Hollywood loves war movies. Many great films depict people during combat, in various wars: WWI (“Paths of Glory”), WWII (“Hacksaw Ridge,” “Saving Private Ryan”), Korea (“MASH”), Vietnam (“Platoon,” “Deer Hunter,” “Full Metal Jacket”), and the Middle East (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor”). There are also POW movies, including “Stalag 17,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Great Escape.” But it’s much rarer to find films that depict a person’s return to civilian life. So here are some American movies, all English-language that depict that situation. Some of these films do indeed depict scenes in battle, but the crux of the movie is the return home. In chronological order:
The Big Parade (1925)
MGM was a new studio in 1925 and this was a risky project: Did audiences want to see a story about the traumatic Great War so soon after it ended? It turned out to be a huge hit. The film starts out as a buddy comedy with an enlistee (John Gilbert) and his pals, then turns into a wartime romance, and ends up much more serious. Only a portion of the film is set during the character’s return home, but that portion is devastating. Directed by King Vidor, adapted by Harry Behn from Laurence Stallings’ novel.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This movie is still the definitive work about returning vets. Producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler wanted to address the military who were returning from the just-ended war. Many in Hollywood were dubious, but the screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood — based on MacKinlay Kantor’s novella — sharply depicts their readjustment to work, friends and family, and the performances are expert, especially Harold Russell, a real-life vet making his acting debut.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
The movie presents the ultimate veteran-as-victim: A man returns from World War I duty, now blind, deaf, limbless and mute, and the film centers on his attempts to communicate with his doctors. The independently made “Johnny” was written and directed by formerly blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo, based on his novel.
Coming Home (1978)
While her husband is fighting in Vietnam, a woman (Jane Fonda) volunteers at the VA hospital and falls in love with a paraplegic there (Jon Voight). Hollywood generally avoided Vietnam subjects during the combat, and finally offered a triple whammy in 1978-79, with this film, “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.” “Coming Home” won Oscars for its two stars plus original screenplay (Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones, Nancy Dowd). Bruce Dern as Fonda’s husband and director Hal Ashby were also Oscar nominated.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
The Oliver Stone-directed movie stars Tom Cruise in one of his best performances. It’s the real-life story of Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed from the chest down in Vietnam, and became an anti-war activist. Kovic and Stone shared a Golden Globe for screenplay, with Kovic stating, “Twenty-two years ago I was wounded in Vietnam. I didn’t even know if I was going to get off the field that day and live. … This proves you can stand tall even if you’re in a wheelchair.”
The documentary, directed by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers, follows the first group of women sent into direct combat. Military policy says women are officially banned from direct ground warfare, and these five women were originally supposed to deal with terrorized Iraqi women and families, but ended up being sent, unprepared, into combat. The filmmakers interview the quintet about their combat experience and their work in adjusting to home life.
In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen (2012)
Another documentary, this one from Denton Adkinson, features veterans of the ground-breaking unit. They tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots of the U.S. Army Air Force. The docu presents the group’s history, from its 1941 start to the presentation of 2007 congressional Medal of Honor. The men reminisce about war, aviation, and their lives since.
American Sniper (2014)
This Clint Eastwood-directed film was a B.O. sensation ($547 million) and put PTSD on the map. Shortly after the movie opened, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald told the filmmakers, “You guys and your movie have advanced the conversation about veterans more in the past two weeks than we’ve done in the last 10 years.” “Sniper” screenwriter Jason Hall told Variety, “A lot of today’s soldiers come from a particular socio-economic group, so fewer people know soldiers first-hand. Their problems have been lost on us, and lost on a lot of politicians. Hopefully this discussion will continue. What matters is the lasting effect.”
Megan Leavey (2017)
The movie, starring Kate Mara and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”), is basically a love story between a Marine and her military-combat dog. It’s based on fact, taking place during and after combat in Iraq. The movie had the tagline “A Marine’s greatest mission is to bring a hero home.” If you watch it, make sure you have a box of Kleenex nearby.
Thank You for Your Service (2017)
The film, written and directed by “American Sniper” scribe Jason Hall, is a smart and compassionate look at Iraq veterans back in the U.S., based on the book by David Finkel. Miles Teller stars as real-life vet Adam Schumann, and one of the many strengths of the film is its depiction of the VA experience: The staff members are not villains, just overwhelmed with work and underfunded. Actor Beulah Koale steals the show as a fellow vet.