The Vietnam war had been over for three years by the time Hal Ashby made Coming Home in 1978. Those who’d survived the combat zones of South-East Asia had returned to find themselves shunned and quarantined, like lepers in their home towns; a living, breathing reminder of a shameful war many back home would rather forget had ever happened. Some of those who came back perhaps wished they’d died out there in the jungles?the paraplegics, the traumatised, forever dreading the nameless, shapeless things that whispered to them in the night. The return of the veterans inspired ‘New Hollywood’ to explore the home front’s reaction to Vietnam, giving rise to a cycle of movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Heroes (1977), Rolling Thunder (1977) and Coming Home. This was Ashby’s sixth movie, made on the back of his biopic of protest singer Woody Guthrie, Bound For Glory. Ashby was a freewheeling hippie with a strong anti-establishment streak, and accordingly Coming Home was shot through with a dark cynicism. He cast as his female lead Jane Fonda, a vocal opponent of the war, and peppered the movie’s soundtrack with ’60s counterculture icons like the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix and Tim Buckley. At one point, Jon Voight says: “I’m not the enemy, the enemy is this war.” Ashby’s intentions couldn’t have been clearer.
Fonda’s Sally is an army wife, her husband, Bob (Bruce Dern), a Marine captain sent to Vietnam in 1968. In Bob’s absence Sally takes a job in the Veterans Hospital in LA, where she meets Luke (Voight), an old high school friend who took a bullet in the back and is now in a wheelchair. Luke’s eaten up with rage and bitterness, but Sally’s kindness tempers his anger. Sally, meanwhile, the stereotypical homely wife, finds herself questioning her beliefs and falling for Luke. The two embark on an affair. Then Bob comes home.
It’s almost impossible to find fault with Ashby’s film. As a meditation on the effects of war, on the scars it leaves, it’s an astonishing work. The leads are uniformly excellent and Voight rails against the establishment with real passion. We need movies like this, now more than ever. Damn shame Ashby’s been dead 15 years and there’s no one out there willing to take his place.