The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter (1978) is storywriter/producer/director Michael Cimino's epic about war and friendship - and only his second film (following Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)). It is a powerful, disturbing and compelling look at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small steel-mill town before, during, and after their service in the war. Its title recalls the adventure novels and frontier heroes in the works of James Fenimore Cooper - in fact, only one of the characters found peace in hunting (before experiencing the effects of the psychologically-wounding war).
The much-lauded, powerful and haunting 'buddy' war film, from a screenplay by Deric Washburn, was released in the same year as three other Vietnam War films:
- Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978)
- Sidney Furie's The Boys in Company C (1978)
- Ted Post's Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
There was a flood of films critical of the American involvement in Vietnam following 1975 when the war officially ended - and this film appeared as one of the most controversial. Others that swept across movie screens in the late 70's and 80s to illustrate the 'hellish', futile conditions of bloody Vietnam War combat included:
- the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974)
- Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)
- Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986)
- Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987)
- John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987)
- Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
- Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989)
This film received nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond - who had just filmed Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)), and Best Original Screenplay), and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.
The meandering, sometimes shrill, raw film has been extremely controversial on many accounts - political and emotional. The flawed, extravagantly-expensive film is often considered by its critics to be pretentious, ambiguous, overwrought and excessive. It is also loosely edited, with under-developed character portrayals and unsophisticated, careless film techniques. There are few extended sequences of dialogue, although the film is richly detailed with realistic scenes of interaction between the protagonists. The film is structured around the metaphor of 'deer-hunting' - both from the viewpoint of the hunter and from the perspective of the game target.
The most talked about sequence is the contrived, theatrical, and fictional Russian Roulette torture, imposed on the American POW's during wartime and played as a game in a Vietnamese gambling den. [However, there were no documented cases or historical reports of the deadly game in actuality.] Whether it is historically accurate or not, the fabricated scene of a Vietcong atrocity metaphorically depicted the brutal absurdity of the war. Director Cimino was also criticized as distortedly and one-sidedly portraying all the Vietnamese characters in the film as despicable, sadistic racists and killers. He countered by arguing that his film was not political, polemical, literally accurate, or posturing for any particular point of view. Cimino's successful epic led to further films in Hollywood - mostly box-office failures, including the excessive and costly Heaven's Gate (1980) - a film that virtually bankrupted its studio, United Artists.
The overlong film is roughly divided into equal thirds or acts, spanning the time period 1968-1975:
- the development of characterizations and symbolic rituals of the second-generation Russian-American steelworkers (in the hot, blast-furnaces) in their small Pennsylvania community before war-time. This section includes two 'religious' rituals - (1) an extravagant wedding and a long reception sequence - the first act in life's cyclical passage; and (2) a deer-hunting sequence in the cool Allegheny Mountains.
- the harrowing, sensational, and violent war-time experiences of the Americans in the steamy jungles of Vietnam - the psychologically-destructive scarring of life.
- the aftermath of the war and its physical and psychological effects upon the three male participants in the war and those left at home (wives, families, and friends). Only one of the three survives physically intact, but all of them emerge irrevocably changed.
This ambitious drama displays the reasons for the protagonists, all believers in the American dream, to leave home for the conflict overseas: to test and prove their manhood, to show their friendship-solidarity, and to demonstrate their patriotism, etc. But the experience - and everything they know about duty, honor, courage and manhood (expressed in the first act's ritualistic deer-hunting sequence) - is wrenched apart and shattered in the face of the gruesome war.The Story
The film's credits, white letters on a black background, are accompanied by Stanley Myer's music and the main title theme (by John Williams). The opening scene begins with the view of a truck moving through the early morning darkness in the small, dingy, industrial Pennsylvania town of Clairtown. [The original mill town had lost most of its mills, so the town was a composite of many locations in Ohio, West Virginia, and in Pittsburgh.] In the local iron foundry at the end of the night shift, fiery, bright flames, smoke and sparks emerge from the blast furnaces - the powerful, hellish fire a symbol of productiveness and destructiveness both in peace and in war-time. In the early morning, the protagonists of the film are introduced as hard-working blue-collar workers in the steel mill as they shower and leave the factory for the last time before three of them ship out for a tour of duty in Vietnam. One of their colleagues warns: "Don't get your ass shot off." The three close, hometown, "macho," working-class, male-bonded Russian-American buddies will be testing their masculinity in war in the airborne division:
- Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), the eldest, strongest, and acknowledged leader of the group, serious sportsman and believer in the "one-shot" philosophy; called a "control freak"
- Nick (Christopher Walken), possessed of a gambling nature
- Steven (John Savage), low-key, soft-spoken, vulnerable and sensitive
They join up with two other workers:
- Stan (John Cazale, ill with cancer during filming), a low-life, weasly, insecure and nervous, would-be womanizer
- Axel (Chuck Aspegren), a massive, heavy-set, brutish, and grunting man
In the parking lot, Michael looks up at a halo around the sun and reverentially explains its auspicious significance as a good omen for the day - and for a hunting trip:
Those are sun dogs...It means a blessing on the hunter sent by the Great Wolf to his children...It's an old Indian thing.
