The Deer Hunter (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale
Synopsis: An in-depth examination of the ways in which the U.S. Vietnam war impacts and disrupts the lives of people in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania.
Mention Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter to anyone and the chances are that it’s the infamous forced Russian Roulette scenes that will immediately spring to mind. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, those few scenes are incredibly tense and nerve-wracking; secondly, the rest of the film is rather ordinary by comparison. The movie created quite a fuss when it was released back in 1979 (more so in America than the UK) with Vietnam vets reported to have left movie theatres in tears. The bruising conflict was still fresh in the nation’s mind, and the disproportionately high cost of the war, in terms of both lives lost and psychological scars, still hurt. Hollywood was only just beginning to address its aftermath, and while it was The Deer Hunter that grabbed the headlines there were other smaller and more intimate films (like Coming Home) that explored the consequences of the Vietnam War with more depth and insight.
The Deer Hunter plays out in three acts of roughly equal length. The first act introduces us to Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage), three workers in a drab, grey Pennsylvania steel town on the eve of their call-up to Vietnam. Together with a few other buddies (John Cazale, George Dzunda and Chuck Aspegren), these three engage in typically macho horseplay, forever pushing each other around, taking insane risks in Michael’s beat up old car, and drinking excessively. Occasionally, this macho posturing spills over into violence — against each other and, in one instance, a woman. These guys are the kind of rowdy, boorish group you’d be wary of if you didn’t know them, but knowledge of the fate that awaits them in Vietnam simply makes their mindless machismo appear all the more juvenile and pathetic. The sequence is replete with foreshadowing of what is to come: the religious and social rituals are rendered meaningless by drunken revelry, a traditional drink from a cup by Steve and his new bride at their wedding celebration which promises a life of good luck is marred when two tiny drops of wine spill unnoticed onto the bride’s wedding dress; later, after Michael has drunkenly run naked through the nighttime streets, Nick makes him promise not to leave him in ‘Nam, that he loves the dead-end town in which they live. The most obvious incident which will later provide the milestone by which Michael’s emotional journey is measured occurs when, the following day, he hunts down and shoots a deer with one flawless shot and, with his buddies, drives back to town with its carcass on the bonnet of his car (an incident later mirrored in Vietnam when Steve is lain across the bonnet of a jeep after both his legs have been shattered by a fall from a helicopter into a river).
The middle section takes place in the battle zones of Vietnam. Michael has been separated from Nick and Steve, but they’re re-united in a village that’s been razed by the Viet Cong and almost immediately captured by rebel forces. Imprisoned in wooden cages semi-submerged in the river, the friends are only pulled out by their sadistic captors so that they can be forced to participate in rounds of Russian Roulette against one another. The three of them manage to escape, but are separated once again, and each is affected in radically different ways by their harrowing experience.
These divergent reactions to the war experience is examined in the film’s final act, which sees Michael returning to his home town, and beginning a tentative romantic relationship with Linda (Meryl Streep), Nick’s fiancee, as he struggles to assimilate himself to small-town life once more. Steve, after having both legs amputated, is unable to face returning home, preferring instead to hide away in a home for veterans. Nick also feels unable to return home or to re-connect with his old life, and after going AWOL, begins taking part in Russian Roulette duels for money in the run-down, crowded streets of Vietnam’s cities. Each of the three men is damaged in his own way by the war, and each must find their own way of coping with the aftermath.
The Deer Hunter has a running time of three hours, and the first act focuses on the routine lives of its three key characters and how they interact with those around them so that we can assess how their experiences in the war changes them. Cimino takes over an hour to do this and succeeds in telling us little. Like most men, Michael, Nick and Steve talk little about the things that matter to them or about their impending service, and seem completely unaware of the things going on in Vietnam. An encounter with a taciturn Green Beret at Steve’s wedding celebration is simply used to highlight the group’s gung-ho bravado rather than to provide a cue for some introspective discussion about this major change in their lives. So, by the time the second act finally arrives we’ve gained little insight into what really lies behind all that macho posturing and drunken bluster. It’s true that their unpreparedness for war reflects the nation’s lack of preparation in general, but Cimino’s objective appears to be a more specific and personal insight into the debilitating effects of war on the individual rather than an allegory about the nation’s ill-advised participation in general.
At story’s end, most loose ends have been tied. There’s no promise of a continuing peace for those who survive both the war and its legacy, but the suggestion is there in the bizarre final scene in which a surrogate family croon a chorus of ‘God Bless America.’ Again, this is a scene that probably works better in the States than over here, although it seems an incredibly ill-conceived way to end the movie. I don’t know — is it supposed to be ironic? I mean, do these people not question for one moment what their government has put them through and why? They certainly don’t seem to…
(Reviewed 17th December 2012)