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THE DEER HUNTER – The God-Bless-America symphony

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The Deer Hunter (1978) by Michael Cimino
The Deer Hunter (1978) by Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter (1978) by Michael Cimino

review by Pauline Kael

A “magnificent hermaphrodite born between the savage and the civilized”: that’s how Balzac described Hawkeye, the Deerslayer — the idealized frontier hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. The steelworker hero of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is the newest version of this American “gentleman” of the wilderness, and the film — a three-hour epic that is scaled to the spaciousness of America itself — is the fullest screen treatment so far of the mystic bond of male comradeship. It is steeped in boys’ adventure classics, with their emphasis on self-reliance and will power, and their exaltation of purity of thought — of a physical-spiritual love between men which is higher than the love between man and woman, because (presumably) it is never defiled by carnal desire. The American wilderness of our literature is (as D.H. Lawrence wickedly put it) the boys’ Utopia. The Deer Hunter is a romantic adolescent boy’s view of friendship, with the Vietnam War perceived in the Victorian terms of movies such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer — as a test of men’s courage. Yet you can feel an awareness of sex just under the diffused sensuality of the surface. The whole movie, with its monumental romanticism and its striving for a symphonic shape, is sexually impacted. It takes the celibacy of football players before the big game and attaches it to Vietnam. The hero, Michael (Robert De Niro), and his friends — Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) — are as chaste as Norman Rockwell Boy Scouts; they’re the American cousins of hobbits.

Cimino, who is thirty-nine, has directed only one previous film — Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, in 1974, which he also wrote. He’s a New Yorker and a Yale M.F.A. in graphic design who went into the Army and was a medic attached to a Green Beret unit training in Texas. When his interest turned to movies, he worked in documentary film and in commercials before he was able to use writing as a way to break into directing. His first credit was on Silent Running, in 1971; then he (and also John Milius) worked on the script of Magnum Force for Clint Eastwood, who had already arranged to give Cimino his chance on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. His new film is enraging, because, despite its ambitiousness and scale, it has no more moral intelligence than the Eastwood action pictures. Yet it’s an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an enraptured view of common life — poetry of the commonplace.

When we first see the three men, it’s 1968 and they are in a steel mill, on the floor of the blast furnace; at the end of the shift, they go from the blazing heat to the showers. It’s their last day on the job before they report for active duty, and the other workers say goodbye to them. Then they move through the casual sprawl of their hilly mill town, Clairton, Pennsylvania, to their nearby hangout — Welsh’s bar — to guzzle a few beers and loosen up. Each step of their day is perceived in ritual terms. The big ritual is to come that night: Steven’s wedding at the Russian Orthodox Church and then the celebration at the Clairton chapter of the American Legion, which is also the farewell party for all three. We spend about three-quarters of an hour in the church and the hall; the moving camera seems to be recording what’s going on in this microcosmic environment — to be giving us an opportunity to observe people as they live their lives. The long takes and sweeping, panning movements are like visual equiva­lents of Bruckner and Mahler: majestic, yet muffled. Because of the length of this introductory section, and because it isn’t dramatically focussed, we feel an anticipatory ominousness. Derivative as this opening section is (it’s easy to see the influence of Coppola and Visconti. and probably Minnelli, too), it conveys a very distinctive love of rootedness and of the values of people whose town is their world. (It’s the sort of world we used to see in French films of the thirties, with Raimu.) Cimino brings an architectural sense into his collaboration with the cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, whose style here recalls his smooth long takes in Deliverance but has a crisp vitality, like his more recent work in Close Encounters. There may be a touch of National Geographic in the first views of the beautiful, gaudy interior of the Byzantine-primitive church, yet Cimino and Zsigmond take the curse off the usual limitations of Panavision and the heightless wide screen by panning down, down, slowly. They provide such an illusion of height that it’s hard to believe the screen is the same shape that George Stevens once said was good only for high-school-commencement pictures. In the church, we see the faces of people we have already met; our eye is caught by John Welsh (George Dzundza), the cherub-cheeked bar owner, singing in the chorus. Here and in the Legion hall, there are uninterrupted panning movements in which we see people singing and dancing, flirting and fighting, and moving from one group to another. And it has a detailed clarity: we feel that we’re storing up memories. There’s something nostalgic about this ceremonial view of ordinary American community life even as it’s going on. This town of Clairton is actually a composite of a number of locations, most of them in Ohio, but it becomes a clear geographical entity for us. and even the double mobile home that Michael and Nick share feels so accurate that it, too, seems rooted. Nothing was shot in a studio.