Some of them joke that Steven's impending, honorable marriage to Angela (Rutanya Alda) later in the day threatens to interfere with the final, farewell deer hunting trip that Michael has planned. Both rites of masculinity interfere and clash with each other. The bride Angela has already dressed for her shot-gun wedding in a virginal white gown, and practices saying "I do" in front of a mirror. The woman pats her growing abdomen knowing that she is already pregnant (by another man) and that her future husband is going off to war and may not return.
In the opulent Russian Orthodox Church, the groom's old-fashioned, first-generation immigrant Russian mother (Shirley Stoler) expresses exasperation, despair and upset to the consoling priest about losing her son - in two ways:
I still do not believe this. My own boy with a strange girl and not so thin, if you understand my meaning...The next thing you know, he goes to Vietnam...I do not understand, Father. I understand nothing anymore, nothing...Can you explain? Can anyone explain?
In each other's company on the way to Welsh's neighborhood bar, the steelworkers jam into Mike's old white Cadillac. When a big rig passes, Nick challenges Michael to take a huge risk: "Pass him on the inside" - the first indication of his continual need to gamble and wager. He bets his truck against Mike's Caddy. Mike recklessly speeds and drag races the big rig on the narrow road and wins the friendly bet, but declines to accept Nick's truck.
The back-slapping, affectionate, uncomplicated friends meet up with a sixth friend - bar owner John (George Dzundza), and then drink lots of beer at his place, and boisterously kid with each other. Nick bets on pool shots and makes an additional $100 bet - for his favored Pittsburgh Steelers team (playing the Eagles) while they're watching a pro football game on television.
The blue, bulbous domes of the Russian Orthodox Church loom above the small town. Fat, old-lady babushkas carry a four-tiered wedding cake down the street toward the American Legion hall (Lemko Hall), the brick building/site for the reception. Three pink-dressed bridesmaids run along the street with gift packages - two of the three are the girlfriends of Stan and Axel (Mary Ann Haenel, Mady Kaplan, and Amy Wright). The reception hall is decorated with symbols of the flag, black and white poster-sized photographs (wreathed by the stars and stripes) of the three local boys going to war, and a banner reading: SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY PROUDLY.
Life in the town, a man's world, is strained and grim for Linda (Meryl Streep in her second film performance), the main female character in the film, and the fourth bridesmaid. Before leaving, as she gets ready to attend the ceremony, she hurriedly serves a tray of food to her abusive, obscenity-shouting, alcoholic father (Richard Kuss). Upstairs, the woman-hater slugs her and leaves black-and-blue welts over her left eye. Meanwhile, the group shoots pool in the bar, and listens and sings-along to the jukebox's tunes [Frankie Valli and "You're Just Too Good to Be True"]. Steven's mother drags her son out of the bar and accuses him of being "cruel" and "so unfeeling" - for marrying Angela and leaving for Vietnam: "You marry this girl, you leave her with me, and you go with these bums to Vietnam."
In preparation for their last deer hunting trip together, Nick is advised by Michael in their shared, modified camper trailer (decorated with signs of maleness including bowling trophies and used Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes) perched on the outskirts of town above the factory. Michael is a true heroic and serious sportsman who takes pride in his self-imposed, "one-shot" spiritual philosophy. He expresses reverence for the hunt with its various rituals. His all-male code, expressed in sexual slang, emphasizes the quickness with which the prey (or enemy target) in life is taken "with one shot" - to avoid cruelty. (His words foreshadow the coming conflict in war.) Nick, however talks about his aesthetic love of the scenery and appreciation of the mountains and trees while hunting:
Michael: I'll tell ya one thing, if I found out my life had to end up in the mountains, it'd be all right, but it has to be in your mind.
