I mentioned back in the Platoon write-up that my father served in the army during the time of the Vietnam War, but was never sent there. He did, however, know a number of people who did, and he told me once, secondhand, that the assessment of actual veterans he knew was that The Deer Hunter was not an accurate portrayal of the war over there, and they didn’t like the movie much as a result. He, however, did, and the message he got out of it was that only the strong survive in war.
That’s a fairly accurate assessment actually.
The Deer Hunter came out in 1978, won multiple Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Cimino, and has been controversial since the day it first appeared. There weren’t for the longest time a good deal of Vietnam War movies that were actually about Vietnam itself. M*A*S*H* was set in Korea even if it expressed attitudes more accurately about Vietnam. Apocalypse Now was a fever dream of a movie showing the surreal side to that conflict. Platoon aimed for realism based on the director’s actual wartime experience. But where does The Deer Hunter fall? It was heavily protested at the Oscars the year it won. John Wayne made his last public appearance at that show to present the award for Best Picture, and he hated the movie that ran counter to his own, pro-Vietnam work like The Green Berets. If anything, I would argue that The Deer Hunter is at its least realistic when depicting the war or anything else in Asia if you come right down to it. There’s no reason to believe that Russian Roulette was used at all by the NVA on its POWs, and I have a hard time believing that underground tournaments for it exist over there. So, perhaps we should take the Russian Roulette more symbolically than realistically.
In fact, when doing my standard Google Images search for pics for this article, it was almost hard not to find pictures of characters playing that particularly lethal game.
But that fits in the pattern of what Cimino was trying to do. Cimino is a cinematic curiosity. The Deer Hunter was only his second movie as a director, and after winning awards and praise for it, he followed it up with the critically panned bomb Heaven’s Gate, a movie that is currently enjoying some critical re-evaluation, but The Deer Hunter is the man’s masterpiece, making him something of a one-hit wonder. But what a hit it is! Cimino’s three-hour long film follows three friends from a working class Pennsylvania community. All three work in the local steel mill, and all three are getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. The movie doesn’t exactly say, but the impression given is they volunteered. Of the three, one, Steven (John Savage), is getting married to his pregnant girlfriend Angela before he departs. Another, Nick (Christopher Walken), proposes to his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep in her first major movie role). The third, Michael (Robert De Niro), is a serious deer hunter in his spare time, but just as much of a clown as the others. He’s got a thing for Linda, but that’s it. The trio have other friends, most notably Stan, though I bring that up since Stan was being played by actor John Cazale in his last role before dying. He’s best remembered as Fredo Corleone in the Godfather movies. Another member of the group that stays behind was Axel, played by a fellow named Chuck Aspergren. Who was he? Not an actor. He was an actual foreman from a steel mill, and he manages to impress people so much they put him in the movie.
That leads to a weird sort of way in which The Deer Hunter actually is realistic while staying symbolic. Maybe the combat scenes and the war were not factually accurate, but many of the things put into the movie itself were. Actors actually slapped each other to get more realistic reactions. One extra from Asia was hired simply because he hated Americans and had no problem hitting them. Walken at one point spits in De Niro’s face. De Niro didn’t know it was coming. Savage, who had a fear of rats, calls out after being put in a submerged bamboo cage that there were rats in there. He addresses that comment to “Michael,” which could be easily assumed to mean De Niro, but in reality was addressed to director Cimino.
That level of realism sits alongside more symbolic moments. At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding reception, the two are given a special drinking glass with two nozzles. If they can drink the contents without spilling a drop, they will have a lucky life. Instead, Angela spills two small drops on her dress, and that’s where the war comes in. The film had spent the first hour just establishing the three men and their relationships to each other and their extended family and friends. Steven’s mother chastises her son for marrying a woman who isn’t even Russian orthodox like they are. Michael casts furtive looks at Linda. Linda gets slapped around at home and asks to move into the small house Michael and Nick share while the two are away at the war. Nick just gets Michael while still being one of the guys. Nick, pointedly, asks Michael not to leave him behind when they get to Vietnam.
And then the war happens. The only clue the guys get ahead of time is a soldier at the bar where the wedding reception is being held saying of the war simply, “Fuck it.” Twice. The guys, particularly Michael, don’t appreciate that very much, but they understand it later when they get there themselves.
The war is shown in brief in many ways. If the film is three hours long, it can be more or less divided into three parts: Steven and Angela’s wedding/before the war, the war itself, and Michael’s return home. The war is the shortest of those phases, but it may be the most telling as the war doesn’t just ruin the lives of the men who went there, but also the loved ones they left back home. The men are captured and held as POWs by captors who force their prisoners to play Russian Roulette for their own enjoyment. Even before Michael, Steven, or Nick can be brought up to play, we can see how the three may end up. Michael is holding it together, formulates the plan of escape, and acts as support for the other two. Steven is losing it, and cries out many times. Nick is silent and withdrawn.
The three escape the captors, mostly. Steven loses his legs and has only partial use of one arm. Nick goes even deeper, goes AWOL from the hospital, and disappears. He may have been physically unharmed, but he certainly wasn’t mentally sound. Michael returns home a different man. He skips his own welcome home party, only reluctantly maybe starts anything with Linda, who is lonely for Nick and reaching out for anybody, and will no longer tolerate his friends’ clowning around during the hunting trips when he seems to be unable to hit a target he’s hit many times before, namely a buck he follows through the hills.
As for the others? Steven doesn’t return to Angela and their young son. He’s living in a VA hospital and unwilling to go home. Angela is knitting him socks he can’t wear. Nick never came home. Michael does go back to the Asia to find Nick, still playing Russian Roulette for bettors, track marks on his arms, and Michael is unable to stop his longtime friend from blowing his brains out.
The film that opens with a crowded, joyous wedding ends with a sad, sparsely-attended (by comparison) funeral and wake. Is there any hope for these people? Well, the group, those who went to Vietnam and those who stayed do join in to sing “God Bless America,” but there was a small moment I noticed in the background. At one point, Steven leans over and kisses Angela’s hand. As far as we know, this is the first time the two have really seen each other since he left for the war. It was unexpected and somewhat sweet. You just had to look in the background to see it.
That’s The Deer Hunter in general: it’s a lot of things going on to paint a picture of three men and how a war hurt all of them to one degree or another.
NEXT UP: We’re going back only two years for a movie that maybe has suffered considering the many lesser sequels that came out after it with 1976’s Rocky.