Original release: December 8th, 1978
Running time: 182 minutes
Director: Michael Cimino
Writers: Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker
Composer: Stanley Myers
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, Jon Savage
The Deer Hunter is a Nam movie, and not a movie about Vietnam, or the Vietnam War. Nam isn’t a country, or even a place, rather it’s an amusement park that exists only in the psycho-geography of the late seventies and early eighties American psyche.
It’s where Travis Bickle, The A-Team, Martin Riggs and John Rambo all come from. It has its addresses, including Hamburger Hill and Saigon, but it’s mainly foliage and can be recreated in Indonesia, Thailand or at a push the London Docklands. It’s a justifying trauma. It’s the crisis that allows men to forego all the namby-pamby worries of normal civilisation and get down to who they really are.
Released in 1978, The Deer Hunter was not the first Nam movie—John Wayne’s Green Berets (1968) was actually filming while the war was still ongoing and the year of its release saw three Vietnam-themed movies: The Boys In Company C, Coming Home and Go Tell the Spartans. However, it was the first to receive substantial plaudits and to achieve both popular commercial success and critical acclaim, and in so doing it put Nam resolutely on the map.
Structured in large tome-like acts, Cimino’s movie begins in a steel town and an unusually working class version of America, which includes an immigrant community who feel themselves to be American while at the same time holding on to their language, their church and their traditions.
Michael, Nick and Steve (played respectively by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Jon Savage) are the three hardworking, beer guzzling buddies on their way to Vietnam, but only after Steve has got himself married. The preparations for and the wedding ceremony itself allows Cimino to show us an unfamiliar slice of immigrant life, a life which is at once foreign and by its very foreignness fiercely patriotic.
The patriotism that the film will later invoke/criticise is a choice of identity for the second generation Russian community. Just as Steve and his wife-to-be swear their commitment to each other, so Steve (along with his friends, Nick and Mike) commit to their country. And just as the wedding looks like it’s getting off to an unlucky start—spilt wine, a punch up—so it would seem the young men are in for an adventure which will not be as romantic as they initially hoped. There are several toasts, but none of them are lucky. The uninvited guest at the wedding is a silent soldier, drinking in the bar and refusing to join in the bonhomie.
This figure is Michael’s doppelganger; he is Michael of Christmas future. Michael is already something of an odd one out. He is the loner in the midst of the party and his drunken bollock-naked run down the street after the wedding expresses an inarticulate desire to be shot of the trappings of his own identity.
His behaviour on the deer hunt—especially his one shot philosophy—underpins this otherness. He isn’t a thuggish yahoo of American consumerism, as exemplified by the boorish Stan (John Cazale), he is the lost romantic, whose quietness is a piece with the justly famous classical guitar music that accompanies him and the Casper David landscapes he is most at home in.
In war, Michael is the warrior poet and avenging angel, someone Kurtz would have been proud to have in his army, and who in fact shares the same branch of the Armed Forces. His courageous manipulation of the Russian roulette the prisoners are forced to play leads to their escape. Michael literally carries his friends as far as he can, but ultimately they belong to the soft America of families and stuff and lack the clear idea, the coherence, the toughness to endure the vicissitudes of war.
Steve will return to America, a broken wreck, both physically and emotionally. Nick won’t return at all, having apparently become addicted to the Russian roulette he was forced to play while in the prison camp. Michael returns, but his misanthropy is confirmed, avoiding the hero’s welcome that the community has prepared in his honour.
Despite Cimino’s realist style, the film is, as William Goldman correctly asserted, a comic book film. The Vietnamese villainy perpetrate the crimes of which the Americans were in actual fact most guilty: Michael avenges a Mai Lai style massacre that the NVA have perpetrated. The Russian roulette was itself a fabrication which does however stand as a metaphor for war, a series of increasingly likely acts of self-destruction.
The metaphor also eradicates the Vietnamese as participants. Americans face Americans: Mike and Nick. In this film – despite justified accusations of racism – the Vietnamese are largely an irrelevance. They jabber and scream in the background but this is America working its way through its own trauma, so frankly who gives a shit about them. Note the ease with which Michael returns to Vietnam (during the evacuation of Saigon no less) and finds Nick within what seems like minutes.
Their final encounter enacts the sense of loss the war perpetrated. The thousands of Vietnamese dead don’t count, but Nick is one of ‘our better angels’. Here is a flaw in the use of Russian roulette as a ruling metaphor for the whole film. The gun has been loaded by Chekov and so it will only fire when the logic of the narrative demands it. As such, it isn’t chancy at all.
It’s inevitable that it doesn’t fire in all those games before Michael turns up and that it fires when he finally does. Weirdly that leaves us with the impression that far from being an expression of the meaninglessness of war, the Russian roulette game is freighted with inescapable meaning. It becomes, indeed, the engine of meaning.
The confusion in the film—the confusion about itself, about the war, about what it is has to say—is made up for by the intense performance and the scenes of real emotional power. In fact, the confusion adds to the power of the film.
When the surviving fragments of the community sing ‘God Bless America’ in the final scene of the film, it is rich in ambiguity because they themselves are confused. After all, they are all in Nam now, and Nam is a confusing place.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.