Original release: December 20th, 1989
Running time: 145 minutes
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Ron Kovic, Oliver Stone
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jerry Levine
I just want to be treated like a human being.
If I’d approached Born On The Fourth Of July without knowing it was made by Oliver Stone, then I’d have thought the first section of the film was a slightly bizarre follow up to Grease. One without very little singing, and with more war, but still candidly sweet, and always on the cusp of the entire cast breaking out into Summer Lovin’.
However, knowing it is Stone, the whole first movement is incredibly bittersweet. With Stone there’s no hope for a fully fledged, un-ironic musical number about how great it is to be American. There will be a firm message and it will be delivered in a way that is unique, interesting and heartbreaking.
The introductory scenes, set in the home town of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), are so very American it actually hurts a little. Every symbol of America is present, from parades and flags to fireworks and soldiers, baseball, JFK – the list goes on, and that list may as well be marched to the tune of Yankee Doodle.
The naivety that consumes this section is primarily based around what it means for a person to love their country. Ronnie loves his at the tender age of 17, and because of that love’s determined to join the Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam.
Although this may seem in a contradiction of terms to a post-Vietnam War age, Stone lays out enough propaganda to demonstrate why a young man would be compelled to fight for this brand of Americanised love.
He carefully sets up this attitude towards Vietnam to be synonymous with loving your country with a proud, if not hauntingly prophetic, parade, and the young boys playing soldiers. Coupled with the famous JFK inaugural address (ask not what your country…), the mother proud of her soldier son, and the admiration of young, attractive girls, it’s pretty understandable why Ron feels compelled to do ‘the right thing’.
He sets off to war with hopes for honour, glory and dying for his country.
This, as we’ve come to know with Stone as a director and screen-writer over the years, will not be the case.
The defining scene that sets up the mood throughout the rest of the film follows the end of the beautiful American suburbs when Ron has taken that step away from the comforts of home and the illusions of grandeur. The realities of war hit fast, and hard and fast.
After shooting numerous innocent civilians, one of the many tragedies of the Vietnam War, as well as one of his own men, and then to lose the use of his body below his chest, Kovic has seen all the action he’ll ever see. His life in the war is comparably short to the rest of the film, but that’s what makes it so poignant.
For a film that’s all about the consequences of war, Stone gives just enough of a taste to demonstrate the effect such a short experience can have. These fleeting war scenes become the foundation of Ron’s attitude towards the Vietnam War as it progresses throughout his life.
Ron’s brother is seen sitting in his room playing a Bob Dylan song, and again much the same with Kovic’s time in Vietnam, this is a moment so quick that it’s very easy to miss. Some of the lyrics from that song he sings are particularly relevant to Ron before and after his trip to Vietnam:
What works so well about this is that Ron repeatedly transforms throughout the film. He hasn’t just been scarred, he’s been changed. It becomes hard to draw the line at where his current circumstances are the reason for his attitudes or whether all roads lead back to Vietnam. There’s the instance of the raw brutality of his time in the war hospital where he becomes the twisted man we see later on.
He changes again when he returns home, optimistic of what the future will offer him, only to revert back to a deeply troubled individual. The truth of the matter is he comes home expecting a heroes’ welcome, but only receives criticism about the war he lost the use of his lower body to. The times are a-changin’ for Ron, but not in a good way.
Upon his arrival back from Vietnam, Ron looks in the picture of himself when he was a wrestler and his reflection gradually comes through that exemplifies the change he’s made. Not just the physical, but the hope and passion he’s had squeezed out of him because he did what he thought was right.
The physical, as well as the emotional trauma, are what prevent Ron from putting the war behind himself. More to the point – why should he forget about it? He felt he was doing the right thing at the time, and although misguided in hindsight, Ron did did indeed ask what he could do for his country.
All of the earlier symbols of America are inverted in a way that mocks Ron, particularly the second parade when they’re scorned for being soldiers, whereas in the opening scene they were being praised as heroes. The times have a-changed and everyone’s woken up to the consequences of the war.
One thing Stone managed so successfully to convey is that to be an American means different things to different people. Where Ron’s initial enrolment sees fighting in the war as a way of expressing how much one loves America and is an American, we begin to see glimpses of different types of Americans; all of which aren’t associated with the war in that way.
There is the young entrepreneur; the strong father that keeps his family together; the new wave of youth that believe in universal love; those disenfranchised by the existing political movements and want to make a change.
For a film that’s about a veteran of the Vietnam War, Stone opens up the dialogue to what it is to be a father, a son, a man, a citizen and a human being. What influences, creates and destroys the values associated with all of the above is a question of how we understand and sympathise with Ron and his family.
Jack is an English Literature student in his early Twenties (The Golden Age!) at the University of Leeds. He insists on saying that he’s originally from Slough, Berkshire which is the setting of Ricky Gervais’ comedy series The Office – and not a day goes by that he’s not reminded of that fact… Irrespective of being mocked for it, Jack still is, and will most likely remain, a big Gervais fan.
And he sure knows how to spend his time. Having subscribed to a well known DVD delivery service for the past three years, Jack spends half of his days watching DVDs – and the other half on catch-up websites watching TV programmes.