Coming Home (1978) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tagline: A man who believed in war! A man who believed in nothing! And a woman who believed in both of them!

Kind of a sensationalistic marketing ploy for a movie once considered to be an Oscar-worthy serious movie, isn't it?.

Sometimes when you look back on the pictures that you once considered great, they still seem great. This one is an exception. Memory fails, but I think I liked it a lot back then. Not any more. Now it's just a film for you old geezers who are sick of David Lynch and The Coen Brothers, and want to bring back warm memories of the films of your youth.

I guess people liked it at one time because they passionately agreed with its one-dimensional point of view. I suppose that's why I once liked it as well, but I don't have any passion left for the subject matter, or even nostalgia. Without passionate agreement to support the film, there's nothing left but poor lighting, bad sound, fourth-rate acting (except for Jon Voight), cardboard characters, and simplistic politics. In fact, stripped away from its cultural context, it is actually a poor movie and you should avoid it unless it touches you directly and you can somehow relate to the events portrayed.

Director Hal Ashby has acquired a certain cachet of having been martyred to the Hollywood system, but in fact he is wildly overrated. He never did master most of the elements of being a director. He wasn't a take-charge kind of guy, but a laid-back hippie doper. (He is legendary for the fact that he chain-smoked dope, and was never seen without a joint in his mouth, as if it were a Lucky Strike, and he were Sam Spade.) Gentle soul that he was, he would never fire or criticize an actor or technician, or provoke a clash on the set. He figured he'd just shoot what he could get, ignore the problems, then fix it all in the editing room. Fortunately, he was a brilliant film editor (In The Heat of the Night, e.g.) who did his own editing when he became a director. He had a talent for taking a bunch of film snippets and putting them together in a way that seemed coherent and powerful, in the process losing the most artificial moments. The trick to being an editor is to know things like when a reaction shot works better than the face of the speaker, or when the speaker's words can be faded out to hear the muscial soundtrack, or other similar issues. Ashby's editing pulled Coming Home out of the barrel. When they finished filming Voight's speech in the high school, the sound man, Jeff Wexler, said:

After we were done shooting Voight's speech to the high school, I said 'We're in big trouble. It just doesn't work.' Hal had let Jon ramble on, and Jon did a lot of stuff that was really stupid, that would have been an embarrassment had it ended up in the movie.

Even though Director Ashby didn't know what to film, Editor Ashby knew what to cut, and by the time he was finished, Voight's stirring speechifying won him an Oscar. Frankly, it isn't much good as cinema, but it is effective oratory. Your reaction to it will depend on your passion for the subject matter and your opinion about long monologues. The last monologue I liked began with "to be or not to be", so I find that scene with Voight's speech to be as boring as any famous scene in cinema history. The thing that might save it for you is if you're really tuned into the same point of view, and are moved by hearing your own thoughts articulated so eloquently. In fact, the entire speech is actually nothing more than an excuse for the author to deliver his own monologue about Vietnam, disguised as the character speaking. I was not only bored silly with that, but I was bored with the entire film, which is basically all windy monologues. There are exchanges of dialogue, of course, but those discussions don't sound like real people talking to each other. The exchanges always seem to represent one person waiting for a turn to speak while another orates, then delivering his own prepared speech.

In my view, high school oratory contests are not especially good spectator events.

The Voight character, a veteran opposing the war, is fairly accurately shaped, but that's because Ashby really understood that character and the entire anti-war position. On the other hand, the Bruce Dern character, a gung-ho soldier, seems to have been born on another planet. Although a dedicated military guy, he had a wild haircut, long sideburns, he was out of shape (damn those nude scenes!), and his speech and manner were so clearly psychotic that he would have been deemed unfit for janitorial duty, let alone combat.

And that was before the war messed him up!

Pauline Kael wrote in her contemporary review:

"The captain is such a charmless, reactionary stiff that when he comes home and Sally says she loves him, we don't believe her. Captain Hyde - who is supposed to be driven made by the war - looks buggy-eyed and crazily distracted even before he goes to Vietnam; when the war deranges him, who can tell the difference? It's a fatally wrong piece of casting. Everything to do with Hyde is false, creepy, awful - he's like a psychotic Andy Gump. We feel no regret over anything that happens to him."

Jane Fonda plays the wife of a captain (Dern). He's away in 'Nam most of the film, and she has no life, so she volunteers to work in the local base hospital and ends up falling in love with a bitter paraplegic sergeant (Jon Voight) who is rehabilitating from his own 'nam experience. As always happens in movies, Voight is a crotchety and bitter man at the beginning, but by the end he is giving kids rides on his wheelchair and rescuing lost puppies. He is able to grow as a man because he hates the war. Of course, only those who hate the war can please a woman sexually, even if they have no working naughty bits, because they are warm, loving, right-thinking, life-embracing people who want to make love, not war.

