Review: The Deer Hunter

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Terry Curtis Fox, writing in Film Comment, seems to have been the only one to point out the rather obvious fact that The Deer Hunter isn’t really about the Vietnam War. Director Michael Cimino is much more interested in how change comes to the safe, closed world that protects and justifies both the commonest and the most eccentric behavior of its inhabitants. Indeed, how these people face change, and whether or not it really succeeds in taking over their world, are questions the film asks much more readily than the obvious moral and psychological questions about the Vietnam War that shallow reviewers have attributed to the film. The closed community, with whose solidarity and survival Cimino is concerned, is built on the foundation of ethnic pride. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Godfather in its epic length and pace, and its focus on an ethnic subculture. It is Cimino’s debt to Coppola’s debt to Ford that the structural burden of this parable of a closed society is borne by the recurrence of rituals that lend a sense of continuity to the story as well as to the lives of its characters: drinks at the tavern, the hunting trip, the wedding and reception, the funeral, and that most disturbing ritual of all, Russian roulette.

The rituals are all sustained by the closeness of a handful of male comrades whose love for one another is the overriding spirit of the film. Cimino plays a half-serious kind of brinkmanship with homosexual commitment in the film in the ubiquity of male-to-male contact, kisses, hugs, men dancing together, men simulating sex together, and frequent references to faggotry, from a Steelers fan’s innocent assertion that the Eagles’ quarterback wears a dress, to John’s prissy imitation of a lady hitchhiker when he is momentarily abandoned on a mountain road by his friends, to Stan’s passionately serious remark to Michael, “There’s times I think you’re a fuckin’ faggot.”

He says that when Michael, stressing a matter of principle, refuses to lend Stan his boots on the hunting trip, in order to teach Stan the lesson that he should not be so careless about his own preparedness. Stan is befuddled when the exasperated Michael holds up a rifle bullet and declaims, “This is this. This is not something else.”—as befuddled as he was when, first approaching the hunting lodge, Stan walked dazedly toward the trees saying, “This is not it. Somehow they changed it.” There’s no hint who “they” might have been, or how the environment of a single mountain road could have been changed since their last trip; but Stan in this scene expresses a bewilderment that is felt throughout the film, a feeling of indefinable, indescribable, but overwhelming change. Steve’s mother senses the passing of the old order early in the film and tells the priest, “Stevie is marrying a dark girl, and then he’s going off to Vietnam. Can you explain it, father? Can anybody explain it?” The priest’s reply is pointedly unintelligible; and Nick gives no reply at all to Michael’s wail, after Steve’s wedding and his own naked run through the streets, that “Everything’s goin’ so bad.” Nick does, by contrast, express his devotion to Clairton, Pennsylvania, in all its unashamed ugliness, enjoining Mike to bring him home if “something happens” in Vietnam.

Something indeed happens: an ordeal in a Viet Cong torture cage where Mike, Nick, and Steve, along with other prisoners, are forced to play Russian roulette for the amusement of their captors. There is something of the punster in Cimino’s insistent use of this metaphor in a film whose principal characters are all of Russian descent. But the horror of the torture cage—a choice between playing Russian roulette or facing certain death in a rat-filled pit of septic water—takes on a new dimension when Nick, whether out of survivor-guilt or simply a grim vision of the absurdity of life, takes up playing Russian roulette in Saigon as a full-time professional. The game is his negation of life—or his substitution for it; but the winning technique is to will the bullet to be there or not, and Mike is the real master of Russian roulette, as he demonstrates in the torture cage, when he engineers the escape of his comrades by insisting on playing the game with three bullets instead of one, surviving one pull of the trigger and willing the bullets to be there for the three Viet Cong. And however shocking it may be, it is not surprising that Mike wins the crucial and climactic game against Nick. He’s simply better at this sort of thing, which is partly why it is he who takes on the mission of reassembling and reuniting the community of comrades after the geographic and psychological separation of the War.

