Coming Home: “New Hollywood’s Other Vietnam War Movie”
Hal Ashby’s 1978 movie Coming Home is one of the most compelling to explore the aftermath of the Vietnam war for its veterans and their loved ones. It stars Jane Fonda as Sally Hyde, a military wife who decides to volunteer at a local military hospital when her Marine husband Bob (Bruce Dern) leaves for Vietnam. There she meets Jon Voight’s former sergeant Luke Martin, whose war injury has left him a paraplegic. In helping the embittered Luke on his road to recovery, a friendship blossoms which later turns to love and transforms Sally’s own feelings about life and the war itself. This love triangle comes to a head when, wounded and disillusioned by his experiences, Bob returns home and realises that the world he left behind has changed forever. The war and its fallout is also shown to affect Sally’s friend and fellow volunteer Vi (Penelope Milford) and her brother, PTSD sufferer Bill (Robert Carradine).
On paper, Coming Home sounds like the perfect Oscar bait. Indeed, so perfect was it that it is one of only 12 films in history to be on two lists of rare Oscar accomplishments; nominations for the ‘Big Five’ categories and nominations in all the acting categories, winning a total of three (Best Actor for Voight, Best Actress for Fonda and Best Original Screenplay). Coming Home‘s biggest competition at the Oscars that year proved to be Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, which ultimately won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor, and incurred the wrath of Jane Fonda who famously rounded on Cimino backstage to complain that he had made a Pentagon-approved depiction of Vietnam. It was clear that, by the tail end of the 1970s, Hollywood was keen to explore its nation’s most recent conflict and that the Academy were eager to applaud such efforts. And we all know of course that the Academy love anything to do with disabilities and overcoming the odds. But it’s important to remember that Coming Home was probably one of the first films to start such a baiting trend, though admittedly it’s themes of returning to civilian life and disability calls back to William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, which famously won nine of its ten Oscar nominations.
Coming Home was star Jane Fonda’s pet project. ‘Hanoi Jane’ had formed a close friendship with paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic after meeting him at an anti-war rally and believed rightly that his story should be told. Indeed it would be told twice; firstly with this loose biography of his life, and later with Oliver Stone’s 1989 adaptation of Kovic’s memoir, Born On The Fourth of July. But Fonda was interested in more than just Kovic’s disability and experiences and she hired feminist writer Nancy Dowd to produce a screenplay that was also to consider the conflict from the POV of military wives. The film would be the first commission for Fonda’s own IPC (IndoChina Peace Campaign) production company but it took six long years and further work from scriptwriters Waldo Salt and Robert C Jones to knock Coming Home into shape.
The film was originally slated to be directed by John Schlesinger, but when the British filmmaker ultimately passed, the baton was taken up by that unsung and somewhat offbeat hero of New Hollywood, Hal Ashby. This was the director’s second film set at the fag (or rather joint) end of the 1960s after 1975’s Warren Beatty/Julie Christie vehicle Shampoo. In comparing these two movies we see Ashby come pleasingly full circle; Shampoo was about the beautiful people, the bimbos and himbos who preoccupied themselves with everything but the Vietnam war, whilst Coming Home is all about people’s growing realisation of what the conflict actually means. It’s a film that is blessed with very strong and realistic performances from Fonda and Voight; they both commence the film as people with a certain viewpoint of the military (bored Marine officer’s wife and frustrated, recently wounded soldier respectively) but, as the film progresses and as their sensitively and maturely handled romance develops, their understanding of the war not only deepens, it also adapts and changes. For Fonda’s Sally it is a satisfying wake up call; taking her from the Barbie doll range of military wife, constantly straightening her hair, dressing like a Kennedy and hanging off her husband’s arm or hanging round a similarly Stepford circle, to a free-spirited, free-thinking woman in her own right. For Voight’s Luke it is an equally satisfying channeling of his misplaced anger into activism within the anti-war movement.
It’s also worth mentioning Bruce Dern as Fonda’s husband, Bob. He’s a character who, if you cut him, he’d no doubt have USA written through him like a stick of Blackpool rock. In playing the role Dern nicely subverts his sadistic and tough screen persona to give us instead a depiction of a man who is tough and sadistic simply because his job expects him to be. That’s one of the things I really like about Coming Home – there are no villains of the piece; Sally doesn’t hook up with Luke because Bob’s horrible to her or even because she’s fallen out of love with him. The intimacy develops because her experiences have changed her. She still loves Bob perhaps as much as she loves Luke – it’s just the closed-minded, boxed-off little life that they previously had together which she no longer cares for. Dern delivers a taut and credible performance which equally has a journey, taking him from an assured and disciplined professional soldier who doesn’t question what his country asks of him to a weary husk of a man on the brink of psychological collapse who is plagued not only with self doubt at how he performed in the arena of conflict but also by the the ultimate question; what was it all for?
The film handles the fallout of war, its physical and mental effects upon the young men who had been sent off to fight, with a great degree of humanity and honesty that befits the fact that so many of the personnel both in front of and behind the camera (Fonda, Voight, Ashby, Salt and Jones, DoP Haskell Wexler, and producer Jerome Hellman) were outspoken opponents of the US administration’s foreign policy and were equally concerned that the veterans returning home were not being adequately supported. The fact that the film never once accidentally or intentionally step into the offensively sentimental or mawkish waters it so easily could have been submerged in is a credit to each of them.
If I have one issue with Coming Home it is with Ashby’s use of soundtrack, and even then I feel divided. Foregoing score music for an incredibly spot on and enjoyable mix of artists from the mid to late ’60s (The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield etc) is not unusual for a Vietnam war movie but, in Ashby’s decision to have such tracks appear under virtually every other scene, it can feel a little intrusive and somewhat like ‘Now That’s What I Call The Tet Offensive!’. It’s a little bit of an overload really; within the first ten minutes we have heard The Stones’s Out of Time, followed by Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel, and then The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Later, there’s scarcely a minute that goes by between The Stones tracks Ruby Tuesday and Sympathy For the Devil, and unusually, Ashby often plays these songs in full, straddling several scenes. I love these songs (I’m a massive Stones fan for a start) but it does sometimes feel invasive and distracting – almost as if you’re trying to watch a movie whilst listening to an album at the same time. I guess the thing to remember is that these tropes are viewed as cliched and stereotypical for ‘Nam movies today, but it was much more original to see them back in 1978. Indeed, Ashby was one of the first directors who incorporated the music of the day with the subject of the Vietnam war. With that in mind you have to appreciate his role in the eclectic music mix that has shaped all other movies in this genre and our expectations of them ever since.
To my mind, whilst it has some minor flaws, Coming Home is nonetheless an important movie that addresses the after effects of war, something that is still all too rarely shown today. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release does the film great justice, boasting a crisp 1080p transfer for its UK Blu-ray debut, two audio commentary tracks, an archival featurette on the film and a featurette on Ashby, and a collector’s booklet.