By John H. Foote
12. COMING HOME (1978)
“Once I was a soldier …” – Tim Buckley, Once I Was
Hal Ashby’s haunting poetic film about the staggering impact of Vietnam on the men who fought there and the women who loved them was the first mainstream American movie to deal with the pain caused by the war. That it was released in the same year as the vastly overrated The Deer Hunter (1978), but more upsetting was the fact The Deer Hunter was wildly over praised and defeated Coming Home and Hal Ashby for Best Film and Director. Shameful.
Coming Home was the best film of 1978. Period.
Ashby gave his masterpiece a realistic look, almost documentary like in its execution, containing breathtaking performances that were achingly realistic in their honest, startling power. From the opening scene in the veteran’s hospital, with Jon Voight among real vets, through that final heartbreaking conclusion, authenticity was paramount to Ashby and the actors. Jane Fonda had returned to movies the year before with a fine Oscar nominated turn as writer Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977) and was the driving force of Coming Home. Very vocal about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, she wanted to make a very personal film about how the war impacted those who fought and came home, broken. Some of the decades top actors were approached to portray Luke Martin the man who returns from Vietnam in a wheelchair. Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Sylvester Stallone all regretted turning the part down. Jon Voight won the role of his career while Bruce Dern, also considered for Luke, would portray Fonda’s haunted veteran husband.
During her husband’s time in Vietnam she and Luke fall in love as he awakens her to the injustices of the war. She is awakened as a free thinker too, women’s liberation, and as a sexual being, a woman, experiencing her first orgasm with the paralyzed vet. When her husband returns, he finds he has been betrayed by America, the marines, the war and his wife. The final, eloquent scene has Luke opening up to the horrors he committed and saw at war, weeping as he speaks, while Bob undresses, finally naked and swims into the sea, choosing to end his life.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Coming Home is one of the rare films nominated in the six major categories which include Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actor and Actress. Voight and Fonda won Oscars, as did the superb screenplay but nothing else. Dern deserved to win, as did Ashby and the film, as The Deer Hunter proved to be predicated on the lies of director Michael Cimino.
Ashby plunged audiences into the sixties with an almost constant track of great sixties tunes. Music is the soundtrack to our own life, so it makes sense music has that power in film. The greatest strength of the film remains the startling trio of performances, Dern and Voight especially.
When Sally’s (Fonda) husband Bob (Dern) is deployed to Vietnam, and cannot wait to get there, she is forced to move off the base, taking a place on the beach with a pretty young hippy, Vi (Penelope Milford). Her partner is also off at war, having gone with Dern. Sally volunteers in the Veteran’s Hospital where she meets a former high school friend Luke (Jon Voight), left paralyzed from the waist down. A big man on campus, Luke was captain of the football team, he could not wait to get to Vietnam but when he got there it was nothing like he thought it was and came home angry. Listening to Luke, watching him, awakens Sally to the issues these men are dealing with. But nothing hits her harder than when Bob is on Liberty in Hong Kong and invites her to come. Bob has changed, sullen, withdrawn, the war has warped him. Bitter and incensed Sally took a job, he treats her terribly before she leaves. Meanwhile Luke begins protesting the war after a friend of his kills himself, haunted by the time he spent in Vietnam, unable to get past his ghosts.
Arrested for chaining himself to a gate, Luke is bailed out by a recently returned Sally, who takes him home announcing she wants to spend the night with him. Gently, lovingly he brings her to her first orgasm, fulfilling her orally in a way Bob never has. They fall in love, but the government has surveillance on them, which they are unaware of. When Bob comes home, true to her character, Sally stands by her man even though there are questions raised about Bob’s injury, which might have been self-inflicted. Very quickly it becomes apparent Bob is deeply damaged, made worse when he is told Sally cheated on him. He points a rifle at her as a Luke arrives at the door, coaxing the weapon out of Bob’s hand, telling him they are brothers and Bob has “enough ghosts to carry around.”
The day of Bob’s decoration ceremony Luke is speaking to a group of high schoolers about his experiences and holds nothing back. Breaking down he says “There was a lot of shit that I did over there, I find fucking hard to live with” opening the eyes of the kids. Intercut beautifully with Luke’s scene, we watch Bob walk to the beach and take his uniform off, very ceremonial, right down to nothing, taking care to remove the ring Sally gave him when he went off to fight. He then runs into the sea, never to return, the ghosts Luke spoke of finally too much for him to bear.
The first truly mainstream film to deal openly and honestly, Coming Home went where no film had the courage to go. Taxi Driver (1976) touched upon vets driven mad by the war, as to a lesser extent did Heroes (1977) which contains a shattering performance from Harrison Ford as a vet missing the combat.
Coming Home was released in the spring of 1978 to rave reviews and was re-released at the end of the year for critics’ awards. Jon Voight won the major awards for Best Actor, collecting both the L.A. and N.Y. Film Critics’ Awards, as well as the Golden Globe. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three – Voight took Best Actor, Fonda won Best Actress and the film won Best Original Screenplay. Dern and Penelope Milford were both up for supporting awards, Ashby for director, and for me Dern deserved the award, as did Hal Ashby.
As I previously stated, this was the best film of 1978.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.