Brief Thoughts: Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978)

  Coming Home, Dir. Hal Ashby (1978)
  Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford

Coming Home is such an empathetic, smart anti-war film - like a hybrid of a forties women’s picture and a counterculture movie. Set against the backdrop of war, with its wistful, romantic tone and focus on those left on the home front, it calls to mind may films made in the late forties, certainly. It's been compared to William Wyler's masterful 1946 epic The Best Years of Our Lives, about returning war veterans and old wounds. This isn't far off the mark. Ashby's film has the same earnest morality and melancholy, the same empathy for wounded and crippled survivors - only the peace movement sneaks through every crevice of Coming Home, challenging the entire edifice of patriotism and military service.

Jane Fonda’s collaboration is all over it - it was made by her production company, IPC. (That stands for Indochina Peace Campaign, fyi.)  It's very much about the female viewpoint of the war, centered on war wives and girlfriends. You can certainly feel its second-wave feminist impulses and ideas; Fonda, as Sally, and her roommate, Viola, are central to the movie. At one point, oral sex is performed on a woman and there's a full view of her orgasm. It's a strange sight in a mainstream Hollywood movie in 1978, made all the more by strange by the realisation that it's something you hardly ever see.

Jon Voight, as Luke, has a real magnetism as a shaggy-haired ’Nam vet who’s been paralysed from the waist down and forms a relationship with Fonda, a volunteer nurse. It's a slightly hackneyed premise for a love story, but through the humour and strength of performance, Ashby transforms it into something tender and unexpected. Voight is defiant and disillusioned, cool in his customised Mustang and his bomber jacket. Fonda is the traditional cookie cutter wife of a military officer, beginning the film with carefully coiffed hair and matchy-matchy outfits. Their attraction is, against all odds, voluptuous and genuinely sexy.

In a movie made by hippies, it should have been easy to turn Bruce Dern, the square, unlikeable military husband, into the villain of the story. He easily could have been a raging caricature, but his broken devotion to a country that has lied to him is instead staggering and pitiful. When he returns from Vietnam and meets the longhaired paraplegic that his wife has been nursing, we expect him to explode. Instead, he stares into the middle distance, with a glazed, faraway look that is much more frightening. Ashby offers no easy answers, telling a deeply personal story and peppering it with jabs about the folly of joining up, unquestioningly, to fight a ludicrous war.

It's clear, of course, that Ashby, Fonda, and company set out to make a 'message movie', and at its worst, Coming Home is occasionally guilty of heavy-handed symbolism. But it also contains moments of great delicacy, as with the poignant handheld camera Haskell Wexler employs during a scene at a veteran's celebratory picnic. The camera moves from face to face, from distant eyes and twisted bodies to the happy display of the bandstand onstage. It looks, vaguely, like it belongs to another film - maybe Robert Altman's Nashville, that unwieldy masterpiece from 1975.

Along with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was among the first crop of mainstream Hollywood films to directly deal with the Vietnam War. The former, of course, features actual scenes of carnage and warfare, while Coming Home remains set in the USA. But Cimino's movie is so wrapped up in high-minded ideals about brotherhood and manly honour. It caricatures the Vietnamese as mindless, gibbering sadists, all the while upholding, to borrow from Jonathan Rosenbaum, a "male self-pity" that is ensconced in backwards patriotism. In my view, The Deer Hunter does very little that Coming Home doesn't either do better, or do without.

Voight's final speech, to a group of high school boys, is unassuming but profound; he sounds uncannily similar to the haunted young vets who spoke at the Winter Soldier investigations, in 1972. That speech - like much of the film - undermines any easy, gung-ho nationalist fervour. It cautions against the rhetoric that sent millions of young boys jostling - and forced others - to fight and die in an unjust, far-flung war. 


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