COMING HOME (1978)
Directed by Hal Ashby
Unsure what to do with herself after her husband leaves to fight in the Vietnam war, Captain’s wife Sally decides to volunteer at the local veteran’s hospital where she meets a number of mentally and physically wounded soldiers. She discovers that one of them, Sergeant Luke Martin, used to be in her year at high school and strikes up a friendship with him. With shrapnel injuries in the spine leaving him a paraplegic, Luke faces frustrations with his restricted mobility and regrets having joined up to the army in the first place, knowing full well it isn’t the picture that’s painted to new recruits. With similar sentiments shared by his fellow injured soldiers, Luke’s tale of horror about Vietnam changes Sally’s perception of the war and the two grow close as they help each other through the difficult times. When Sally’s husband Bob returns home wounded and mentally scarred from the war, the three of them are forced to confront their feelings and the impact that the war has had on all of them.
With 8 Academy Award nominations and 3 wins (Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Jane Fonda) and Best Actor (Jon Voight)), I would’ve thought that I’d have heard of COMING HOME before now but I had not. Fortunately, Eureka have released it on Blu-Ray as part of their Masters of Cinema series and I’m so grateful that they have otherwise I might have missed this absolutely incredible powerhouse of a drama.
COMING HOME is an emotional, romantic drama that deals with the effect that the Vietnam war had on its veterans and the their families. It shows how soldiers, both injured and non-injured, are forgotten about once they’ve served their purpose and aren’t given the proper care needed to help reintroduce them into civilian society. The opening scene of the patients in the hospital playing pool sets the mood. We see them discussing how anyone who’s been to Vietnam would not return to war and those that do are in denial that their presence actually meant nothing and they needed to keep going back to try and find justification for what they did, knowing it’ll never come. The film is political on its stance on the Vietnam war but displays it from a human, realistic angle rather than shoving it down your throat. We see pro-military propaganda all the time when the army looks to recruit fresh blood but the reality of those who served and lived through it is hardly focused on in movies, so it’s nice to hear their side of the story, showcasing the true reality and aftermath of war.
Jon Voight stars as the embittered sergeant Luke Martin who finds himself limited to a hospital bed where he has to propel himself around the ward using walking sticks whilst laying on his belly to be able to navigate his way around the facility. Wheelchairs, it seems, are in short supply, as are the staff at the hospital to look after the patients who’s urostomy bags need emptying. It’s during one of these episodes that Luke first bumps into Sally (Jane Fonda), causing his full urostomy bag to burst, emptying urine all over the floor. His embarrassment and anger is so pure, you absolutely feel for this man who’s given up his life for his country only to be reduced to what we see in front of us. It’s heartbreaking to see and you can really empathise with his situation.
With Sally’s involvement, Luke gets more accustomed to his situation as she helps him to reintegrate in society. Her understanding and love for him as a person, seeing him rather than his limitations, is such a pure emotion. I can only imagine how low one’s self-esteem must be if you found yourself suddenly unable to walk or other life-changing injury with no hope of recovery and the society around you seemingly blissfully ignorant to that fact. It’s so heart-wrenching to watch, and for Sally, her experience with Luke is one she knows she will have to repeat with husband Bob despite his initial enthusiasm in being sent to fight over in Vietnam. Even during her visit with Bob during his R n R in Hong Kong depicts a man who’s been broken by what he’s initially experienced at war with tales of his own men showcasing such brutality that he is unable to comprehend. The words “they show you what the Vietnam war is like on TV, but they don’t show you what it is” sums it all up. The picture painted by the government and the military is nothing like the reality of it and all these men are facing the horrible truth. Men who are lucky to survive are returning home broken, like Vi’s brother Bill, a young, bright chap who’s mind has been destroyed by what he’s seen. Unable to cope and not given the help he needs, Bill’s story in some ways reminded me of Billy’s in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and is just as tragic.
The film isn’t all doom and gloom though as Luke’s life is turned around by Sally who gives him hope despite having the odds stacked against him. The anger that fuels him doesn’t leave him completely but he learns to channel it in a way to educate others as we see from his speech to a group of high school students at the end of the film. Whilst Sally overcomes her naivety about the war, Luke begins to accept it and move on with his life. Unfortunately, not everyone in his shoes can do the same.
All the performances in COMING HOME are worth noting, from Jon Voight’s passionate and determined display as Luke to Jane Fonda’s powerful performance as Sally Hyde who goes through an emotional journey as she attempts to come to terms with how the war has affected her and the ones she loves. Bruce Dern as Sally’s husband Bob also uniquely captures the transformation of an eager Captain to a dismantled man who’s unable to find his place both at home in the US and away fighting in Vietnam. It’s tragic, emotionally-fuelled and will make you look at the Vietnam war in a completely different way. Vietnam was a war that the Americans could never win and it was ordinary people on the ground who paid the ultimate price.
There’s a reason why this film got so many Oscar noms and wins. It’s nothing short of incredible and isn’t afraid to show the world the harsh reality of life after war and the way governments, individuals and society deal with it.
The extras included on the Blu-Ray from Eureka includes a feature which stars Jon Voight, who details his research in playing the character of Luke right down to learning how to use a wheelchair in the months leading up to the shoot, as well as actor Bruce Dern and the director of cinematography, Haskell Wexler. The trio are all present for a feature length commentary of the movie too whilst an alternative commentary features author Scott Harrison. As with most Eureka releases, the Blu-Ray also comes with a collector’s booklet with new writings from Scott Harrison and critic Glenn Kenny.