In a period of 10 years American cinema produced some fine films hardhitting films about Vietnam: Apocalypse Now (1979), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Platoon (1986). Coming Home (1978) is not as remembered as much as the last three but, watching it recently, it engages more issues than the other 3 that are very much localised in Vietnam.
Sally Hyde ( Jane Fonda) is married to a marine officer Bob (Bruce Dern) who goes to Vietnam. With time on her hands, she enrols as a volunteer in a hospital for veterans and there she meets an old school friend Luke (Jon Voight) who is disabled. They fall in love and she comes to question not just the war in Vietnam that traumatised the patients lives but the values of loyalty that she cherished. Thus the film not only deals with Vietnam from three perspectives but patriotism, disability, love, a wife suppressed in marriage. All three main characters delivers fine performances as their values and personalites change. Luke is transformed from a violent psychotic to a softer less disturbed human being by his love of Sally, whilst by the end Bob – though decorated – questions whether he is a hero. The film is supported by an excellent soundtrack of contemporary 70s music .
As ever with a film now 36 years old, you are entitled to question whether its dated. I can recall the Vietnam demonstrations personally and visiting the commemoration where the 51,000 who died there are named on a wall in Washington, was moving. I went there with a friend from Greenboro Carolina who identified someone from her high school and the one name amongst 51000 dead did strike a chord with me. However on the day when we commemorate our soldiers, I found the reaction of demonstrators in the film to the soldiers who fought there rather ungratifying. The film did not seem dated as the conflicts and tensions imposed on a young marriage when the soldier husband is away fighting still exist.
Tthe film has a French type of ending. It’s probable though not certain that Bob has committed suicide and equally unclear whether Sally continues with Luke. Bob accepts his medal for valour when Luke is addressing young people on the horrors of Vietnam. In this way the film does not sit in judgment but allows the viewer to make up one’s mind whether he/she stands and what happened to the three characters .