Bob talks with his military friend, Dink Mobley (Robert Ginty), as they prepare on the firing rage for their tour in Vietnam. They say they are ready for battle, but it is only practice not based on the realities of the guerilla war they will face. Dink says his girlfriend, Vi (Penelope Milford) doesn’t like the military life. Bob, in a condescending although accurate comment, says that his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda, winning her second Best Actress Oscar for this role), doesn’t understand the war, but is supportive. We then have a scene at the Officer’s Club where Bob and Sally are having drinks with a fellow officer and his wife. Although the first response to Bob may be to think of him as the antagonist in this story, he really is a tragic figure who should be viewed with understanding. He has, as many other young men, been brought up with a macho-infused version of patriotism. He says that he is excited about his upcoming time in Vietnam. He feels nervous in the way an athlete anticipates proving himself by competing in the Olympics, which is such a naive comparison, since losing the contest in war may mean the loss of one’s legs, or life. His officer friend encourages this gung ho feeling by falsely presenting the situation in Vietnam as winnable, saying the enemy made a last ditch effort in the Tet Offensive, and can now be defeated. The wife of the other officer leans over to Sally and says that Bob is very sexy. She embodies the traditional male-dominant view that a man capable of violence is an attractive one. The commanding officer is not there to give Bob and his fellow soldiers an inspiring visit, and he sends his wife instead. She says that night is the evening he plays chess. That is the extent of his combat vulnerability - a board game, while he sends his men into true peril.
Sally has decided to volunteer at the VA hospital. In one of the more embarrassing initial encounters depicted between a man and a woman, Sally accidentally bumps into Luke’s gurney, spilling the contests of his urine bag. Luke is so angry at the degrading incident, he lashes out at the hospital staff, wielding one of the canes, smashing objects round him. He is sedated and put in restraints, so now, in addition to his legs, the hospital has compounded Luke’s situation by not allowing him to use his hands. He must endure the humiliation of being fed, like a baby.
Sally goes into Luke’s room and tells him that they went to the same school. He mixes bitterness with humor. He tells her “I would salute you,” but his arms are tied up. Sally’s pre-marriage name was “Bender,” and he jokes that they used to call her “Bender over,” which adds a sexual connotation to their conversation. He almost gets her to undo his restraints, but staff workers enter his room. He tells her that she “almost got a gold star,” which is playful, but implies he thinks Sally’s volunteering is like a school assignment to her. But her experience as a cheerleader is actually valuable as she knows how to help those in need of support to overcome loss. At this point he just uses his dark humor to cope, saying, after losing the restraints, “I can crawl again,” and when he bumps into another patient, says, “Ken, I thought you died Wednesday, man.”
A July 4th observance with patriotic speeches is intercut with Luke and his veteran buddies playing a kind of special Olympics game of wheelchair football, which shows how military zeal can lead to devastating consequences. Luke, who was the football captain in high school, must now play the game in the chair. But, these men are having a good time, which shows their resilience, and possibly Luke’s journey toward moving on with his life. Luke wears a jacket that contains the Marine motto, “Semper Fi,” which means “Always faithful,” which can show that he feels that his faith may have been misplaced. The jacket also has “Hero” written on it, and as we hear in the final speech of the movie, Luke wanted to be a hero in battle, but his heroics are more in evidence by the way he has endured the aftermath of his service, and how he is there for others. We witness his moving away from his own bitterness by consoling Vi’s brother, strumming his guitar, and singing, when Bill breaks down in the middle of a song he is playing, and Luke holds onto him, comforting his damaged veteran brother.
