Veterans on Film: Cinematic Soldiers Coming Home After the Fight

Americans ask a lot of the men and women who serve in the armed forces, especially after they return home from months or years of service. Many notable films reflect the veteran’s struggle to pick up the pieces of a life left behind in order to serve.

The Wounded Warrior

Arguably no film documents the returning veteran’s struggle better than “The Best Years of Our Lives,” William Wyler’s honest portrayal of three men coming home after World War II. Dana Andrews plays Fred Derry, a returning vet who finds that the pre-war promise of his drugstore job being held for him isn’t being honored.

Real-life World War II veteran Harold Russell took home two Oscars for his portrayal of a double-amputee in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Injured during a training accident, Russell lost both hands, which were replaced by hooks. Wyler saw Russell’s performance in the educational film “Diary of a Sergeant” and cast him as Homer Parrish, a solider who returns to his family and fiancée with hooks instead of hands. Russell won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar plus a special award for inspiring other veterans.

In “The Majestic,” Jim Carrey does one of his best dramatic turns as screenwriter Peter Appleton. Under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete is involved in a car wreck and wakes up in Lawson, a California town that lost more than 60 young men in World War II. The amnesiac Pete is mistaken for Luke Trimble, the son of the local theater owner. “Luke’s” mysterious return brings the town back to life after losing so many sons, husbands, and brothers.

In 1978, Jon Voight embodied the wounded warrior in “Coming Home,” one of a handful of films that came out in the years following the fall of Saigon. Voight played Luke Martin, a Marine who returned from Vietnam as a paraplegic and starts a relationship with Sally (Jane Fonda). Sally has feelings for Luke, but things come to a head when her husband finally returns home from the war.

Veterans Starting Over After a War

Moviegoers sometimes forget that “First Blood,” the original Rambo film, was about a Vietnam vet who was just trying to visit one of his friends. John is disheartened to find that his buddy had passed away, leaving Rambo one of the last survivors of his unit.

John Rambo’s appearance irritates the local sheriff, who drives him to the city limits. When he walks back into town to get something to eat, the tension between Rambo and the sheriff escalates into all-out war. This battle could have been avoided had the sheriff simply bought the former soldier a burger and let him alone with his thoughts and memories of his deceased friend.

During his “Happy Days” heyday, Henry Winkler made a handful of small films, one of those being “Heroes.” Winkler played a Vietnam veteran who plans to start a worm farm in California with some military friends. His journey to California becomes a cross-country odyssey in which he crosses paths with a young lady played by Sally Field.

Vietnam plays a big part in “Forrest Gump,” the story of a simple but honest man as he makes his life’s journey. After distinguishing himself during the war, Forrest returns home and honors a promise to his fallen comrade Bubba (Mykelti Williamson). Forrest buys a shrimp boat and, once the business becomes profitable, he gives Bubba’s mother her share of the profits.

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