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The Deer Hunter, USA 1978

Posted by keith1942 on August 4, 2014

The friends leaving the steel mill.

The friends leaving the steel mill.

This Academy Award winning film is being re-issued this summer. This follows on from the ‘restored’ version of Heaven’s Gate (2013), also directed by Michael Cimino. Like the later film this comes with high critical praise. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw awards five stars for what he terms a film with ‘anti-war imagery’. However, Andrew Briton, in a major article on Hollywood’s Vietnam movies (Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam, Movie issue 27/28) makes the point that

The ‘anti-war’ film tends to protest against war as such from an abstractly moral point of view …war is extrapolated for its socio-economic causes and functions, and we are confronted with its ‘horrors’ –.

It is this mis-reading [ideological in the proper sense of the word] that is made in The Guardian review. There is a complete absence, as in so much critical writing on film, of any sense of the ‘socio-economic’.

But actually this film is far worse than merely ‘anti-war’. It has as reactionary a viewpoint as the more frequently lambasted The Green Berets (1968). That film has at least the merit of being explicit in its right-wing views: merely transferring the racist treatment of Native Americans in westerns to the war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter masquerades as a liberal critique whilst not only justifying the colonial war and the war crimes of the USA but vilifying the Vietnamese with racist stereotypes.

The film is effectively divided into three parts: an opening act set in the steel town of Clairton  Pennsylvania, which runs for over an hour. The second act, running about 40 minutes, is set in Vietnam. And the final act is back in Clairton but with another short venture to Vietnam, to Saigon just before the US flight. The film’s plot revolves around a group of friends, the members being Michael (Robert de Niro) and Nick Christopher Walken), along with Stevie (John Savage) all about to leave for service in Vietnam: the group’s oddball Stan (John Cazale) plus Axel (Chuck Aspegreen), all of these work in the local steel mill: Linda (Meryl Streep) Nick’s girlfriend, and Angela (Rutanya Alda) pregnant and about to marry Stevie: and John (George Dzundza) who runs a local bar where the friends regularly socialise.

The first part of the film, set in an ‘ethnic Ukrainian’ working class community in Clairton, a Pennsylvanian steel town, is frequently praised. But as Britton argues cogently in his article

the film relies on its inert reiteration of the appearance of concreteness – its ‘naturalism’ to camouflage the fact that its community is an abstraction, which can only be arrived at, and come to serve the end which it does serve, through systematic mystification.

It can be added that the settings, steel works, ethnic churches and celebrations, misty mountains – all lend themselves to high-value and costly production design and cinematography: and the film enjoys the services of one of the outstanding cinematographers Vilmos Zgismond. Clairton is a construction from eight different locations: Thailand stands in for Vietnam, though the film does use actual footage of the US evacuation: and some of the close-ups use back projection.

The mystification is served by the use of star power. De Niro, Walken and Streep, in particular, bring personas associated with their ability to create ‘authentic characters’. Intriguingly in the subsequent film Heaven’s Gate, we once again are presented with ethnic migrants, but on this occasion they are not served by star performers. In both cases, as Briton argues, ethnicity enables the filmmaker to avoid the fundamental issue of class.

If the real relations of class escape the film so do those of gender. Briton points out that the first hour of the film is dominated by two rituals – the female ritual of the wedding and the male ritual of the hunt. However, male rituals take precedence. As in other Cimino films [Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974 and Heavens Gate) the central focus is the friendship between men – a buddy movie.

The Clairton act also contains premonitions that look forward to later in the film. At the wedding of Stevie and Angela, Michael and Linda exchange a look and a smile. At the subsequent reception Michael, Stevie and Nick attempt to question a Green Beret Vietnam veteran, whose only response is ‘Fuck it!’ Then, in one of several ethnic rituals, Stevie and Angela drink from double entwined cups, but red drops of wine fall [un-remarked] on Angela’s wedding dress. After the reception Nick makes Michael promise ‘Don’t leave me over there’ [Vietnam]. One of the most emphatic motifs in the film, is the ‘one shot’ endlessly preached by Michael. This is first played out with a stag on a mountaintop and repeated in variations several times later in the film.

The second act in Vietnam is, as Bradshaw concedes,

just as much fantasy as Francis Ford Coppola’s Wagner-fueled helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now (1979).

With a powerful ellipsis, the film cuts directly from Clairton to a battle scene in Vietnam. What one presumes is supposed to be a Vietcong soldier casually drops a grenade into a pit of women and children. He is subsequently torched by Michael with a flame-thrower. This serves as a warning that the film intends to completely invert the violence and responsibility in Vietnam. We are back to the inversion typical of the classic western.

Much of the act is taken up with the imprisonment of Michael, Nick and Stevie in a brutal riverside containment by the Vietcong. They pass their time by inflicting the game of Russian Roulette on the prisoners, and betting on the outcome. Michael is able to subvert the game to effect their escape.

Michael and Nick 'play' roulette.

Michael and Nick ‘play’ roulette.

The Guardian response is

The Deer Hunter has been criticised for this literal inaccuracy and showing Vietnam in terms of American victimhood. But for me, those macabre Russian roulette sequences stunningly proclaim war to be dehumanising and arbitrary.

