Patriot Hawk/ Patriot Dove
by Josh Flores
In 1989, Paramount Pictures released the film Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Oliver Stone. Based on Ron Kovic's book of the same name, the movie deals with the loss and pain encountered by thousands of veterans and their families who suffered as a direct result of American involvement in Vietnam. The movie, with a stellar cast led by Cruise, is effective, particularly when dealing with the treatment soldiers received at veterans' hospitals around the country. Born on the Fourth of July, nominated for eight Academy Awards, is one of three films directed by Stone dealing with Vietnam. The others are Platoon (1986) and Heaven and Earth (1993).
Born on the Fourth of July as a book, in its complete context, leaves a more lasting impression than the film. Although it is not always easy to follow, jumping back and forth between first and third person, and between America and Vietnam, a tragic picture does emerge of a young man dealing with the atrocities of war, personal disappointment in the American war effort, and the unfortunate aftermath of physical destruction.
Ron Kovic was an average young American, who wished for all the glorious things that people want out of life, but who was consequently cheated out of the most simple and basic pleasures. Growing up in Massapequa, New York, he was involved in athletics, worked at the local grocery store, and came from a strong religious background. Like most boys, he spent many afternoons playing war with his friends. It was truly an all-American existence. That changed during Kovic's senior year when his school was visited by recruiting officers from the United States Marines Corps. The code of the Corps, preaching truth, honor, and loyalty to country, as well as the officers in their dress uniforms made a powerful impression on Kovic, leading him to enlist upon graduation. It is clear through Cruise's performance that Kovic viewed service in the Marines with a great deal of naiveté as well as a great deal of pride. It would be a relatively short period of time from Kovic's enlistment and two tours of duty until the day in Vietnam when a bullet ripped through his body, severing his spinal cord, paralyzing him for life. Throughout the movie, Stone, who won the Academy Award for best director, contrasts rhetoric, even the propaganda, that surrounded the national war effort, with the genuine patriotism and zeal of the individual who served.
Born on the Fourth of July is not a war movie in the sense of Platoon or Casualties of War, rather it is comparable to Coming Home, in that it deals with the returning veteran. The battle scenes in the movie are only there to show the viewer three things: how Kovic was injured, how he mistakenly killed an American soldier, and his unit's attack on an unarmed village where children were killed. These are the images and issues that Kovic carries home upon his return and that Cruise portrays effectively. In this sense, the mental and ethical challenges outweighed the physical. The story that Oliver Stone wants the viewer to see is the transformation of Kovic from an ardent supporter of the war in Vietnam, secure in his beliefs that American policy is virtuous and justified, to an equally zealous protestor, bitter and disenchanted with that same establishment. Kovic was injured during his second tour of duty in Vietnam and it should be remembered that he also enlisted and was not drafted. This makes his transformation even more memorable.
Among the more powerful and disturbing scenes in the movie are those dealing with the conditions of the veterans hospitals. Stone uses the apathy of harried medical workers as well as the deplorable medical conditions to effectively paint the picture of the abandoned Vietnam veteran. This combined with the growing public unpopularity of the war and the belief that the sacrifice of his body was for an unworthy cause, triggers Kovic's conversion from hawk to dove. This is convincingly conveyed in a scene in which Cruise visits the family of the soldier he mistakenly killed and confesses the truth. Stone, in this scene, attempts to show the painful healing process that many returning veterans went through. Again, it was as much mental as physical. The controversial Stone always gives an audience much to question, debate and argue over and Born on the Fourth of July continues that tradition.
Oftentimes, when books are adapted for a screenplay, certain aspects of the book are changed due to time constraints or for dramatic effects. Nevertheless, there are only minor discrepancies between the book Born on the Fourth of July and the motion picture. One reason that the movie is so faithful to the book is that Kovic co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Stone, receiving an Academy Award nomination in the process.
Although all aspects of the book are included in the movie, some areas not discussed in the book are explored in the movie. It must be pointed out that Born on the Fourth of July was first published in 1976 and that the movie was not filmed until 1989. Perhaps the passage of time and the healing that it brings enabled Kovic to include some previously undisclosed information concerning his return home to Massapequa to a family trying to adjust to the changes brought on by his paralysis. For example, Kovic's relationship with his mother is examined more closely than it is in the book. She is depicted as a strong, even overbearing, mother who constantly pressured Kovic to be the best, whether it be in school, athletics, or the community. She is also portrayed as having difficulty realizing that the son she knew before Vietnam no longer exists in mind or body, a concept many families would have to face.
Though based on the life of Ron Kovic, the significance of Born on the Fourth of July lies in it being the story of an entire generation of Americans. These were young people who came of age during John F. Kennedy's administration, answering his call to service, believing in God and country, inundated with stories of sacrifice in both World War II and the Korean War. They were eager for an opportunity to serve like their fathers and grandfathers, for a chance to leave their mark on history. Ultimately the realities of the jungle war in Southeast Asia and the leviathan of the American political structure would disappoint many.
The tragedy suffered by Kovic was not uncommon, nor was his subsequent rejection of the war effort. From World War II onward, millions of young boys were taught to glorify war through motion pictures and television shows. Most young Americans were exposed to the "hero" factor that was and, to a lesser degree, still is associated with patriotism in the United States. This helped foster the belief that America was always in the right and any military action taken was more than justified in the protection of freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, those young men who grew up idolizing war often failed to understand the brutality and nature of war: that soldiers almost always serve in anonymity, that the bullets are real and, once you are dead there is no playground rule that allows you another life. In many ways, America came of age during the Vietnam conflict. Citizens began to question political leadership, seeking answers and accountability. No longer could things simply be dismissed with vague explanations or distorted nationalism. The legacy of Vietnam rests certainly in the tremendous death toll, the loss of viable life for the disabled who came home, and the disillusionment of citizens who came to distrust national politicians. Yet, almost certainly the generation that fought in Vietnam did leave make their mark in history. Their valor matched that of their fathers and grandfathers, but perhaps even more importantly, they reminded the nation not only of its power but also of its democratic responsibilities.