Director Hal Ashby paints a compelling picture of the impact of the Vietnam War on those directly affected on home soil. A passion project for Jane Fonda, she stars alongside Jon Voight and Bruce Dern.
Coming Home, director Hal Ashby’s retort to the madness of the Vietnam War, can be summarised by Jon Voight’s paralysed military veteran’s impassioned plea to a bunch of young men not to accept the war as the only answer to America’s foreign fight or, crucially, believe a failure to sign up for the frontline is unpatriotic.
“I know some of you guys are going to look at the uniformed man and you’re going to remember all the films and you’re going to think about the glory of other wars and think about some vague patriotic feeling and go off and fight this turkey too. And I’m telling you it ain’t like it is in the movies,” he says.
It could be coming from Ashby’s own mouth, a filmmaker never far from taking a jab at the futility of war. He was, of course, responsible for the one-armed commander in Harold and Maude who sings the praises of military service while using a homemade mechanical pully system to salute with the sleeve of his uniform.
He also made a whole film about the military sending its own men to prison for petty crime even though, as Bruce Dern’s Captain Hyde reveals in Coming Home, beheading Vietcong soldiers and parading them around atop wooden poles is de rigour during warfare.
A passion project of its lead, Jane Fonda, Coming Home was first conceived by the political activist and ardent opposer to the Vietnam War following her meeting, and consequent friendship, with paraplegic military veteran Ron Kovic (who Tom Cruise played in Oliver Stone’s biopic Born on the 4th of July). They met at an anti-war rally in 1972 inspiring Fonda to produce a film about the consequences of Vietnam for Americans returning home.
With writer and friend Nancy Dowd, a fellow feminist, Fonda further developed a story about the impact of war, both during and after, on the life of a soldier’s wife. This gave her the opportunity to create a role for herself (ultimately playing Sally Hyde, Bob Hyde’s wife in the film). Dowd’s screenplay originally focused on two women working in a military hospital but unable to get greenlit in its current form, was reworked by credited writers Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones alongside director Ashby and actor Jon Voight.
Coming Home’s plot would ultimately have three dramatic drivers framed around its trio of protagonists – Fonda’s Sally, Bruce Dern’s Bob, and Voight’s Luke; a military wife, an army captain, and an injured veteran. The friendship between two women tending to injured soldiers, as seen in Dowd’s original screenplay, is still evident through Sally’s relationship with Vi (Penelope Milford), but it’s a backdrop to a woman conflicted by the liberation she enjoys as a result of her husband’s absence.
This combines with the guilt she feels closeting anti-war sentiment from the man she dearly loves but who holds military achievement, and a perceived route to a hero legacy, in the highest regard. She finds more of herself in a blossoming relationship that turns sexual with Voight’s injured veteran; a piece of shrapnel in the man’s back causing him to move around his hospital home on a wheeled bed, a walking stick in each arm for propulsion.
Voight’s Luke Martin is rightly bitter, his later speech to young men detailing failed ambitions based upon a false sense of national pride. Ashby infuses this with a prevailing image: injured war veterans wasting away in a military hospital. Most provocative is the suicide of a young man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who’s able to access needles to fatally shoot air into his veins without any staff being alerted until it’s too late. This all occurs in full view of a bunch of fellow veterans, mostly in wheelchairs, who beg the suicidal man to stop but are unable to prevent the inevitable.
Despite the creative team’s politics, Ashby, Fonda and company don’t swing the placard too forcefully. Indeed, anti-war protestors are rather dismissed as a bunch of “kids”. That’s part of Coming Home’s effectiveness; Ashby’s sentiment is clear but it’s subtle and underplayed (Luke Martin’s end-of-film plea to potential frontline fodder the only time Ashby thrusts his hand in your face).
Even that, however, is brilliantly done as the director intercuts this scene with Bob Hyde stripping off at the beach to go swimming in the nude. Typical of Ashby, there’s an open-ended enigmatic quality about Hyde’s actions but we know, from an argument with his wife, that he feels somewhat displaced. “I don’t belong in this house,” he tells her, “and they say I don’t belong over there.” Dern’s breaking-point delivery, the explosion of bottled-up emotion, is one of the film’s many highlights.
As is Fonda’s Sally. The film sees this woman, previously tied to the military through her husband, emancipated not just from conventional – acceptable – domesticity but given the freedom to express herself. This not only transpires in her effort to help war veterans, off-limits under her husband’s watch (he tells her: “Why did you have to go to work in the hospital? It’s the pits! You didn’t have to do that. I just – don’t want you to work.”) but gives her the sexual liberation to explore both body and mind.
Coming Home is, ultimately, a terrific examination of the after-effect of war on its combatants and those directly associated with men on the frontlines. Its anti-war sentiments are surprisingly subtle, its approach bringing to life the horrors of conflict without a single battle scene on show.
Ashby’s skill gives us the favours of war sans the back and forth of gunfire. And instead of the final cries of a dying man on the battlefield being used to portray the true tragedy of the fight, it’s the ongoing anguish of a man who survived and came home whose words get centre stage.