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Literature / Born on the Fourth of July

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Ron Kovic: They burned the flag and they demonstrated against us; it's on the cover of the paper today. They have no respect. They have no idea what's going on over there, Mom - the men that are sacrificing their lives. People are dying every day over there, and nobody back here even seems to care. It's a bunch of goddamn shit if you ask me!
Mrs. Kovic: Ronnie, don't take the Lord's name in vain - not in front of the children. I agree with everything you say!
Ron Kovic: I served my country - and they just want to take from it - just take, take! Love it or leave it, that's what I think.

The autobiography of Vietnam War Veteran Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July was published in 1976. In 1989, the film version directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise as Kovic was released. Stone won his second Oscar as director, his third overall, and Cruise got his first Oscar nomination. This is also his second film about The Vietnam War, following Platoon and followed by Heaven & Earth. These three films are often said to form a "trilogy", although they merely share subject matter and do not take place in a shared continuity.

Ron Kovic, a young man from Long Island, goes off to fight in Vietnam. During his second tour of duty, Kovic accidentally kills a fellow soldier, Private Wilson, which deeply scars him emotionally. During a firefight, Kovic is permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Once he is discharged, Kovic comes home a changed man. He feels that his country hasn't done much of anything to help his fellow Vietnam veterans. Subsequently, he joins the anti-war movement. And goes to Mexico.

This work features examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Shortly after being deployed in 'Nam and in a firefight against the Vietcong, Ron ends up accidentally shooting Wilson, a young private, an act which had him becoming The Atoner after returning to America and seeking Wilson's family for forgiveness.
  • Adaptation Expansion: While the original book, written in 1974, ends with the 1972 Miami riots, the film adaption has Kovic speaking at the 1976 Democratic convention, as well as signing the titular biography that is the film's namesake.
  • Anachronic Order: The book starts off in the middle of The Vietnam War, then jumps back to the author's childhood to early adulthood, then jumps to the period after he has been discharged, then jumps back to the period leading up to where he started the story in Vietnam.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The 1972 Republican National Convention scene depicts Ron and several other anti-war veterans forcing their way into the convention, making a scene, being spit on and being roughly forced out by security where Ron is thrown from his wheelchair and beaten by an undercover policeman. According to Robert Dorman, he persuaded security to let Ron in on the condition they didn't make a scene, and they were calmly escorted out by security, and at no point was Ron thrown from his chair and beaten. As Mr. Dorman explains, "It was not as big a disturbance as the movie showed, but it was a disturbance. They were screaming. The guards came down and politely pulled their chairs backward. [They] put them out peaceably." A United Press International report of the incident describes the scene this way: "After about five minutes, security agents wheeled them in protesting out a side door. I went out and watched him and the other two congratulating one another, bragging about what they'd accomplished."
    • Ron's XO refuses to cooperate and threatened his life if he continued to bring up Private Wilson's death. U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Fred Peck interviewed the real XO, who revealed a formal investigation was conducted which found it unlikely Ron was responsible for Wilson's death.
    • The 1970 Syracuse University strike is shown to have unprovoked Police Brutality, with Ron being beaten on the head despite being wheelchair-bound. According to New York State Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffmann (D), who attended Syracuse and participated in that strike, "It was totally unlike the characterization in the movie," she says, describing the peaceful week-long strike. "There was no police presence even within sight. At no time was there any show of force, or any attempt to disperse students listening to speakers. It troubles me to see police officers maligned for Hollywood sensationalism."
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • The recruiter at Ron's high school describes Marine basic training as "13 weeks of Hell". Basic training in the Marines was only eight weeks at the time.
    • In the parade scene, Ron's uniform has two service stripes on the sleeves. A service stripe denotes four years of service, thus two stripes would indicate eight years' service, but Ron only served 13 months before he was paralyzed.
    • The Marines are shown using M14s and WWII-era Bazookas in 1967, when they were equipped with M16s and LAWS by that point.
  • Author Tract: Probably Oliver Stone's most preachy film. Quentin Tarantino once quipped that everything coming out of Tom Cruise's mouth in the film is Anvilicious.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Lots of them. There are a couple of scenes (such as Ron's drunken rant to his mother about how he's stuck in a living hell as a paraplegic) where that's almost the entire dialogue.
  • Death by Irony: When Private Wilson joins Sergeant Ron Kovic's unit, Ron assures him that he'll be fine, joking that he's never seen anyone from Georgia die during his two tours. A few scenes later, Wilson is shot to death by friendly fire, by none other than his unit commander Ron Kovic.
  • Foreshadowing: In the Fourth of July parade that Ron watches as a boy, some of the Korean War and WWII veterans on parade are paraplegics in wheelchairs or multiple amputees. Another flinches every time he hears a firecracker go off, probably due to PTSD. These vets show what turns out to be in store for Ron and several of his friends, and are a reminder on an otherwise happy day that war is not all glory.
  • From Bad to Worse: Ron's second tour in Vietnam. It starts out bad enough when his unit accidentally kills and maims many innocent villagers when they're misidentified as Vietcong guerillas. Later, there's an actual firefight in which Ron mistakenly shoots and kills Private Wilson, a new recruit who he earlier assured that everything would be fine. In the following battle, Ron himself is shot - after nearly dying on the battlefield, he spend months in a run-down rehab clinic and is left a paraplegic for the rest of his life.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Ron's friend Stevie is a selfish and insensitive sleaze but he was the only one of his friends and seemingly one of the few people in town not to buy into the macho military culture that caused Ron and others to enlist and end up paralyzed, traumatized or dead as well as to accurately see through the scaremongering about communism and Vietnam.
  • Nothing but Hits: "Rock Around the Clock" is heard during a military parade in Ron's hometown in 1956.
  • Only Sane Man: Stevie is the only one of Ron's friends who doesn't buy into the macho Marine rhetoric or the fear mongering about communism and to see the Vietnam War as a terrible idea.
  • Physical Therapy Plot: Subverted. After getting shot (which damages his spine) during a tour in Vietnam, Ron Kovic spends months at a poorly-run Veterans' Hospital. He attempts to learn how to walk again with his crutches and braces, despite the doctors' warnings. He ends up having a bad fall that causes a fracture on his femur. He ends up back in bed, fighting with the staff over amputating his legs. When Ron finally comes back home, he spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
  • Police Brutality: In every protest scene, the police attack the protesters with batons flying even if they're completely peaceful, and the Kent State incident (where four were shot) gets mentioned too. Most notably, in the scene where Ron is arrested for disrupting the 1972 Republican National Convention, an undercover police officer throws him out of his wheelchair and beats him.
  • Semper Fi: Averted. Ron believes the Marines to be this when he enlists. Beginning with the Private Wilson incident, and the X/O refusing to help him cope with it, he realizes it's anything but.
  • Significant Birth Date: Ron Kovic, the all-American patriot, was born on July 4th, 1946; hence, the title of the book and film.
  • Strawman Political: Thankfully averted, for both ends of the spectrum...although the rather simplistic characterization of Kovic's religiously-oriented mother comes close....
  • Thematic Series: Part of Oliver Stone's series of Vietnam War films that started with Platoon and ended with Heaven & Earth.
  • War Is Glorious: Ron and his friends believe this at the start, eager to fight in Vietnam and be part of history. They're disabused of this notion very quickly.
  • War Is Hell: Very much so. The few battle scenes we see make clear just how brutal war is and even worse is how the people Ron looks to for guidance are more interested in looking out for themselves.

Alternative Title(s): Born On The Fourth Of July