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The Deer Hunter


Directed by Michael Cimino with Robert De Niro, Merryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, and John Cazale, color, 183 minutes, 1978


By Carter B. Horsley

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 berserk.

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 log.

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 a hospital.

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, acting.

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 strong.

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 world.

"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 War.

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.

This film is ranked 96th in the Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 Poll as of August 22, 2001, 79th on the American Film Institute's List of the 100 Greatest American films and 93rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list

 

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