Coming Home arrived the same year as The Deer Hunter and The Boys In Company C, 1978, not many years after the end of the Vietnam War. Of course, there had already been several films about Vietnam that were not technically “Vietnam movies”—so many of the “New Hollywood” films had Vietnam as a central issue—and then there films like M*A*S*H that had the war as a somewhat disguised subject. Sam Fuller’s 1957 China Gate prefigured them all, of course.
It was not first film about returning vets from that war either, but the others had usually been done in some kind of exploitation fashion, such as Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho; and there had been Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets; Rolling Thunder; Elia Kazan’s 1972 The Visitors, and of course Taxi Driver.
In Coming Home, the war is ending, and the US is trying to come to terms with its actions in Indochina. The story is centred on characters who portray different attitudes towards the conflict. Bruce Dern plays Jane Fonda’s husband, a soldier who is about to be redeployed. They are a relatively conservative couple, and she is left feeling adrift when he leaves. She starts helping at a veteran’s hospital, where she meets a former hospital classmate, Luke (Jon Voight), who has become paraplegic. They then start a relationship.
It was directed by Hal Ashby, and was one of the more successful films on the topic. Coming Home was very much Fonda’s project from the start. She had originated the effort in 1972. She knew Ron Kovic, the author of Born On the Fourth of July (which also later became a film in 1989), whom she had met at an anti-war rally; and Voight’s character is partly based on him. Nancy Dowd, probably the most underrated screenwriter of the 1970s (Slap Shot and Straight Time are two more of her great scripts), wrote the original screenplay. Dowd left the project eventually because it was taking so long, and the eventual screenplay had multiple authors but is credited to Waldo Salt, best known for writing Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Day Of the Locusts. Robert C. Jones, primarily known as an editor, also worked on it. Jones was working regularly with Ashby at the time. Fonda also had a lot of input on the script, as did cult screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop, Walker). In the end it was a bit of a hodge-podge.
John Schlesinger was the original director, but supposedly left because he thought it should have an American in charge. Ashby was probably a better choice anyway, as he had been involved with the counterculture and the anti-war movement, as had Voight—although Voight only got the part after loads of big Hollywood names turned it down. He originally been slated for Dern’s role. Robert Carradine also appears (after all, you can’t have a 1970s film without a Carradine in it).
Coming Home is a really strong drama, and the sex scene between Jane Fonda and a disabled man was pretty forward for its time if not still. It takes a very different approach from The Deer Hunter, with the result being a much more human movie, and a better film politically. Dern’s work is impressive, especially his last moments in the film.
It was beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler, one of the great cinematographers and well-known for his work with John Sayles and many others. The soundtrack includes various hits of the time, with a great opening sequence to the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” Ashby was one of the first filmmakers to really use contemporary pop songs in that way, pulling music from his own record collection like Scorsese did (although he was in turn influenced in that direction by Kenneth Anger).
The disc has a new commentary from author Scott Harrison, and an archival commentary from Voight, Dern and Wexler. Two featurettes are also included, with a total 40 minutes’ running time. This is the first time these extras have been available in the UK, as MGM left them off the original UK DVD release. There’s also a booklet by Harrison and Glenn Kenny.