Born on the Fourth of July is an adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography. Kovic begins as a patriotic high school wrestling superstar who enthusiastically enlists in the Marines. During his second tour in Vietnam, he accidentally kills a solider and later becomes permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The poor conditions of the Veterans Administration hospital and his recognition of the war’s futility lead him to become a prolific anti-war movement leader. The film’s roots in Ron Kovic’s memoirs leave little room for the subjectivity of other characters. Ron serves as the film’s orbit, and the women revolve around him as clichés.
In line with Ron’s harsh Catholic upbringing, Born on the Fourth of July egregiously mobilizes moral oppositions. In other words, it starkly draws the lines between good and evil. This moral schema extends to the key female character in the film—Ron’s mother, Mrs. Kovic. We have little sense of her motivations outside of her patriarchal and jingoistic values. Mrs. Kovic’s obsession with fighting Communism (“It’s God’s will you go!”) and strict enforcement of oppressive puritanical Catholicism lead to her son’s psychological trauma, thus positioning her as a villain.
The narrative does not construct her as an ideological victim, or in other words, a character confined by the constrictions of 1950s gender roles. Rather, she embraces the values of and her position within the 1950s American nuclear family Ron’s mother is the one to victimize her son with certain toxic ideologies that motivate his suffering, such as individualism, male dominance, and xenophobia. Overall, the narrative excludes women by limiting their voice to clichés.
Ron’s disabled body and disillusioned spirit destroy Mrs. Kovic’s pre-Vietnam innocent and romanticized vision of him. It is in her rejection and discounting of Ron, I argue, that causes him to seek maternal comfort, approval, and a sense of love from other female figures in the narrative. Director Oliver Stone presents a highly saccharine portrait of Mrs. Kovic’s refuge (pre-Vietnam society) as the ultimate space of innocence He envisions 1950s America as an idyllic land of parades, home runs at baseball games, parental adoration, Kennedy’s rhetoric, and young, innocent love.
To match this sentimental vision, Ron’s mother first appears as an angel, shrouded in the heavenly glow of the film’s white tint. This moment contrasts with her final scene with Ron. When Ron returns home inebriated, soothing his rejection from his former prom date, we view Mrs. Kovic from his POV: a slight, high-angle shot in low-key lighting that renders her as an oppressive and frightening figure.
Ron’s tirade against the values Mrs. Kovic had instilled in him—pride in his country and belief in God—defines the scene. It becomes clear that he has developed a psychological complex about sexuality that will last throughout the remainder of the film. Ron feels Catholic guilt for wanting sexual satisfaction coupled with a frustration that he no longer has the ability to soothe these desires due to his disabled state. He fears remaining infantilized, as he had not lost his virginity before becoming paralyzed. Ron pulls out his catheter as he mourns his “dead penis” lost in the jungles of Vietnam. He cries, “The church, they say it’s a sin if you play with your penis but I sure wish I could.”
Ron’s mother screams and covers her ears because she cannot bear to hear these impure thoughts. In the culmination of their heated fight, Ron accuses his mother of forcing him to go to Vietnam, a corrupted war that made him kill women and children. After he denounces God and country, Mrs. Kovic declares Ron blasphemous and bans him from the house. Although Mrs. Kovic appears only in a few scenes, it is clear the psychological damage she inflicts her son is great.