This searing, raw and disturbing
film about the Vietnam War is memorable for its magnificent acting
and its graphic violence, but it is not the definitive film about
that war and its war scenes, in fact, constitute a relatively
small part of the film.
It is a film about the trauma
of war, more in the tradition of "The Best Years of Our Lives"
and "Coming Home." It is better than both those fine
films, but its one-sided depiction of the Vietnamese enemy is
so extremely villainous, and sadistic that it invalidates its
stature as a war film. Indeed, the movie is remarkably gung-ho
for the Americans despite the fact that its "action"
takes place long after major protests against the American involvement
in Vietnam were underway.
Despite such important quibbles,
"The Deer Hunter" is an important work of art that represents
the impact of the war on a group of young "macho" men
living in a small industrial town in western Pennsylvania who
drink a lot of beer and enjoy hunting deer in the mountains.
Almost the first half of
the movie takes place in Clairton, a steel town, at the wedding
party for one of the men, Steven, played by John Savage, and on
a deer-hunting trip taken soon thereafter by him with his buddies,
Stan, played by John Cazale, Nick, played by Christopher Walken,
Michael, played by Robert De Niro, John, played by George Dzundza,
and Axel, played by Chuck Aspegren, just before Steven, Nick and
Michael go off to the Vietnam War. (The mountain scenes were shot
in the North Cascades National Park, according to Tim Dirks in
his excellent review of the film at http://www.filmsite.org/deer.html.)
The wedding party scene
is very, very long and establishes the sweetness of Steven, the
dazzle of his best man, Nick, the demented stupidity of Stan,
the boorishness of Axel, the insecurities of John, and the rather
sullen, but solid strength of Michael. It also shows the mercurial
tempestuousness and insecurities of Linda, who agrees to marry
Nick after she catches the bouquet at Steven's wedding party.
The wedding party sequence
well captures the flavor of a blue-collar community of Russian-Americans
and the rambunctiousness and bravura of drunken young men. Its
length, however, could have been cut by half easily.
At one point, Michael and
Nick ponder whether they will make it back from Vietnam and Nick
implores Michael not to leave him over there. "You got it,
pal," Michael answers.
The deer-hunting scene is
admirable for its spectacular, cloud-shrouded scenery. Michael
is shown to be the most serious character in this sophomoric,
rowdy group especially in contrast to the pistol-packing, sleazy
madness of Stan, who induces fear that at any moment he may go
The movie shifts abruptly
to the Vietnam War where there is a scene of considerable violence
where a village is bombed and De Niro torches a Viet Cong soldier
before he and his group including Steven and Nick are captured.
The next scene shows Michael,
Steven and Nick in a bamboo cage in a river fighting off rats
and the panic induced by their captors forcing prisoners to play
Russian Roulette in which one bullet is inserted in a revolver,
the barrel spun, and the prisoner must hold the pistol to his
head and pull the trigger. Steven becomes hysterical with fear,
and Nick seems not far behind, but Michael tries to keep them
focused on survival.
When their turn comes, Michael
convinces the Vietnamese leader to make the game even tougher
by putting in three bullets rather than just one. He then pulls
the trigger and it just clicks. Nick also escapes with just a
click. Michael is forced to try again and he takes the gun and
shoots the Vietnamese leader in the forehead and he and Nick grab
the guns from other soldiers and kill them, rescue Steven from
the bamboo cage and try to escape by floating down the river on
A rescue helicopter comes
by and manages to take Nick on board but Michael and Steven clutch
desperately to one of its legs, but Steven cannot hold on and
falls into the river and Michael jumps in after him. Steven breaks
his legs in the fall and Michael carries him eventually to safety
but is separated from him after putting him on a jeep to go to
Nick is in a hospital being
treated for shock and in a memorable scene breaks down when asked
his parents' names and address.
The movie then abruptly
shifts back to Pennsylvania where a patriotic homecoming party
is planned for Michael, but eventually breaks up when he does
not appear. Michael, however, does find Linda and they have an
emotional reunion that is notable for her confused and vulnerable
emotion state in which she wishes to comfort Michael while she
still ponders what has happened to Nick, who has disappeared and
not returned. A relationship develops between Michael and Linda
that is tender and deep and touching and quite believable.
Michael then learns that
Steven is alive but in a hospital and has not returned to their
community and that his wife is almost catatonic. He manages to
get the hospital's phone from his wife and contacts Steven, who
has lost both his legs. Steven is pleased but anguished to hear
from Michael and cuts the conversation short. Michael perseveres
and visits Steven to take him home against his will. Steven reveals
he has been getting large amounts of cash monthly and Michael
surmises that it is from Nick.