Sally and Luke have their dinner date, which is awkward, as they are not sure how to deal with their feelings for each other, symbolized right from the beginning by how difficult it is for Luke to navigate his way in his wheelchair into Sally’s house. She starts to light a fire even though it is warm out. When she is about to put on some records, she says he probably won’t like her music choices. He says jokingly, but highlighting his insecurity, that she won’t like the way he dances. With Richie Havens singing about being “nothing but a dream,” Luke tells her that in his dreams he has the use of his legs. Inside, he is still what he was before being wounded. Others don’t see him for what he really is, but only focus on the wheelchair, as if that defines him. In her own way, she can relate to that feeling, because she feels others only see her as still being the type of cheerleader she was in school, but now it has turned into the facade of the cheery captain’s wife. With existential insight, Sally says there is danger in allowing others to make you become underneath what only appears on the surface. He now admits that he thinks about making love to her most of the time. Her response is interesting. She says, “I’ve never been unfaithful to my husband.” It is the duty part of the relationship she zeroes in on, not the love that is supposed to prevent the unfaithfulness. She also says she hasn’t been intimate with another in the past, but leaves open the possibility that may change in the future. She takes him back to the hospital later that night, and they do kiss, she reluctantly at first, but more willingly after. He looks downward following the kiss, unsure of what has happened. Without words, the acting here conveys the mixed feelings of the characters.
The butterfly effect ripples of these losses fan out engulfing others. Sally returns home to the grieving Vi, angry over the suicide of her brother. She asks Sally to go out with her to a club so she can drown her sorrow with alcohol. Vi is drunk and allows the two women to get picked up by a couple of men. They go back to the apartment of one of the guys, and Vi starts to do a striptease, but breaks down in the middle of it. On their way home they see Luke on the television. His response to Bill’s death is to publicly register his anger about the war. He chains himself and his wheelchair to the gates of a Marine recruiting depot, thus blocking entrance to the facility. He is arrested and tells the press that he didn’t want more men to participate in the war effort.
The quick sequences that follow show a period of joy when they build ramps for easier wheelchair access, which also symbolize erecting emotional bridges which help Sally and Luke better connect with each other. They socialize with Vi, which helps her with her healing process. They ride and run along the boardwalk, together flying a kite, which suggests a feeling of soaring above their individual problems. Luke shows Sally slides of his time in Vietnam, and he comments about what an intricate tunnel system the natives there had developed over time fighting the Japanese, the French, and now the Americans. His comment emphasizes that these people are used to fighting on their land, and we are just one in a succession of enemies. The point made is that Americans delude themselves thinking they can beat Vietnamese, because they have the experience and the perseverance needed to defeat invaders.
Sally gets a letter saying Bob was wounded in the foot and was coming home (again what should be a happy time will not turn out to be so). Luke and Sally have already talked about how torn she is between her new feelings for Luke and her many years spent with Bob. Now, she prepares with Vi to give Bob a welcoming home party. She meets him at the military base, which has anti-war protestors at the gates. The divided feelings in the country are illustrated by one protestor flashing Bob the peace sign as they drive through the gate and Bob giving the young man the finger. A billboard at the entrance to the base shows a shaggy-haired young man and the words, “Beautify America - Get a haircut.” It is the regimented military way of saying its uniforms stand for accepted uniformed behavior, while the counterculture’s look is a blight on the country.
The ending has Sally trying to make Bob feel at home, that is, safe and accepted, as she goes to the market with Vi to get some items for an old-fashioned American barbecue. But, the wordless Bob, dressed in his Marine uniform, goes to the beach. He strips off his clothes showing he no longer belongs in that uniform. He takes off the wedding ring, the one he said he would never remove, symbolizing that he is not a husband anymore. He goes into the ocean, probably to commit suicide, because he no longer feels at home anywhere on earth, and “coming home” to him now is a kind of reversal of birth, as he returns to the liquid world from where he once came.
Luke was invited to speak to high school students, because of his protest at the recruiting depot, to provide the counter argument to a Marine’s advocacy of joining the military. Once a high school hero, who ran in football games as the military-sounding captain of the team, fighting for victory, he now returns to school as a man who lost the power of those legs as part of a different team in a much more dangerous battle. He tells the students that he (like Bob) wanted to be a hero and fight for his country. But after experiencing the horrors of such a pointless war, he tells them there are no good reasons “to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away.” He is there to try to prevent those tragedies from happening to them.
The next film is The Accused.