is great. Classic rock rules! The acting is outstanding. Fonda, Voight, Dern, and Milford were all nominated for Oscars. Voight defeated De Niro (“The Deer Hunter”), but Dern lost to Christopher Walken. This was the year to be physically crippled instead of just emotionally and to be fully psycho instead of just PTSD. The movie was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Film Editing and won for Original Screenplay.
The themes are a bit heavy-handed. The repressed military wife is emancipated when her traditional husband goes off to war. The antiwar movement also liberates her. A crippled antiwar vet awakens her sexuality. War = bad. Antiwar = good. The plot is rife with clichés and quite predictable. It is extremely obvious that the marriage will not survive Bob going off to war. On the plus side, the Sally character does ring true as a typical military wife who lives through her husband and is rudderless when he goes off to war. Her transformation is not radical and she is realistically torn between the two men when her husband returns. However, there is never a doubt who she will choose. Keep in mind that her husband has been changed for the worst because of his experience and Luke has mellowed as their relationship has developed, so you would have chosen the same way she did. Jane Fonda does an excellent job in a role that meant a lot to her and she could easily have gone overboard in forcing her opinions on the audience. The movie is fairly well constrained.
Looking back, it seems incredible that it was a horse race between "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" for Best Picture. Today one of those movies is considered to be a war movie classic and the other is considered to be a curio. What war movie fan has a copy of "Coming Home" on his shelf? But then again, if I had told you that in 1978 there had been a competition between a movie that was clearly a liberal view of the war and a movie that concludes with the cast singing "God Bless America", which would you have bet on for the Oscar?
Cracker? No. It's a decent movie, but has not worn well over the years and is certainly not one of the 100 Best War Movies ever made. It is not even in the top 5 Vietnam War movies.
grade = B-