Russian roulette—which Steve fears as an unthinkable horror (his lack of faith makes the bullet be there, but he averts the gun, only grazing his scalp), Mike accepts as a necessary risk, and Nick embraces as a way of life—becomes Cimino’s metaphor for life in the modern world, and he is alternately cynical and breast-beating, callous and remorseful about human chances in a world that isn’t substantially different from flirtation with suicide. “He who says no to champagne says no to life,” pronounces the French entrepreneur who introduces Nick to the world of major-league Russian roulette. Nick does say no to the champagne—and presumably to life—but he accepts Russian roulette as a substitute. For Mike, being good at it is all. In the second hunting trip he has come to realize that actually killing the deer is not necessary. He demonstrates that he could have had the deer in the requisite one shot by shooting in the air, then shouting “OK!” to dismiss the animal. Later, settling down by the side of a magnificent waterfall, he shouts the same “OK’” to the universe. But for Nick, the ability to do it is subjugated to the fact of actually doing it, and in the climactic game he recalls Mike’s “one shot” principle and wills the bullet to be there.

Mike and Nick have much in common throughout the film, not only shared experiences but their mutual love for Linda, expressed in the astounding image of the wallet. Each of them has exactly the same kind of wallet with exactly the same photo of Linda in it. The idea is so unlikely that it stresses the fanciful nature of Cimino’s approach, as does the notion of Steve, Mike, and Nick all finding themselves in the same fire zone together in Vietnam, or the idea that a Green Beret in the United States Army could somehow wear a beard. Mike’s beard is an emblem of home, in fact: he wears it in Clairton but not in Vietnam: it marks his reassimilation into the unchanging community, and stresses his role as reunifier. Whether things change or remain the same or—as the old French adage has it—do both, is the crux of the matter, and it’s stressed in a not very original but particularly apt mirror shot Cimino uses to celebrate Michael’s and Linda’s going to bed after his return from Vietnam: The camera that pans away from Linda getting ready to step into bed turns 180 degrees, stopping to rest on her getting into bed, with Mike now on the other side of the bed and Linda seen in reverse. At a glance, we can’t know whether the shot started or ended in a mirror.

So why has all this been taken as being a film about the Vietnam War? It’s particularly ironic that those who see it as a war film often view it as an anti-war film; ironic because, in light of the atrocities in the film—all committed by the Cong—and of the decadence of the Vietnamese society, I strongly suspect that Cimino himself does not subscribe to the popular notion of Vietnam as a hideous mistake that the United States should never have made, but rather to the idea that it was a war the U.S. should have won, and an experience that the strong (personified in Michael Vronsky) should have been able to assimilate, control, and conquer. The film certainly makes no effort to be about the war, in the way that Coming Home does. In fact, it deliberately narrows its range of comment and relevance by emphasizing an exceptional rather than a typical experience of the war as its pivotal image. The war here is not the war but a metaphor in a stylized vision. And why shouldn’t the Vietnam War be used as a metaphor rather than as a social reality? That, after all, is in large part what it was to Americans in the Sixties: a symbol, a crystallization of the moral bankruptcy that had already become a fact of modern life, a summation of all the reasons for Americans’ declining faith in their leaders and their strength as a nation. Suddenly there were no rules at all, not even the traditional rules of war. The moral man who might balk at wantonly slaying women and children ran the risk of being killed by the very women or children he had spared. A corrupt regime abroad, a dishonest one at home; a decadent society abroad, a permissive one at home; and nowhere any real caring for the condition of human beings—except that found in the safety and comfort of one’s own home, one’s own closed society. We turned to that, most of us, and they called it the New Isolationism. It’s still with us; and it’s in that sense that The Deer Hunter really is, after all, about the reality and the legacy of Vietnam.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

THE DEER HUNTER
Direction: Michael Cimino. Screenplay: Deric Washburn, after a story by Washburn, Cimino, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Editing: Peter Zinner. Music: Stanley Myers. Production: Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall.
The players: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Rutanya Aida, Shirley Stoler.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.