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Film Review: Born on the Fourth of July

By Donnambr @_mrs_b
About Born on the Fourth of July (1989)Born on the Fourth of JulyWar drama based on the autobiographical book by Ron Kovic. Tom Cruise plays Kovic, a man brought up in the God-fearing All-American tradition, the perfect material to fight for the US cause in Vietnam. However, nothing could prepare the young Marine for the horrors of the frontline and he returns home paralysed from chest down. Embittered, Kovic goes into a self-destructive downward spiral, until he finds new direction by joining the anti-war movement.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Stephen Baldwin

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Runtime: 145 minutes

Studio: Universal Studios


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Review: Born on the Fourth of July 

Wars continue to divide people. Personally, I was against the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq from the start, the latter in particular. Wars should only be fought as a last resort and as long as all options have been exhausted I can accept conflict. In Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, we experience the life of a man who was passionate about war and his country until experiencing it firsthand led to a life-changing moment.

Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) grows up in a family of strong religious faith and patriotism. His birth on the Fourth of July sees him take on a great American legacy and Ron does not disappoint as he grows into a handsome and popular athlete at school. The chance to sign up for the marines, fight in Vietnam and demonstrate his love and commitment to his country is too great an opportunity for Ron to pass up. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War hits Ron hard both physically and mentally. He returns home in a wheelchair and finding those that once adored him suddenly indifferent leads him down a path of self-destruction. The question is can Ron reconcile his conflicting feelings about the war and America in general and can he rebuild his life?

It’s hard not to be moved by any film of this nature. War is a cruel thing. There’s no getting away from it. Every week it seems UK soldiers have been killed fighting for their country but those that come back have a different challenge. Some come away from wars with barely a scratch and I imagine count their blessings every day. Others, like Ron Kovic, come back with irreparable damage. Any soldier that serves is a hero but those that die or come back having severely wounded transcend the definition of heroism completely. Ron Kovic’s story is an easy one to be moved by. He begins as just an ordinary teenager, popular with his friends and with the girls at high school, he’s the eldest child in his family who everyone seems to look up to. Ron’s parents are a complete contrast. His mother is devoted to God and to America so Ron’s decision to enlist in the army is one that makes her proud. Ron’s father is somewhat more reserved, diminished almost in spirit, but undoubtedly proud of his son yet worried about the prospect of him going to Vietnam.

Ron’s experience in Vietnam centres on two key moments. The first is during a battle with the Vietnamese at sunset when the American troops are retreating. Confusion reigns and while Ron is moving back from the conflict the sun is in his eyes when he catches sight of a figure charging towards him. Ron opens fire and wounds his assailant only to find he’s an American soldier called Wilson! Medics are unable to save Wilson and Ron is left overcome with guilt at what he has done. Speaking to a superior and trying to confess he is simply rebuffed and told to forget the matter. The trouble is Ron can’t forget such a costly misjudgement. The moment then comes when Ron is once again engaged in combat and this time his luck runs out. He is wounded and left paralysed and dying in the fields. Luckily he is rescued by his comrades but then endures the hospitals for American soldiers which are crawling with rats while facilities are far from adequate to deal with the men’s needs. Ron’s return to America is equally traumatic. His family and friends don’t know how to act as he works his way around town in a wheelchair. In a poignant scene Ron’s father shows him round the house he has reorganised to accommodate Ron, struggling to hold his tears back at the sight of his son. Ron’s mother is a different woman. The athletic and patriotic son she simply adored is gone and she has nothing but disdain for her son now, clearly believing his paralysis to be a failure on his part. This return to America leads Ron down the path of alcoholism and finding a haven in Mexico with fellow wounded Vietnam veterans. It’s a painful recovery process and to see Ron at the end about to make a speech in protest to Vietnam conveys what a remarkable yet horrific journey he has had to make.

Cruise was a brave choice by Oliver Stone for this film and critics lined up to shoot the young actor down in flames. It’s not Cruise’s best performance (that’s in Magnolia) but it’s still a commendable one. He does more than enough to make you care and the rest of the cast do their best, especially the Jekyll and Hyde friends and family Ron has to contend with when he leaves for the war and comes back a very different man. The film is a good reminder that many soldiers are forgotten when they come home wounded and are no longer of use in the army. The many thousands of soldiers, like Ron Kovic, should have statues built of them for their service. Whether or not I am in favour of a war doesn’t change my perception of the soldiers that are sent to fight. They are the salt of the earth and Born on the Fourth of July exposes the ugly side of patriotic duty and the sacrifices so many men and women have made for their countries.

Born on the Fourth of July is a good adaptation from a very important book. It would have been good to see more of Kovic’s anti-war protesting but seeing his journey from patriotic soldier to anti-war hero is a journey worth taking though it’s not an easy one.

Verdict: 4/5

(Film source: reviewer’s own copy)

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