Coming home from war is a wrenching transition for the returning veteran.

“Soldier’s Home”—a short story in Ernest Hemingway’s early collection, In Our Time (1925)—masterfully captures the returning war veteran’s sense of dislocation and alienation from a “normal” life after confronting the horrors of war.
Though written shortly after the end of World War I, Hemingway’s story distills the essence of the returning vet story to which moviemakers have returned again and again over the intervening years. In some ways, the battle to readjust to civilian life can be as difficult and daunting as facing enemy fire in a distant land.

To commemorate Veterans Day, MM has chosen five movies that represent the most riveting and heartfelt examples of the “coming home” genre.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
directed by William Wyler

This archetypal war veteran movie revolves around three men returning from World War II—a soldier (Fredric March), an airman (Dana Andrews) and a sailor (Harold Russell). As each of the men discovers over the course of the film, readjusting to everyday life is an unexpectedly difficult struggle. This is especially true of Russell’s character, the sailor who lost both his hands during the war and fears he has lost his young fiancé’s love as well. Russell was an Army man himself who lost both his hands in a real-life dynamite explosion. For his moving debut performance, Russell received two Academy Awards—one for Best Supporting Actor and an Honorary Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance” in the film. The Best Years of Lives was released soon after WWII and many of those who fought (and their families) found hope and solace in these fictional veterans’ stories. The movie won a slew of Oscars (including Best Picture) and is now recognized as an American classic. Even now, the influence of The Best Years of Our Lives can be seen in recent,Iraq war veteran movies like Home of the Brave and The Lucky Ones.

Coming Home (1978)
directed by Hal Ashby

The banner year for Vietnam movies came in 1978, as Americans began to finally come to terms with the war and its repercussions. Coming Home stars Jon Voight as a paralyzed Vietnam vet who falls in love with a woman (Jane Fonda) whose husband (a very intense, very scary Bruce Dern) is still fighting in the war. This bittersweet love story uses the Vietnam background to explore the psychology of a man whose life is shattered by war, but who finds a semblance of redemption through the love of a woman. Incidentally, Voight’s character was based on real-life paralyzed vet Ron Kovic who, 10 years later, would garner his own bio-pic with Born on the Fourth of July.

The Deer Hunter (1978)
directed by Michael Cimino

Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) and John Savage play best friends/steel workers from a rural Pennsylvania town whose lives are forever changed after they enlist in the Vietnam War. This critically acclaimed classic won an Oscar for Best Picture and features a fine supporting cast (including Meryl Streep and John Cazale), as well as stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond. The film’s Russian roulette sequence (in which the men are captured by the Vietnamese and are forced to play the deadly suicide game) is nerve-wracking, hard to watch and a stone cold classic. When De Niro returns home, it’s clear his horrific war experiences have left an indelible mark on him as he surreptitiously watches his friends and family gather at a coming home party in his honor. He flees and instead chooses to book a lonely room in a cheap motel, a move that perfectly captures the character’s sense of alienation from his former life.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
directed by Oliver Stone

Controversial moviemaker Stone helmed this searing tribute to Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam War vet, who, after being paralyzed in the war, became a political activist and outspoken opponent of the war. Stone (a Vietnam vet himself) and Kovic co-wrote the movie, which is based on Kovic’s book. Tom Cruise (who was Oscar-nominated for this role, one that stretched his acting ability for the first time) is surprisingly convincing in the difficult transformation of Kovic from a wide-eyed patriot to a disillusioned drug addict to a staunch anti-war activist. The movie spoke to many Vietnam Vets who felt similarly angered and disillusioned by the war, and found inspiration in Kovic’s harrowing journey. Never has Stone’s in-your-face directing style so perfectly matched his subject matter.

The Lucky Ones (2008)
directed by Neil Burger

This quirky comedy-drama was barely released into theaters (and fared poorly at the box office), but is well worth catching on DVD. Three injured Iraq war veterans—older, world-weary Cheaver (Tim Robbins); young, optimistic Colee who has been shot in the leg (Rachel McAdams); and frustrated but driven T.K. (Michael Peña)—are coming home from the Iraq War, two for medical leaves of absence, one for good. After their flights home are canceled, these seemingly mismatched characters team up for an unlikely road trip (think The Best Years of Our Lives meets Planes, Trains & Automobiles). The movie beautifully captures the three injured soldiers’ attempts to deal with the betrayals and complications of their civilian lives. In the end, the strongest bonds are the ones the soldiers form with each, rather than with anyone from their past. The Lucky Ones is a sweet, emotionally accurate account of how these three well-drawn characters confront the unsettling dynamic of coming home—being fired at in an Iraqi war zone one day and cruising the Las Vegas Strip the next. MM

Have a favorite war veteran movie that’s not on the list? Let us know in the comments.