The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - COMING HOME (1978) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - COMING HOME (1978)

coming home review
A volunteer at a veterans' hospital begins an affair with a paraplegic Vietnam vet.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Hal Ashby

Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine, Robert Ginty, Charles Cyphers

coming home bluray

In the closing shot of Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Jane Fonda's Sally Hyde enters a supermarket through a door marked 'Out'. Such pedantic details no longer matter to Sally. She's changed you see, no longer the innocent, all-American former cheerleader we meet at the start of the movie when she bids farewell to her husband, Captain Bob (Bruce Dern), as he heads off to serve his country in Vietnam. "I'm scared," Sally confesses to Bob, "but I'm proud of what you're doing." By the end of the movie, Sally is still scared.

Feeling she should contribute to the war effort in some way while her husband is on the frontline, Sally volunteers at a local California Veterans' Association hospital. The men she meets there are broken; most physically, many mentally, some spiritually. Luke Martin (Jon Voight), is one such victim of the war, now left in a paraplegic state by his wounds. Luke and Sally were once classmates, but the former cheerleader has no real memory of the shaggy haired vet, who sees her as representing everything he now hates about America. In the very opposite of a 'meet cute' the two are introduced when Luke spills the contents of his bladder bag over Sally.

coming home review

Luke is initially cruel to Sally, but unlike the rest of the staff, who don't hide their annoyance at his behaviour, Sally simply keeps smiling. She sees something in Luke beyond mere sympathy. She sees a handsome, sensitive man who looks at her in a way her husband no longer does.

When Luke is released from hospital, Sally has given him a new lease of life. He purchases a sports car (the same blue and white Ford Mustang driven by Farrah Fawcett in Charlie's Angels, incidentally) and enjoys hanging out by his apartment building's pool. He seduces Sally, and the two embark on a steamy affair, culminating in one of cinema's all-time great sex scenes ("What should I do?", "Everything!"). Their romance is cut short however when a wounded Bob returns home.

Ashby's film was the first Hollywood movie to explicitly address the Vietnam conflict and its fallout. Having been inspired by veteran Ron Kovic (who would later be played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July), Fonda enlisted screenwriter Nancy Dowd to pen a script focussed on a paraplegic veteran, but Dowd's rambling script would go through rewrites by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones before it became the love triangle story of Ashby's film.

Close to a decade had passed from when Fonda had initially begun work on the project, and that's probably a good thing in this case. It's difficult to imagine a Barbarella era Fonda playing this character, or the audience believing her as the naive army wife she begins the movie as. The hindsight of the complete failure of America's involvement in Vietnam allows the film to underline its anti-war message.

coming home review

Fonda had rubbed veterans of every political persuasion the wrong way during her 'Hanoi Jane' period, and it's difficult not to view Coming Home as an apology of sorts from Fonda, an acknowledgment that not every young man who went to Nam did so out of a bloodthirsty patriotic duty. As Luke makes explicitly clear in a stirring warning to a high school class in the movie's coda, most had been sold a lie about their country's place in the world. The scene in question is a piece of sermonising that feels as tacked on as Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator, but like Chaplin's monologue, it's hard to deny that it needed to be said. Luke tells the kids that his perspective changed as soon as he got to Vietnam, but unlike Bob, Luke immediately accepts that he's fighting for the wrong side. For Bob, witnessing the atrocities committed by men clad in the uniform he holds so sacred tears him apart.

A victim of American absolutism, Bob requires life to be black and white. When he discovers his wife's affair - thanks to the FBI spying on Luke after he chains himself to the gate of a recruitment centre - Bob wants to lash out at Luke, but can't, because Luke represents everything he ever wanted to be - a war hero. Things come to an emotional head when Sally, Luke and Bob confront each other. The former steps back, realising the two men share a bond with one another that despite their rivalry, transcends her relationship with either of them. "I'm not the enemy," Luke reassures the volatile Bob, "Maybe the war is the enemy."

Voight and Fonda are magnetic together, delivering arguably the highlight performances of their careers. Ashby hones in on the loveable goofiness of their relationship, and Luke taking Sally for a ride on his lap in his wheelchair is one of the most genuinely affecting moments in '70s cinema. Even more touching is a scene where Luke embraces a troubled young veteran played by Robert Carradine. The latter character is an echo of Bob, in that the one thing that that kept him going has been taken from him - thanks to his shaky hands, he can no longer play guitar. Watching Luke take the young man in his arms is perhaps the moment when Sally realises she has fallen for Luke. Despite his chair, Luke is never portrayed as anything less than a powerful figure, and in their initial courtship it's Sally who seems the more nervous of the two. You might argue that the role of Luke should have gone to a disabled actor, but in the four decades since, we've never seen such a positive, unpatronising portrayal of disability in American cinema.

coming home review

Ashby rarely gets enough credit for his influential use of music. He begins Coming Home by employing the songs of the era as little more than background noise, often revealed to be coming from a radio in the scene, but as the movie progresses, the music plays a more explicit role, culminating in Tim Buckley singing "Once I was a soldier" over the tragic but inevitable finale. In a bravura sequence, Ashby cuts what feels like an entire reel to an extended version of The Chambers Brothers' 'Time Has Come Today' as he details Bob's return to America and the repercussions therein. It's a technique that has since been taken to heart by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Alan Rudolph and Oliver Stone, but few have pulled it off as well as Ashby here. It's a sequence that leaves us in no doubt that we're watching a movie directed by the editor of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Ashby was on top of the world at this stage of his career, but only Coming Home's immediate successor, 1979's Being There, would fall into the ranks of his best work. As with Robert Altman, the '80s saw Ashby struggle to adjust to a new decade where movies were increasingly valued solely in terms of entertainment value and box office worth, when Fonda would put aside her politics to sell workout videos and Voight's political leanings would begin to take a dramatic turn to the right. Coming Home stands as a testament to a time when Hollywood gave a damn.

Commentary with actors Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; commentary by author Scott Harrison; 'Coming Back Home' - a 25 minute archival featurette; a 15 minutes featurette on Hal Ashby; and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Harrison and critic Glenn Kenny.

Coming Home is on blu-ray July 15th from Eureka Entertainment.