By 1978, the Vietnam War had been over for three years. A hugely divisive conflict, which had not only split the country, but also damaged America’s reputation in the eyes of the world. The process of healing was still in its early days, and portrayals of the conflict and its effects were starting to appear in the cinema, with Apocalypse Now coming out the following year, and 1978 seeing two movies about the effects on those who’d fought – The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home.
During the 1960s, Jane Fonda had become a political activist, supporting Civil Rights, and she later went on to protest against the Vietnam War. In 1972, she made a trip to Hanoi, in order to see for herself some of the damage which had been wrought by the conflict. During the visit, she was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun, which caused outrage back at home amongst conservatives, and it earned her the nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’, which dogged her for many decades.
The same year, she started work with a screenwriter friend, Nancy Dowd, on a script to show the consequences of what was happening in Vietnam, not just on those who were fighting, but also upon those who they’d left behind in America; the notion was to tell the story through the eyes of a soldier’s wife. The script – initially entitled Buffalo Ghosts – was in development limbo for several years; at one point, John Schlesinger was attached to direct the project, but pulled out after feeling uncomfortable about the subject matter.
Ultimately, Hal Ashby – famed for helming Harold and Maude and Shampoo – took up the reins, and he ended up producing a feature which was not only a box office success, but also critically acclaimed, and garnered a total of eight Academy Award nominations; Coming Home is actually one only 12 films to get nods not just for the ‘Big Five’ (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor; Best Actress; Best Screenplay), but also in all acting categories too (Best Actor; Best Actress; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress).
Fonda plays Sally Hyde, whose Marine Captain husband Bob (Bruce Dern) gets deployed to Vietnam in 1968. Looking for something to occupy herself and take her mind off her loneliness, she volunteers at a local veterans’ hospital, spurred on by her friend Vi (Penelope Milford) having her brother Billy (Robert Carradine) be sent back home after just two weeks in Vietnam, due to emotional trauma and mental health issues.
While helping out there, she meets an old classmate from high school, Luke Martin (Jon Voight), who’s been left paraplegic by an injury suffered during combat. Luke is initially angry and embittered, but Sally’s persistence to get through to him helps to break down some of his barriers, and the two embark on a friendship which ends up becoming far more. Things come to a head when Bob returns injured, only to find just how much things have changed, including within himself.
It’s worth noting that Fonda was inspired to make the movie by her friendship with Ron Kovic, who’d recently written Born On The Fourth Of July, which was later brought to the big screen by Oliver Stone, with Tom Cruise in the lead. Voight does a great job portraying a disabled veteran, taking us along on his emotional journey, from raging at the world to finding hope for the future. The fact that Voight spent so long preparing for the role by doing everyday tasks in a wheelchair and speaking with disabled people about how they go about their lives has helped make his portrayal all the more believable.
Where Coming Home scores big is in the decision to tell the story of the significant impact of the Vietnam War on a small and personal level, by focusing upon the love triangle between Sally, Bob and Luke. It would have been a much weaker piece if it had browbeaten the audience with a lot of anti-war polemic, but by making it all about people and not dogma, it enables the audience to feel closely connected to the underlying message.
It’s helped by some incredibly powerful performances, especially Dern’s portrayal of a soldier who finds the landscape has shifted around him, not only in terms of things back at home, but also in his idea of military service, and the very nature of warfare itself. He manages to depict the growing distance between Bob and Sally, and makes Bob feel as though you can at least understand him, even if he isn’t the most likeable of characters at times, and you can feel his pain, both physical and emotional.
Eureka Entertainment’s presentation as a part of its Masters Of Cinema series is top notch, with the picture looking pristine on Blu-ray. It also features two commentaries on the disc, one of which features Bruce Dern and Jon Voight, both of whom also contributed to an archival featurette all about the making of the movie. Director Hal Ashby is the subject of another short archival piece, giving us a closer look at the man behind the lens.
A moving, deeply affecting piece, Coming Home shows us that the first casualty of war isn’t truth, but the impact on all the people involved, both on the front lines, and for the families and loved ones.
Coming Home is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.