“I can’t see anybody saying that after going and coming back…that they would go again. I just can’t deal with that.”
By 1977, Hollywood had already released a number of films dealing with the Vietnam War, but the best ones were still in the future. While opposition to the war was strong, there was still an appreciable distaste for those who not only opposed American involvement, but had also openly appeared to take the side of the enemy. Jane Fonda, by virtue of her own actions and statements, was a lightning rod for such sentiment. When it was announced that she would star in Coming Home (along with Jon Voight, also a noted opponent of the war) — a film dealing with returning servicemen and the war’s impact on them, many expected a film that would be less than even-handed in its presentation. Coming Home, however, proved to be more than merely a condemnation of the Vietnam War. It is just as much about the difficulties of readjusting to “normal” life and dealing with horrors that few can imagine. The film was highly acclaimed upon its release and went on to gain eight Academy Award nominations for 1978. It would subsequently win for Best Actress (Jane Fonda), Best Actor (Jon Voight), and Best Screenplay. MGM has now released Coming Home in a very pleasing DVD special edition.
Luke Martin is recuperating at a local veterans’ hospital from the injuries he sustained in the Vietnam War and that left him a paraplegic. There he encounters Sally Hyde, whose husband Bob has just been assigned to Vietnam duty. Sally has volunteered at the hospital as a way to put in the time while her husband is away. Luke at first is a bitter young man, but as he is increasingly thrown into contact with Sally, a relationship starts to develop. Eventually Luke is released from the hospital, and newly mobile with his own wheelchair, begins to rebuild his life. His relationship with Sally deepens and the two fall in love. Then Bob returns from Vietnam bearing his own scars due to his experiences there.
This film builds in power and poignancy as it progresses until at its end, you are left virtually limp from the emotional impact of its final scenes. I sat for a long time after it was over reflecting on the Vietnam War’s impact and thought too about how Hollywood has depicted the event over the years. The great films about that war — Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Born On The Fourth Of July — all have their individual merits, but all rely on graphic footage of the war to a greater or lesser extent and none have the same intimacy that Coming Home has. Coming Home is certainly an indictment of the war, but that is not its sole intent. This is as much a film about relationships and the complications in them that major upheavals in people’s lives, such as war, cause. Having never fought in a war, I can’t even begin to imagine the physical and mental horrors that those who have served have experienced. That this film is able to convey to non-participants even in a small way what effect those experiences might have on combatants (without showing any combat sequences) in itself lifts it well beyond most other films of its genre. Coming Home grips the audience forcefully and movingly and that is a testament to the film’s screenplay, the excellence of the lead players, and the firm but unobtrusive direction of Hal Ashby.
Ashby really sets the tone for the film with the opening sequence of real Vietnam veterans playing pool (Voight’s character is a silent participant). He just lets the vets speak in their own words about their feelings after returning from the war. No punches are pulled and no fancy camera work is permitted to diminish the impact of the scene. And that’s how he allows the rest of the film to unfold as well. Ashby was well known for being an actor’s director and he manages to extract fine performances from the players in most of his better films. Ruth Gordon in Harold And Maude (1972), Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973), Lee Grant in Shampoo (1975), and David Carradine in Bound For Glory (1976) had all benefited from working with him. In Coming Home, virtually the entire cast does some of their best work.
Jon Voight plays the central role of Luke Martin and delivers a tremendous performance. He handles a wide range of emotions from anger to tenderness, and from sadness to happiness, with equal ease and believability. He really inhabits the role throughout, and his speech to a group of high school students at the film’s end is a highlight of the film. Only slightly less impressive is Bruce Dern as Bob Hyde. His character is a little less developed in the screenplay, but he plays it with conviction. He really comes into his own during the last third of the film when he has to play a man tormented by what he has experienced in Vietnam, compounded by finding out that his wife has been having an affair with Luke. Jane Fonda, while quite satisfactory in the part of Sally Hyde, is the least persuasive of the three leads. I never really felt she was completely immersed in the role, particularly near the film’s beginning, as though she allowed the mechanics of acting to be too close to the surface of her performance. The smaller supporting roles of Vi Munson and her brother Bill are given fine interpretations by Penelope Milford and Robert Carradine respectively.
Coming Home also benefits from the experienced hand of director of photography Haskell Wexler. The film is filled with beautifully lit sequences. At times, it is characterized by a softened image that almost gives an unworldly feel to some of the events, as though trying to convey the sense that what the Vietnam War has done to each of the characters isn’t real and a less brutal reality exists if they could only somehow wake up. Also complementing the film is an outstanding soundtrack of contemporary music featuring, among others, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones.
MGM has delivered a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of Coming Home on DVD. This is a nice-looking presentation. Colours are generally muted and there is an occasional softness to the image in line with the filmmakers’ intent. There is some grain present that contributes to video noise problems in darker sequences. Overall, though, the transfer appears to conform to the original theatrical look and the impression is one of being easy on the eyes. Some minor edge enhancement is present.
The sound is delivered by a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track that does a reasonable job with the dialogue. No hiss or distortion is present. Background music, however, sounds a little thin with virtually no low end. French and Spanish mono tracks are also included as are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
MGM gives us some good supplements with this DVD. There is an audio commentary with Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and Haskell Wexler. Each’s comments were recorded separately and then blended for the final product, which of course reduces the chance for each to play off of one another. The results are fairly good, however, with each contributing useful insight throughout the film. Dern is particularly enthusiastic about participating and is quite forthcoming in his comments. Wexler provides some very interesting and surprising explanations of how some of the shots were planned and executed. Voight seems rather low-key, especially in the first half of the commentary.
Two featurettes provide a useful supplement to the commentary, even though both rely heavily on interviews with the same trio who did the commentary. “Coming Back Home” is a making-of effort, while “Hal Ashby: A Man Out of Time” is more of a general tribute to the director rather than a focus on Coming Home. The original theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
Coming Home is a film of power and emotion that seems if anything more potent than ever, nearly 25 years after its initial release. Excellent performances by its two male leads and empathetic direction by Hal Ashby make the film a winner. MGM delivers a fine DVD package. The image transfer may not seem quite up to the standards of current films, but appears to replicate the filmmakers’ original intent. Highly recommended.