Nick: What? One shot?
Michael: Two is pussy.
Nick: I don't think about one shot that much any more, Mike.
Michael: You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. The deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that - they don't listen. Do you ever think about Vietnam?
Nick: Yeah. I don't know. I guess I'm thinkin' about the deer, goin' to 'Nam. I like the trees, you know? I like the way the trees are on the mountains, all different. The way the trees are. I sound like some a--hole, right?
Michael: I'll tell ya, Nick. You're the only guy I go huntin' with, you know. I like a guy with quick moves and speed. I ain't gonna hunt with no a--holes.
Nick calls his self-contained, wild friend "a f--kin' nut," "a maniac," and a "control freak." John, Axel, Stan and Michael meet together at Nick's place, attired in their spiffy tuxedos - each accentuated with a white carnation. Nick's beaten-up girlfriend Linda requests refuge in his place during their tour of duty. While a drunk drinks from a paper bag on the corner street, the tightly-knit Russian-American community joins together for the traditional Russian Orthodox church wedding of Steven to Angela, inside the dirty town's cathedral glittering with stained-glass windows, a giant chandelier, a choir loft, flowers, and candles. [The wedding sequence was filmed in St. Theodosius Cathedral in Cleveland.] In the second row behind the pregnant bride stands Linda - beautiful but bruised. The bridal couple are ceremonially crowned (by best man Nick and bridesmaid Linda) and led around the altar. Outside, the couple are greeted by rice-throwers and soon pull away in Michael's borrowed white Caddy, now decorated with pink crepe-paper flowers and streamers.
In the post-wedding reception, guests take vodka shots (and beer chasers) at the door, whirl around for ethnic folk dancing accompanied by a five-piece band, and feast at long tables. Shy Michael, many times standing alone and at the bar by himself, often looks enviously at the off-limits Linda and shares lingering glances with her. He is infatuated with Nick's girlfriend and wishes that he could be in his buddy's place. Awkward with women, he lurches toward her for a dance, wildly spins her around, offers her a Rolling Rock beer ("the best around"), and then inarticulately asks: "You really like Nick alot, huh?" He almost steals a kiss but halts midway into it. The town's small-town grocer doubles as the white-jacketed, crooning bandleader (Joe Grifasi) who sings the familiar American pop tune: "You're Just Too Good To Be True." He cuts in on Stan during the dancing, and then grabs and squeezes the behind of Stan's bridesmaid girlfriend. Instead of confronting the lascivious bandleader, Stan avenges his manly honor by nastily knocking his girlfriend to the floor.
In the public bar area, a sullen, pain-faced Sergeant (Paul D'Amato) of the Green Berets rudely drinks by himself. The jocular Michael, Nick and Steven, Vietnam soldiers-to-be, extend the soldier a drink and a toast, and saunter over to talk. Nick eagerly boasts about his glorious assignment in Vietnam: "I hope they send us where the bullets are flyin' and the fightin's the worst, huh?" Without even turning toward them, the experienced veteran raises his glass and toasts: "F--k it." Astounded, Michael naively asks: "Well, what's it like over there? Will you tell us anything?" The solitary Green Beret repeats his dark ominous words - he is incapable of describing his war experience.
When Angela throws her bridal bouquet, it is caught by Linda - and Nick quickly pops the expected question:
Nick: Will you marry me?
Nick: (unsure) You would? (She nods) What I mean is, when we get back from...when we get back. I don't know what the hell I mean.
Linda: What goes through your mind comes out your mouth.
On stage in a traditional ceremony, the bride and groom link arms and drink red wine out of a double cup, after being forewarned: "If you don't spill a drop, it's good luck for the rest of your life." Another disturbing omen of the bloody dark times to come is foreshadowed by a few fateful drops of the reddish liquid that accidentally spill on the bride's white gown - unnoticed and hidden from the line of sight of witnesses.
