This is an American adaptation of a 1982 French film, The Return of Martin Guerre. That work was based on a true 16th century story which also spawned a Montaigne essay, al operetta, a play, and two novels. The French version explored marriage. Here the major theme is the nobility of sacrifice.
In the opening scene of the film, Jack Sommersby (Richard Gere) is warmly welcomed in his Tennessee community two years after the end of the Civil War. His wife Laurel (Jodie Foster) and young son presumed he had died. Their reunion seems forced. And soon there are reasons to wonder if the same man who went away to war is the one who came back.
Everyone finds Jack to be a much changed, especially Laurel. Once an abusive husband and a drunkard, he is now tender and loving. Once a self-centered cad, now he is a visionary who comes up with a tobacco growing plan to revive the desperately poor economy. He even announces that those who work his land including a newly freed slave will be able to purchase the property once the first crop comes in. So convincing is his enthusiasm for this project that all the participants are willing to part with the few treasures they saved from the Yankees so that he can trade for tobacco seed.
Not everyone is bewitched by Sommersby. Laurel's jilted suitor (Bill Pullman) sets out to destroy him. Members of the local Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in front of his house because of his equal treatment of blacks. Then a sheriff arrests Sommersby for the murder of a man in another town.
As written by Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan and directed by Jon Amiel, Sommersby comes across as a well-acted and dramatically riveting film. At the trial, it is suggested that Jack is an impostor, not the real Sommersby who committed the murder. Laurel, now deeply in love, is willing to testify that he is not her husband to save his life. But to be absolved of the crime, Jack must admit to being an amoral scoundrel, losing the trust of the townsfolk. He decides to take the punishment for the crime rather than give up the identity he has now established.
From a common sense point of view, this sacrifice seems like madness. However, for this man, it is a chance to earn in death the self-respect which has eluded him all his life. Even more important, this act turns out to be creative and nurturing. The community is saved by his sacrifice. Sommersby accomplishes the near impossible by giving flesh-and-blood substance to this serious and sobering spiritual theme.