Dern, on the other hand, commits suicide. He must deteriorate as a man because he loves the war and wants to be a hero.

Your question is this, kids. Do you think the movie is for or against the war?

The film takes a decided stance about what was right and wrong, and it just keeps talkin' and talkin' about it ad nauseum. In my life I have already spent altogether too much time on this, and I really don't want to listen to any more lectures on the subject. I basically agree with the film's position, but that doesn't keep me from tiring of the windbag speeches.

For the record, the film opposes the war for all the wrong reasons - not because there is anything wrong with the politics or strategic logic of it, but because America's boys are coming home maimed.  But boys always come home maimed from war. From every war. Many of them don't come home at all. What about WW2? The American military establishment was the same then, and the same exaggerations could have been made. Boys also came home from France without their legs. In the 20 years between WW2 and Vietnam, the army didn't get crazier, the hawks didn't get hawkier, the generals didn't get any more obsessive (you think Patton was sane?). War is hell. It messes up the people who fight in it. Sure, comin' home from Vietnam without legs was hell. The same was true of the Civil War, WW2, the Gulf War, etc. You can't measure a war by whether good boys from Iowa farms get hurt, and whether generals are crazy. Those things never change.

The real question about any war is whether that hell is necessary.

But the film barely touches on this.

The same logic applied in this film would also cause the filmmakers to be against WW2.

What made Vietnam different from WW2 for returning veterans was the public reaction. The kids who were wounded in WW2 came home to a hero's welcome and thus the feeling that they did what they had to do for the world. They were probably just as deeply damaged emotionally, but they had a societal support mechanism which reinforced the fact that they lost their legs for a reason. Vietnam was different. The same kids from Iowa, a generation later, came home to find out that they were considered baby-killers and imperialist puppets. Our great failing as a society was that we never found a way to honor the courage and sacrifice of our sons and brothers while we were condemning the war they fought in.

The film does have some value as a time capsule. At the time of the Vietnam War, Americans had a different attitude toward issues like woman's sexuality, female equality, disagreement with authority, etc. It is interesting for me to watch this film and be reminded about how there was once controversy about so many things we now take for granted. It is good to be reminded, for example, that women weren't supposed to be concerned about orgasms, and that Nixon used to keep an "enemies list", and that the FBI used to keep extensive files on people who disagreed with the administration.

But it isn't that realistic. Again, it is unrealistically one-sided.

I guess I thought that was a virtue when I was passionate about agreeing with that side. Now I just find it exaggerated and false.

For example, the film laughably has two FBI agents assigned pretty much full-time to shadow Voight, a guy who has no public recognition like the Chicago 7, and is only a moderate dissenter by the standards of the time. In reality, the feds didn't have enough manpower to assign that kind of surveillance to Abbie Fuckin' Hoffman, who disappeared from under their noses, as you may remember. Given the fact that about half of the adults in the country were more radical than Voight, the FBI would have had to hire the other half and the children to keep tabs on them!


Jane Fonda shows her breasts and buns in a sex scene with Jon Voight

Bruce Dern shows his butt when he strips off his uniform to jump in the ocean.

Penelope Milford shows a nipple peaking through crossed arms after a drunken Go-Go dance.

Not only that, but the FBI guys were wandering around doing their surveillance while wearing cheap suits in warm weather.

Gee, do you think anybody in 1969 would have suspected they were federal agents?

This is one of the most poorly acted major movies. Voight did OK, as always, and almost managed to make greatness out of the pontifical speeches he was asked to render, but Fonda and Dern were utterly unconvincing. Fonda was artificial. She sounds like she is reciting lines in a high school speech contest, and I don't think I ever found her credible for a moment. It's difficult to believe that this passed for acting only a quarter of a century ago. Dern was nominated for an Oscar, but the less said about his performance the better. I was embarrassed for him. Perhaps we can blame him, perhaps we should blame the author of his impossible dialogue. 

DVD info from Amazon.

Commentary by Jon Voight, Bruce Dern and Haskell Wexler
Featurettes: "Coming Back Home" and "Hal Ashby: A Man Out Of Time"
Widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85:1

Of course, the film is not without its moments, but the main reason why it was nominated for Best Picture is that it was riding the Zeitgeist.

I did enjoy the musical score of the Vietnam-era hits from Richie Havens, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, and others.

But that just fuels my own personal need for nostalgia. I'm not one of those old geezers who misses the films of my youth, but I do miss the music.  