The wedding party moves outdoors, where Steven confirms, in confidence to Nick, his confusion and unhappiness about his bride's insemination by another man: "I never really did it with Angela, Nicky...It's my life's one true secret...What am I gonna do when she has a baby?" Nick suggests a way to cope: "Hang loose. Just don't worry about it." Completely inebriated by this time, an uninhibited Michael runs in the town's streets before the Cadillac carrying the couple, shedding his clothes until he is completely naked. When Nick catches up to him, his exhausted friend collapses on the wet pavement below a basketball backboard. After Nick covers his buddy's stark nudity, they talk sitting back-to-back - stripped of any pretense, about their feelings for their hometown and fears about the future - and Vietnam. Nick speaks about his inevitable fear that he might not come home alive following the war, and compels Michael to promise to bring him back and bury him in the Pennsylvania hometown that he loves:
Michael: Everything's going so fast. Hey Nick, do you think we'll ever come back?
Nick: From 'Nam?
Nick: You know somethin'? The whole thing - it's right here. I love this f--kin' place. (Michael laughs) I know that that sounds crazy. If anything happens Mike, you don't - don't leave me over there. You got, you gotta...Just don't leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike.
Nick: No man, you got, you gotta, you gotta promise definitely.
Michael: Hey Nicky...You got it, pal.
In the darkness of the dawning next day, the five friends (minus Steven) drive toward the glistening mountains [filmed in North Cascades National Park in Washington state] for a final deer hunt, their favorite past-time, before three of them are sent overseas. In a long, drawn-out scene, after stopping to piss off the many beers they've all been drinking, Michael drives off and playfully deserts John on the road - three times. By the side of the road, they swig more beers, and gorge themselves on Twinkies and bologna sandwiches. Talking to himself, Michael is perturbed by the adolescent, immature behavior of his unskilled, disrespectful 'asshole' friends, who don't take the hunt seriously: "I don't believe this. What am I doing?" Still dressed in his tuxedo and wearing a furry hunter's cap, gun fetishist Stan is unprepared for the hunt as they pull out their gear from the trunk and he's once again missing his hunting boots: "Every time he comes up, he's got no knife, he's got no jacket, he's got no pants, he's got no boots. All he's got is that stupid gun he carries around like John Wayne." Michael vents his anger and steadfastly refuses to loan Stan his extra pair, while holding up a rifle bullet and exclaiming:
Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain't somethin' else. This is this. From now on, you're on your own.
Affronted and recklessly waving his small hand-gun, the sniveling Stanley insults Michael (who has his rifle poised on his knee), denigrating his masculinity and inferring that he is homosexual:
I fixed you up a million times. I fixed him up a million times. I don't know how many times I must have fixed him up with girls. And nothing ever happens. Zero...Nobody ever knows what the f--k you're talkin' about. Huh? 'This is this.' What the hell is that supposed to mean? 'This is this.' I mean, is that some faggot soundin' bulls--t or is that some faggot...There's times I swear I think you're a f--kin' faggot...Last week, he could have had that new red-headed waitress...He could have had it knocked. And look what he did. Look what he f--kin' did. Nothin'.
Nick acts as a mediator, bringing peace between the two quarrelsome antagonists by offering Michael's extra pair of boots to Stan.
A chorus of chanting, monastic voices plays on the soundtrack as orange-jacketed Michael ascends into the revered mountains - readied for his religious, holy rite of hunting. On a rocky ridge, The Deerhunter spots his quarry - a towering buck with a full head of antlers. He concentratedly stalks the majestic creature, aims with his telescopic lens mounted on his rifle, and fires only one clean shot - a ritualistically-pure killing. His prey staggers and then drops. The camera partially zooms in on the frightened eye of the dying animal. With the trophy beast tied to the hood of his Cadillac, Michael and his pals return to town that evening and immediately head for Welsh's Lounge. The rowdy, sweaty, tired group pops foam-spraying beer cans and carouses with drinking songs until quieted by the soft piano-playing of John - the proprietor of the bar. [The piece is Chopin's Nocturne No. 6 in G Minor, Op. 15, No. 3.] In a tranquil scene without dialogue, as the camera pans over each of their faces, the realization dawns on the pensive men that they have reached a natural conclusion in their lives.
The sound of the rhythmic whirring of approaching chopper blades in the green jungles of Vietnam intrudes and segues into the next major portion of the film.