Adapted from Ron Kovic’s 1976 memoir of growing up a patriotic young American disillusioned by his service in Vietnam and the paralyzing wounds he suffered, Oliver Stone’s 1989 film version of Born on the Fourth of July expands greatly upon the political transformation Kovic originally describes in his book. While Kovic’s memoir emphasizes the bitterness and remorse he felt upon viewing a Fourth of July celebration following his return home after his long recovery under dismal conditions, the movie emphasizes certain key developments as also contributing to the gradual but very real transformation the paralyzed veteran of that divisive war experienced. In his book, it is the hypocrisy, arrogance, and ignorance prevalent during that celebration that crystallizes in his mind the sense of wrong to which he and tens of thousands of others had been and were being subjected.
In the film version of Born on the Fourth of July, Kovic’s transformation begins with the callousness he encounters from his superiors to his report that he accidentally shot a fellow Marine in the heat of battle, and to the suggestion that the “enemy” combatants with whom his unit was engaged in combat turned out to be civilians, who were massacred (“It wasn’t your fault, goddamn it! They got in the goddamn way!” is the response Kovic receives from his superior officer). His near-fatal wounding, however, precipitates the chain of events that turn the former gung-ho Marine into a staunch opponent of war willing to subject himself to arrest in order to protest what he considers injustice. Frustration with the sexual impotence resulting from his paralysis is a constant theme that contributes to Kovic’s anger and frustration, but it is his treatment in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital that leaves him feeling betrayed by the country he served. The filth and decay prevalent throughout the hospital, accompanied by inattentive, aloof staff, fills him with a sense of bitterness from which he never really recovers, at one point yelling,
“This place is a fucking slum! . . . All I’m saying is that I want to be treated like a human being! I fought for my country! I am a Vietnam veteran! I fought for my country!”
Kovic’s treatment in the VA hospital created the sense of betrayal he experienced, but it was the jingoism and celebration of militarism that galvanized his sense of political activism. In the film, Kovic’s interaction with Willie, an African-American veteran caught up in the civil rights movement, contributes also to the former’s budding social awareness:
"Man, you’re one crazy Marine, Kovic – so gung-ho and everything, but you don’t know shit about what’s really happening in this country . . . It ain’t about burning the flag and Vietnam, man. While we fight for rights over there, we ain’t got no rights at home. . . It’s about racism, man.”
In short, in the film, there is no one moment that causes Kovic’s political transformation; it is a series of events, some tragic, some illuminating, with sexual impotence both a real malady contributing to his frustration and a metaphor for his initial self-perception of helplessness following his wounding.