Time it was and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Paul Simon, Bookends
When Bob Ivie and I were working on the final chapters of Hunt the Devil, I approached my friend Lee Benjamin, a veteran wounded in Vietnam, with a question about Vietnam War films. I had known Lee for over 30 years. My father had worked for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam during 1964-1965, and I was curious about Lee’s experiences there, but I had never pressed him with questions. But knowing him to be a film buff, and remembering that he had once made an intriguing comment about Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, I approached him—I hoped inoffensively—with the following query: “Which Vietnam film is better, Platoon (1986) or Apocalypse Now (1979)?” His reply opened up a conversation, in our later years, that continues to this day:
Platoon is what happened to me; Apocalypse Now is what I experienced. Surrealism. All the things that happened in Apocalypse did not happen to everyone; but everyone experienced some of those things.
But that’s not my favorite Vietnam movie. I think the best is Coming Home (1978).
He was referring to Hal Ashby’s film, produced by and starring Jane Fonda, with Jon Voight and Bruce Dern in lead roles, about veterans returning from Vietnam. In 1978, Coming Home won Oscars for Best Actor (Voight), Best Actress (Fonda) and Best Original Screenplay. The Best Picture award was taken by another Vietnam War film: The Deer Hunter.
I saw it in Newton, Massachsuetts—a liberal town. People came out of the movie horrified at the conditions in VA hospitals. But that wasn’t what I got out of it at all—and I spent ten months in Navy/Military hospitals. I was happy that nobody was shooting at me there. You could take a shit in a toilet. You could eat three meals a day. So what if it was a little dirty?
Coming Home was a film in the line of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Fred Zinneman’s The Men (1950), starring Marlon Brando in his film debut, about a World War II paraplegic veteran. Coming Home anticipated Oliver’s Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
I liked it because there was love in the story. That no matter how bad it is, no matter how fucked up it all gets, two human beings can still touch each other’s hearts.
In The Men, Marlon Brando’s character returns to a society that has remained the same as the one he left, even though he has changed; in Coming Home, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern are returning to a world that has changed from under them. Different to the experiences of veterans in the past, our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been deployed to hell and back again, and again, and yet again. The great film about their final coming home remains to be made.