A couple of years spent in a tiger cage, only the memories of his idyllic childhood in small town Vermont to cling to in attempt to keep him and his buddy sane, it is perhaps inevitable that when Johnny Bristol finally comes marching home again (his buddy doesn’t make it), that he’s going to have issues. But is Johnny going crazy, suffering from PTSD? Or the victim of a government conspiracy? Or maybe he’s just gone full Jacob’s Ladder on us and never really made out of Vietnam at all?
While there is never really any doubt that Johnny’s memories of his hometown are somehow not all they appear, what with his childhood apparently consisting of every bit of small town Americana cliché ever assembled in one place (attending church on Sunday, picking apples in an orchid, setting off fireworks at the town’s Fourth of July celebration, hanging out at the swimming hole, being twelve years old and having your first crush) as well as the strange visual effect applied periodically to his flashbacks that make it look like he’s having a bad acid trip, Johnny’s investigation (and Martin Landau’s fine performance as the increasingly despondent Johnny) into what’s happening turns up enough strange occurrences and unanswered questions to keep the audience guessing for the duration of the film.
Once Johnny is rescued from his captivity in Vietnam and brought back to the States, he is placed in a VA hospital to recover from the physical and mental toll the war took on him. Sharing a room with a several other vets (including Forrest Tucker from The Abominable Snowman and a very young Martin Sheen), he continues to talk up his hometown of Charles, Vermont to everyone.
Since this is long before the existence of the Internet, no one can simply Google the town and confront Johnny for being nuttier than a pile of raccoon scat thus leading to the excruciatingly uncomfortable trip to his “hometown” with his new girlfriend, Nurse Anne Palmer, who swore up and down and she wouldn’t get involved with a patient and get hurt again, but then promptly does anyway.
While Johnny claims to have found the apple orchid he worked at as a child and sees the pond he swam at as a child in Charles, Vermont (though he notes with some trepidation that it seems smaller than he remembered), the space where he believes the town should be located is just wilderness!
Once back at the VA, Johnny’s commanding officer and the VA psychologist confront him with the fact that there is no evidence that the town he remembers so well ever existed! But Johnny isn’t having any of it, accusing everyone of covering up something terrible that must have happened in Charles, Vermont that caused the Army to pretend it never existed!
Is he right or has Johnny finally lost his freaking marbles? Or is the person who has truly lost touch with reality none other than Nurse Anne Palmer who didn’t immediately request a transfer to another hospital after watching her boyfriend run around an empty Vermont field in a frenzy babbling about his hometown?
Finally tiring of Johnny’s rantings (and to be honest, probably just sick to death hearing about how awesome his hometown is), the Army confines him to a locked psychiatric unit at the hosptial, thus necessitating Johnny to enlist the help of the other vets to mount an escape and investigate his past himself. (Presumably since the release of this film, the VA has updated its policy to prohibit patients from possessing gun-shaped cigarette lighters.)
From dusty Vermont libraries to the mean streets of Philadelphia, Johnny carves a swath of unhinged sweatiness across New England! Whether he’s harassing nuns at the orphanage he grew up or terrorizing the lady who runs the corner grocery store, no amount of stereotypical crazed vet behavior is too over the top for Johnny! (How can you not feel like the army was right to lock him up when he’s literally climbing the walls of the orphanage and sneaking through a window past a bunch of sleeping kids! Even Rambo was never that psychotic!)
The film does a good job keeping the audience off balance and there is an compellingly unsettling feeling that permeates the story as it seems that while something is clearly wrong with Johnny, he is able to periodically confirm some aspects of his memories such that the viewer continues to wonder exactly what’s going on.
If the film stumbles it isn’t necessarily due to the big reveal at the end like you might expect (the real shock ending has to be that it turns out the Army really did just want to help Johnny), but more as how they get there, using a silly combination of tough love and truth serum that surely isn’t an accepted treatment for any sort of mental illness. Worse is that it ends with smiles and a hug, all lingering effects of the war and resulting trauma miraculously cured, Johnny’s severe TV-movie PTSD apparently in need of nothing more than a serious talking to and a sexy nurse’s affection.
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