From Oral History to Movie Script: The Vietnam Veteran Interviews for Coming Home

Article excerpt

In fact, man, they told us in Nam, man, when you got off the plane that the hippies would try to kill you. Man, we all believed it, we all had hand guns.... We all came back with hand guns, some dude up in Chicago wound up with a whole hand full of grenades.

Bill Hager, a Vietnam veteran interviewed by Waldo Salt, screenwriter for Coming Home.

Where's the demonstration? That asshole briefed us ... be prepared for demonstrators throwing stones and all that shit.... You know, I'm carrying a revolver. Some cats have grenades.

"Bob," a character in an early draft of Coming Home.

Where's all the demonstrators? The asshole on the plane told us there would be a bunch of flowerheads out here.

"Bob," as spoken in the movie Coming Home.


The 1978 movie Coming Home won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay (Waldo Salt), Best Actress (Jane Fonda) and Best Actor (Jon Voight). It is remembered by many people as the first major motion picture about the Vietnam war and the generation of Americans that fought in and against the war.

The makers of Coming Home proceeded with a remarkable level of self-consciousness. In the fall of 1976, just before production began, Jane Fonda proposed that a way be found to make a film about the making of Coming Home. This, she said, would provide future students a valuable resource for studying, among other things, how the lives of real people were incorporated into the story.

Chief among the "real people" she spoke of were Vietnam veterans who were interviewed by screen writer Waldo Salt as part of his research for the script. Although the film about the film was never made, Salt's interviews were recorded and transcribed. I found the transcriptions in Waldo Salt's papers at the UCLA Research Library.

Salt's papers also contain transcribed copies of recorded "Story Conferences" which took place during the production of the film. Story conferences involved the major participants like Salt, director Hal Ashby, and actress Jane Fonda in discussions about the script and details of production. Finally, the Salt papers contain several versions of the script.

Taken together, these documents--the interviews, story conferences, and scripts--constitute a case study of how oral history material became translated into an award-winning screenplay. They enable us to see the influence of the interviews on the development of the film's major characters and how the interviews shaped the film's story lines. Most importantly, we can see how the interviews were used to construct a narrative through which the American people continue to search for an understanding of the Vietnam war. It is a narrative that has displaced the popular memory of the war itself with veteran coming-home stories and displaced the historically grounded image of politicized anti-war veterans with the image of the victim-veteran. The victim-veteran imagery functions in the nation's political culture as part of an alibi for why we lost the war, namely, that our warriors were betrayed on the home front.(1)

Character Development

Coming Home is the story of Sally (Jane Fonda) waiting for her Marine officer husband, Bob (Bruce Dern), to return from duty in Vietnam. Against Bob's wishes, Sally has been volunteering at a local VA hospital. While working at the hospital she meets a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, Luke (Jon Voight), who she knew as a star athlete in high school. Sally and Luke fall in love. When Bob returns home he is unable to cope with Sally's betrayal, the trauma of his war experience, and the anti-war climate of the country. The film ends with his suicide.

The characters Sally, Bob, and Luke are all based on real-life people who were interviewed by Waldo Salt over about a two year period from 1974 and 1976. The initial pool of interviewees was the Venice, California chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). …