Going to war should be the hardest part; coming home should be easy, yet for too many soldiers it brings its own set of challenges beyond the recovery from the damage that has been done to them, both the obvious physical trauma and the associated rehabilitation but also the deeper wounds of battle, what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder but was once simply called shellshock.
Released in 1978, Coming Home was set a decade before in the middle years of the Vietnam War, a conflict which continued in one form or another from 1955 to 1975 with different sources estimating between one and a half million to four and a half million dead, of whom the US military counted 58,318 with a further 303,644 wounded.
The production was conceived by Jane Fonda, who had long campaigned against the war, her political activism earning her the nickname “Hanoi Jane” after her 1972 visit to an enemy encampment in North Vietnam, and while many veterans of that war have never forgiven her, others understood that her goal was peace for all and befriended her, among them Ron Kovic whose life story would directly inspire the film Born on the Fourth of July but whose experiences are also reflected here.
The initial story written by Fonda’s friend Nancy Dowd, the project went through an extended period of development before production finally began on a screenplay credited to Waldo Salt and Robert C Jones, with Harold and Maude‘s Hal Ashby stepping in as director following the departure of Midnight Cowboy‘s John Schlesinger, though his former leading man Jon Voight remained as Fonda’s co-star.
Fonda is housewife Sally Hyde, left behind and without purpose when her husband Captain Bob Hyde is deployed; her friend Vi Munson’s brother Billy has just been shipped back and is now a resident of the Veterans’ Association hospital where Vi volunteers, so Sally joins them to do what she can for the war effort.
There she meets Luke Martin, the former captain of the high school football team, now a paraplegic recovering from his wounds, angry at the war, at the government, at anyone within reach of his walking sticks or the sound of his voice, but Sally makes it her mission to assist in his rehabilitation, both physical and mental, and to draw attention to the needs of the men abandoned by their country, while Luke finds his own purpose in trying to prevent others from suffering as he has.
Recently remastered on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, Coming Home is not a war film as such, and although it is about the aftermath of Vietnam it could as easily be about any other war in the last forty years since it was released, the damage, the examination of the hollow reasons, the recrimination, the reconciliation of the cost which can never be repaid, Coming Home prompting the difficult conversation the country was finally ready to have.
A dramatic reversal from her her effective blacklisting upon her return from Vietnam seven years earlier, in April 1979 Jane Fonda was vindicated when she won the Oscar for best actress, with Voight taking best actor for his role as Luke and Salt and Jones receiving best original screenplay, with a further five nominations including best director for Ashby and best supporting actor for Bruce Dern as Sally’s emotionally damaged husband Bob.
Like Ashby’s offbeat black comedy Harold and Maude it is a piece of emotional extremes, with scenes of distress and despair, of unexpected defiance, Luke as invisible in his wheelchair as septugenarian anarchist Maude, and of moments of joy, Sally and Luke able to find peace and happiness together, perhaps because they realise what they have cannot last forever so they don’t have think about building a future.
Built around a period soundtrack of Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones, the new edition of Coming Home features two archive documentaries, one on the background and production of the film and the other on the late Ashby, “one of the most talented filmmakers of the sixties and seventies,” with contributions from Voight, Dern and cinematographer Haskell Wexler who also provide a commentary, with a second commentary from author Scott Harrison.