Michael, distraught at Steven's
condition, is worried about Nick and decides he must return to
Vietnam, where the American war effort is rapidly deteriorating,
to find him and bring him home.
He eventually discovers
that Nick has become famous as "The American" who is
undefeated in playing Russian Roulette for money in a gambling
den in Saigon, which is in chaos. He finds Nick, who apparently
is drug-crazed and does not even recognize Michael and has no
interest in returning. Michael decides to confront Nick at the
Russian Roulette table by wagering all his money in a desperate
effort to convince Nick to stop playing and come home with him.
In a nightmarish scene, Michael raises the pistol to his head,
tells Nick he loves him and pulls the trigger. It only clicks
and Michael is elated and pleads again with Nick to stop, grabbing
his arm which he sees is scarred with drug "tracks."
Nick is momentarily pulled out of his "daze," and smiles,
apparently recognizing Michael as his friend, and recalling his
words, "One Shot," that Michael had admonished his buddies
about the need for accuracy and a quick kill in deer-hunting.
Nick smiles and repeats, "one-shot," presumably meaning
that this will be his last shot and then he will return. He pulls
the trigger and shoots himself in the head.
The movie shifts abruptly
back to the funeral for Nick back in Pennsylvania. After the funeral,
Nick's friends gather at John's restaurant for breakfast. They
are somber and out of sorts. John goes off to the kitchen to cook
eggs and begins to sing. When he returns to the table, Linda begins
to sing "God Bless America" and the others join in a
ghostly, but sweet and soft chorus. The movie ends.
Michael and Linda presumably
go on to a passionate life together and Steven appears ready to
accept his fate and live with his wife, and the rest of the friends
presumably live out their lives sadly but with some pride that
their country was served by their friends.
War is hell, the movie,
obviously, tells us. The war, however, is almost incidental to
the movie, as Nick could have overdosed in a drug den and Steven
could have been injured in a car crash. The war scenes are very
well done, apart from the depiction of the enemy as monsters.
The Russian Roulette scenes are horrific and unforgettable, although
they became controversial as such scenes were undocumented in
the Vietnam War according to various reports.
What is the film about?
Is it the dignity of blue-collar life? Is it the camaraderie of
friends? Is it the horrors of war? Is it the nobility of man in
terrible conditions? Is it about the instinct to survive? Is it
about the nature of hunting? Is it about the need for love? Is
it about the dignity of sacrifice? Is it about the futility of
life? Is it about the naiveté of youth? Is it about patriotism?
All these themes are raised
by the movie but largely left unanswered. What makes the movie
so powerful is its fine casting and great, indeed, memorable,
The community of blue-collar
workers is drab and dreary. The large, traditional wedding party
is full of pitiable clichés washed down with too much beer.
The deer hunt, on the other hand, is an escape to nature, but
one that is overcast and cold and filled with the ominous task
of killing a noble-looking creature. Michael wants the kill to
be clean and honorable, but his drunken mates could care less.
Michael is aloof from them a bit, but not altogether. It is a
bonding experience and at one point before they leave for Vietnam
Nick implores Michael to look after him, a scene that would become
part of "A Bridge Too Far" directed by Richard Attenborough
(see The City Review article).
Most of the characters are
not very deep. Steven, who marries a woman pregnant with another
man's child, is seen as demure and idealistic. Nick is seen as
a wild charmer. Michael is seen as a leader of this rabble, none
of whom are intellectual, or highly skilled. These are lost, pathetic
souls, who do not question their religion, or their country's
ethics. They are almost caricatures of "Middle America,"
and, with the exception of Stan, not much of a threat to anyone.
The war changes that complacency.
Steven is terrified and adrift in self-pity until the end when
he reaches for his wife's hand in the final scene, an optimistic
catharsis. Nick, the bright star of the group, is lost and gone.
Michael has survived with great pain and magnificent honor, ready
to sacrifice his life for that of his friend, but not until after
he has had an affair with Linda who was planning to marry Nick.
The story is told rather
operatically with grandiose emotions and manages to rise above
being trite or uninteresting because of the tremendously high
caliber of acting.
Cazale's brooding brims
over like a volcano. His role is unlikable, but he handles it
with fine timing. Savage's innocence, on the other hand, is endearing
and his subsequent sniveling terror in the bamboo cage and his
fear of returning home are sensationally effective and should
have been rewarded with an Oscar.