Tuna's Thoughts

Coming Home (1978) brought me immediately back to Southern California, 1967, as a returning Vietnam veteran. I have to say this was not an entirely pleasant experience, as it wasn't at the time. This is part of the greatness of this film. I suppose the greatest message of the film is that everyone came back from Vietnam a cripple in some way. Some were in coffins, some in wheel chairs, some with obvious mental problems, and the rest with deep emotional scars (or ghosts) that ate at them from the inside. It didn't help that, especially in California, you were not a returning hero, but rather a victim of the establishment at best, and guilty of complicity in an immoral war at worst. This film, however, went well beyond the broad issues, and showed several of the minor issues, which I hadn't thought about since the early 70s.

When Bruce Dern leaves for Nam, Fonda is no longer permitted to live on base. "If the Marine Corps would have wanted him to have a wife, they would have issued him one." She did, however, receive a military allotment as a dependant, and therefor didn't have to work. She was to go stay with his mother, doing nothing but wait patiently for his return, but elected rather to stay in the San Diego area, with her friends, live in a beach front apartment, and do volunteer work at the VA hospital. Her friend, and live-in girlfriend of the sergeant who had gone to Nam with Dern, was not entitled to an allotment, as she was not married, so had to work at the VA hospital.

Fonda runs into none other than the captain of her High School football team and heart-throb of every girl on campus (John Voight), who has returned a paraplegic. He has gone past self-pity to rage when she meets him. As they become friends, she helps to give him reason to rise above his circumstances, and find a new life. He now has reason to live, and is soon off the gurney, into a wheel chair, and released from the hospital. He still must fight the personal demons caused by what he did and saw in the war. The relationship with Fonda eventually becomes sexual, but there is much more motivation for her actions than just loneliness. Her husband had sex with her by the numbers, in a good military manor, and while she did her duty and endured it, there was no pleasure for her. After meeting him for R&R in Hong Kong, it was obvious that the war was changing him, and that he was more distant and less intimate than ever. It was after this that her relationship with Jon Voight became sexual. Of course, most of his equipment was inoperative, but he did more for her with his tongue than her husband had ever done with a whole body. This is very much of the time, when women were demanding a career, and their right to sexual pleasure.

When Voight arrives at the hospital too late to keep a friend from committing suicide, he protests by chaining himself to the front gates of a Marine training depot, to make a statement about the war. This sets the FBI on his trail as a commie pinko radical, and they record his relationship with Fonda. This is spot on to what was happening at the time, with the government having more trouble fighting the war at home than the war in Vietnam. Dern, upon his return, learns about Fonda's affair when the FBI confronts him and his commanding officer with the evidence. This, of course, effectively ends his military career, robbing him of a chance to gain the hero status he had always so desperately wanted. This was more devastating to him than his wife's infidelity.

Scoop had remembered it as a great film, and saw it this time as a soap opera with a melodramatic ending and bad performances. Though I will admit that life in that era was rather melodramatic, the movie correctly portrayed it. For example, I attended college with another Vietnam vet. Like most vets who returned to school, we worked much harder than the High School grads we attended school with, and were at the top of the class. I had no idea there was anything wrong with him, even after being with him 5 days a week for two semesters, and was shocked to learn that he had put a 45 in his mouth over the summer, and pulled the trigger. Oddly enough, he survived, and eventually emerged from the VA hospital with no visible scars, and enough tools to cope with his inner demons, but is personal example of someone who did attempt suicide because he couldn't cope with what he had done in the war.

As to the performances, both the Academy and Golden Globes were very impressed. Voight was superb. Dern, I thought, nailed a part that didn't allow much in the way of range, with two emotions, first, as a gung ho Semper Fi marine off to fame and glory, and then as a deeply troubled and emotionally numb returning vet. I can't objectively evaluate any performance by Jane Fonda since I met her in 1973. While I was convinced about the sincerity of her humanitarian objections to the Vietnam war, I found her a spoiled and self-absorbed celebrity with no regard whatsoever for actual "real people." I will say that her supposed "first orgasm" looked very real. Scoring this film is rather difficult. Using a normal rating system, I would give it 3 1/2 stars, as a great film, but I am not sure it would speak in the same way to someone who didn't live what was portrayed in the film, so the correct score is probably C+.

The Critics Vote

  • multiple Oscar nominations, including best picture

The People Vote ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Windy, serious-minded film dominated by a one-sided study of the issues and characters in the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Once considered a great film, but hopelessly a prisoner of its time. As the DJ's might say, all talk, no rock. To tell you the truth, I only scored it in the C's because of its reputation. If I hadn't known about it in advance, I would have scored it a D. If I knew that the film was properly transferred to DVD, I would argue for an F, because it's awful technically, but I guess we should give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmakers, and blame the DVD transfer for the poor lighting, sound problems, and blurry images. (Tuna: an enthusiastic C+, so one thumb way up, and one way down.)

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