The use of ‘literal’ is typical of bourgeois discourse where there are one set of terms for the oppressors – powerful states like the US – and a different and negative set for the oppressed – like Vietnam [or currently Palestine]. The film’s use of this ‘game’ is downright mendacity. The reports of such torture were by US military inflicted on Vietnamese: along with various other war crimes including dropping them alive from flying helicopters. And, of course, in typical Hollywood war film fashion, the ‘Yankee hero’ is able to outsmart and out fight the enemy. It is worth noting that by the end of the film, there are more dead Vietnamese than there are dead Yankees. Bradshaw also writes that:

The idea of sacrifice permeates everything, along with the cruelty and horror.

But the sacrifice, like the violence, is extremely one-sided.

Towards the end of this act the three friends are separated, but in another script plant Michael and Nick nearly meet up at a covert Saigon gambling den – gambling on an another game of Russian Roulette.

The final act again runs about an hour, though it includes a twenty-minute return to Vietnam. Returning to Clairton Michael starts to develop a relationship with Linda: Nick is AWOL and seemingly lost. Michael learns that Stevie has had both his legs amputated and is confined in a Veteran hospital. The traumas from Vietnam are demonstrated when on another hunting trip Michael’s ‘one shot’ philosophy is shown to be neutered.

Michael returns to Saigon now in chaos as the US military prepare to ‘abandon ship’. Saigon, as in the earlier act, is a noir world, full of shadows, neon signs, death and destruction. The femme fatale of the film turns out to be the same Russian Roulette game – with Nick as the victim hero and Michael as the seeker hero. Inevitably Michael returns to the US with Nick in a casket.

In the final movement of the film we are back in Clairton for Nick’s funeral. Stevie has been rescued from the hospital by Michael and is attempting to rebuild his life and marriage. After the burial the group of friends return to John’s bar – their regular haunt throughout the film. As they prepare a breakfast wake John, cooking in the kitchen, starts to hum ‘God Bless America’: It is taken up in faltering fashion by the others and gradually it strengthens in to unified singing. The film ends on a freeze frame of the group toasting to Nick’s memory seated in the bar.


Robin Wood sees The Deer Hunter as

the culmination of and elegy for a whole tradition of American cinema and American mythology.

The comments repeat the dubious convention in US English of equating the United States with two whole continents and 22 states. But it also misreads the film. In this film and in Heaven’s Gate Wood suggests that the films explore the diminishing viability of the US hero on film. One film he uses as comparison is The Searchers (1955). In that film Ethan Edwards at the close has to leave the community for the wilderness. But in The Dear Hunter Michael actually outwits and defeats the Vietcong. As a seeker hero he survives where the victim hero, Nick, fails. He returns Stevie to family and community. And the final camera shots of Michael and Linda suggests a resumption of their relationship – he wins the girl. He has been reintegrated into the community. In the context of the film’s representation of the USA and Vietnam, the final rendering of ‘God Bless America’ seeks to recoup the historic defeat there. Re-watching the film I was reminded of the apt line in A Fish Called Wanda (1988): Otto (Kevin Kline) is taunted by Archie (John Cleese), ‘You lost in Vietnam!’, to which he responds ‘It was a draw!’

Andrew Britton, having emphasised the social-economic, continues his analysis in terms of the film’s ’homo-erotic subtext’.

The function of the Russian Roulette game is to solve the problem of the American hero by transposing the dubious aspects of his authority to the Vietcong, whose role in the power-structure of the game is analogous to Mike’s in the hunt. By the very token of this symbolic link between them, the Vietcong also appear as displaced manifestations of repressed sexual desire …[between Michael and Nick].

Andrew Britton’s and Robin Wood’s comments are influenced by their being gay and their interest in psychoanalytical criticism. But purely at a surface level, accessible to audiences unfamiliar with either, Michael and company are the ‘good guys’ and the Vietnamese are ‘the bad guys’. Notably, the European involved in the Saigon Roulette den is French. Films like The Green Berets, and to lesser extent Apocalypse Now, ignore history and indulge in cinematic fantasy. More radically, The Deer Hunter takes history or a seemingly naturalised recreation and inverts it for similar purposes.

Bradshaw also comments,

A simple much-forgotten fact slaps you in the face after watching The Deer Hunter. Vietnam was different to Iraq and Afghanistan in one vital respect: the soldiers were drafted. They had no choice.

In fact, I don’t think the draft gets a single mention in the film. And Michael, Nick and Stevie are all itching to go: the war appears to them as an extension of their hunting sport. One could also point out that the methods used by the US administration to keep up military numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan were just as coercive as the draft. But most importantly, the Vietnamese people had no choice either. They were drafted into war by French colonialism, Japanese expansionism and finally by US neo-colonialism. As in Cimino’s later Year of the Dragon (1985) the representations of Asians are racist. The Vietcong are brutal and mindlessly violent: ordinary Vietnamese are passive victims: and many of the urban Vietnamese dwellers cater to the worse excesses of the occupation: and not in a single instance is their dialogue accorded translation in subtitles. For this film ‘oriental life is cheap’.

Rather than an ‘anti-war’ film The Deer Hunter is an ‘anti-losing the war’ film.


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