Walken, instead, got the
Oscar for supporting actor and his performance is spell-binding
and one of the great ones in film history. With his good looks,
it is easy to see why Linda would agree on the spur of the moment
to marry him. With his desperate fear, it is easy to see why the
prospect of his fun-loving life coming to an abrupt end would
be very traumatic. With his anger that he was the only one rescued
from the river, it is easy to understand his guilt. With his emotional
engulfment in the hospital, it is easy to understand his difficult
transition back to normalcy. With his drugged state, it is somewhat
understandable that being the hero of the Russian Roulette gambling
den gave some warped meaning to his life in confronting his past
terrors. In his "one-shot" epiphany, it is easy to understand
the urge to purge away guilt in a last wild gesture. Other actors
might have been able to play his role, but no one could have given
a greater performance than Walken.
De Niro is stoic and very
heroic and very tender in his love scenes with Linda, but he remains
much of a mystery as far as how his character developed. His performance
is superb: powerful and unmannered.
In her first starring role
in the movies, Streep demonstrates all of the subtleties that
would win her accolades for the rest of her career. Her performance
is quite remarkable and highly nuanced. She is full of warmth
and emotion. She is strong and weak and tender and unsure.
These characters are not
ambitious and are content with their meager lives on the fringe
of civilization where contentment is a good, cold beer and the
comfort of not-too-critical friends. At one point, Linda convinces
Michael to say hello to her fellow workers at the local market
on his homecoming. One of the older female workers rushes up to
Michael in his beribboned uniform and kisses him passionately
a couple of times. Michael is slightly embarrassed but does not
embarrass the worker in a fine moment where genuine emotion overcomes
decorum. Emotion is more important than decorum even when it is
unrequited, superfluous, misspent. Life is large, confusing, messy
and not always perfect, but friendships are special and the most
tangible of life's many intangibles.
We are never prepared for
life. We really do not know how we will react in all circumstances.
More important perhaps than acting our lives according to any
particular dictum is living our lives and understanding that how
we adjust to how we act is important.
When Michael raises his
glass at the end of the movie "To Nick," we sense this
community is putting an end to a chapter of its life and will
face its future with some caution and more meaningful memories,
very sorrowful and a bit sobered.
Michael's extremely grand
gesture of self-sacrifice for Nick is the film's nexus, its resonance.
Would we do it?
It is a disturbing, haunting
question, one that most of us will try to avoid. In the end, it
is, most likely, a "gut" decision on the spot.
I once was about to board
a private jet for a short flight when someone called out to me
and suggested I stay and have lunch and drive back with him. I
was on the plane's stairs and as my schedule had just been abruptly
altered and I had some time, I said, "OK," and let a
young girl who would have had to wait for the next shuttle flight
take my place. The next day I got a phone call in my hotel room
from the friend who had gone on to another destination asking
me if I had heard the news. I said no, and he told me that the
flight I stepped off of had crashing and killed all abroad.
My first reaction was "Thank
goodness, it wasn't me." I was shocked and incredulous at
my reaction as I had always thought I was idealistic and willing
to sacrifice myself for others. I felt, and still feel, guilty,
but the incident taught me that I could not predict how I would
react in all circumstances and that the will to survive is very
This devastating film, which
was directed by Michael Cimino, is about such revelations and
emotions and it certainly does not provide easy answers, much
to its credit. Besides Walken, the film won Oscars for best picture,
best direction, sound direction and film editing.
The film, which was written
by Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker and
whose screenplay is by Washburn, might have been better without
the long wedding party but perhaps its prolonged homage to cherished
traditions makes the impact of the second half of the film stronger.
We are lulled into a realistic glimpse of blue-collar life only
to be jolted by the surreal violence of an insane, surreal, war-torn
"The Deer Hunter"
is an ambitious, unflinching and haunting movie that comes close
to being the quintessential "American" film in its devastating
portrayal of common folk coping with horrendous circumstances.
These "folk" are not superheroes but they are caught
up in the myths of American might and honor and glory and the
grimness of reality. The title of the film recalls Daniel Defoe's
classic novel of early America, "The Deerslayer."
Survival is a hunt and this
film is a tribute to the trauma of America's veterans of the Vietnam
The tortured agony of Nick
as portrayed by Walken is perhaps like Saint Sebastian suffering
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We are not redeemed
by his suffering and death. It is not ennobling, though Michael's
efforts to save him are. In the end, we need comfort, we need
buddies, we need community.