Coming Home (1978)
Written by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones
Directed by Hal Ashby
Ron Kovic has proved to be an inspirational figure since the 1970s. His memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, was turned into a film by Oliver Stone in the 1980s. But before that, he served as the basis of this movie by Hal Ashby. Kovic was serving in Vietnam when he was caught by the Viet Cong while helping a South Vietnamese unit. The soldier was shot through his foot, then shoulder, ending up with a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Kovic’s passionate anti-war activism inspired Jane Fonda to want to make a film about injured veterans and their families to share the story of what happens after the parades and medals are handed out.
Sally Hyde (Fonda) has just said goodbye to her husband Bob (Bruce Dern), a USMC captain who has only shipped off to Vietnam for his first tour. To stay busy, Sally volunteers at the veteran’s hospital on base. It’s a shock to her system, seeing so many people in various states of physical and emotional distress. One of these vets is a high school classmate, Luke Martin (Jon Voigt). Luke is in a constant state of anger over how he and his friends are treated, a reminder of the cost of the war. Once Luke recovers enough to leave the base in a wheelchair and try to restart his life, things seem like they will be okay. Life gets complicated when Luke and Sally fall for each other. Luke also becomes passionate about beginning to stand up for his fellow vets when a close friend takes his own life.
Coming Home is unlike anything you will see significant film studios make in the post-9/11 world. This is a full exploration of the ravages of warfare on young people, holding them back from beginning to live and, in some cases turning their lives into a void before it starts. Our modern film system is so underwritten by the US military that most films provide a pro-war propaganda line under the guise of being in “support of the troops.” We might see a wounded soldier on film, but his injuries are framed as continued justification for war. Coming Home doesn’t traffic in that romanticism. The broken soldier is a tragic figure, yet still not to be condescended to.
Coming Home does a remarkable job of combatting ableist ideas. Luke, while using a wheelchair, is presented as an attractive, charismatic, sexual human being. Sally is strongly attracted to Luke, and his disability is not something that gets in the way of that. The film still addresses it, showing how Luke struggles with the lack of accommodations getting into buildings. The sex scene between Luke and Sally still stands as something extremely progressive, tastefully presenting that intimacy can still happen if a person doesn’t have full physical capabilities.
I also appreciated that the film intentionally presents a spectrum of post-traumatic experiences, not just the physical. Luke’s friend Bill (Robert Carradine) doesn’t have external injuries, at least on screen, but he most definitely has deep psychological wounds. There are comments made about the cocktail of psychotropic drugs Bill must take, and we see firsthand the mood swings he experiences as a result. An absolutely heartbreaking scene and the first moment Luke connects with a fellow vet occurs when Bill tries to play his guitar at an Independence Day picnic. Bill is doing okay, but after a while, his muscles tremors mess up the song, and he softly weeps about how he just wants to play his guitar. Jon Voigt gives a profound performance, touching Bill’s shoulder, trying to hold his composure while watching his friend crumble into being a child.
Even more affecting is when Bob returns home. It’s hinted earlier during his week of R&R that he’s seen things that are breaking him. His homecoming is disastrous, devolving into a 24-hour bout of drunkenness with some fellow vets. The alcohol is masking the torment. Bob is annoyed when he finds out Sally is volunteering and doesn’t seem to care for the slightly bohemian decor of their new beachfront apartment. Bob’s pain is not as easy to diagnose as Luke and Bill’s, his is an emotional wound, what we call PTSD. Bob watched the men under him decapitate Vietnamese and put their heads on pikes, more is implied. He can’t easily come back and live life when he’s seen how valueless his own country holds humans who aren’t like them. Coming Home is still relevant, and something American society should revisit. There hasn’t been an equivalent film made for the War on Terror era, and I think that is needed.
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