Cimino’s virtuoso staging has a limitation: the brilliance of his panoramic ensembles sometimes gives us the idea that in seeing so many things so quickly we have come to know these people. They don’t actually reveal much more than the convivial crowds in a beer commercial do, yet we’re made to feel that what we see is all they are. (A great director would plant doubts in us.) And even with the dozen or so principal characters, the casting and the actors’ physiognomies and intuitive byplay do most of the work of characterization; the dialogue is usually just behavioral chatter. When Cimino wants to make a point, it’s usually an outsize point — a portent or an omen that reeks of old-movie infantilism. Someone draws Michael’s attention to a nimbus around the sun, and he explains what the Indians used to say this formation meant. (Is Cimino invoking the mythology of Hawkeye and the great chief Chingachgook?) Steven and his bride, who is pregnant but not by him, are served wine in a double-cupped goblet, by the priest, who tells them that if they drink it down without spilling a drop they will have luck all their lives, and we see the small stains forming on the bride’s white lace bodice. (Here it’s Smilin’ Through that’s invoked.) Nick, the best man, makes Michael promise that, whatever happens to him, he will be brought back to this place, these trees. A grim-faced Green Beret just returned from Nam comes into the Legion bar during the party; the men ask him “What’s it like over there?” and he replies with an obscenity. And so on. Cimino’s talent is for breadth and movement and detail, and the superlative mix of the Dolby sound gives a sense of scale to the crowd noises and the voices and the music; we feel we’re hearing a whole world. But Cimino doesn’t know how to reveal character, develop it, or indicate what’s going on in a human relationship. When Linda (Meryl Streep), one of the bridesmaids, catches the tossed bridal bouquet, and Nick asks her to marry him and she says yes, we don’t know if she’s in love with him or with Michael, with whom she exchanged glances earlier, or what Michael feels. Probably, Cimino doesn’t know; he may think it doesn’t matter. Michael keeps his distance from people, and he seems too pure to have anything particular in mind when he looks at Linda; he’s saving his vital juices for chivalry.

After the party is over and the bride and groom have left for their weekend honeymoon, Michael and Nick and their pals — John Welsh and skinny, dark Stan, played by John Cazale, and huge, bearded Axel, played by Chuck Aspegren — climb into Michael’s white ’59 Cadillac with tail fins and drive to the mountains, for a last, ritual hunt before Vietnam. A couple of the men are still wearing their rumpled tuxedos, but Michael, who is the leader of the group yet also a man apart, emotionally hidden, and with a compulsive orderliness that makes the others uncomfortable, has stripped down and dressed for his date with the deer. Unlike such makers of epics as Coppola and Bertolucci, Cimino doesn’t seem to want his themes to rise to our full consciousness (or perhaps even to his own), but he can’t resist eroticizing the hunt — it’s a sexual surrogate, a man’s-man wedding. Michael climbs to the top of a virgin mountain and, with a snowcapped peak behind him and a male choir in the sky singing a Russian Orthodox liturgical chant and rain clouds swirling about him, stalks a buck and fells it with one clean shot. That’s his consummation.

The five hunters drive back down to Welsh’s bar, and there follows a scene that is possibly too clever: fat, baby-faced Welsh plays a Chopin nocturne, and the others listen attentively. It’s a moment of communion before the parting of the ways. The music is lovely, and if one of the men — the amiable nonentity Axel, perhaps — had only fallen asleep this scene might have been as great as it wants to be. But with all of them demonstrating their innate sensitivity, showing us that beer sloshers’ savage breasts are soothed by music and that their inarticulate feelings go far beyond what they talk about, it’s too much like those scenes in which roomfuls of Hitler’s lieutenants all swooned to Wagner. And it’s just a shade too effective, too theatrical, when Cimino cuts from this solemn grace to the noise and hell of Vietnam.

It’s in the contrast, though, between the Clairton sequences, with all those people joined together in slowly rhythmed takes, and the war in Vietnam, where everything is spasmodic, fast, in short takes, with cuts from one anguished face to another, that Cimino shows his filmmaking instinct and craft. But also his xenophobic yellow-peril imagination. It’s part of the narrowness of the film’s vision that there is no suggestion that there ever was a sense of community among the Vietnamese which was disrupted. We are introduced to Asians by seeing a soldier (North Vietnamese, or. perhaps, Vietcong — we can’t be sure) open the door of a shelter, find women and children cowering inside, and then thoughtfully lob in a grenade. Michael, a Green Beret Ranger in an advance reconnais­sance unit, spots the soldier machine-gunning a fleeing woman and her child, yells “No!,” and hits him with a flame thrower. The impression a viewer gets is that if we did some bad things over there we did them ruthlessly but impersonally; the Vietcong were cruel and sadistic. The film seems to be saying that the Americans had no choice, but the V.C. enjoyed it. Michael meets up with Nick and Steven again, and the three are taken prisoner and are tortured strictly for their captors’ pleasure. The prisoners are forced to play Russian roulette in teams while the Vietcong gamble on which one will blow his head off.

The Vietnam War — and, more particularly, Russian roulette — serves Cimino metaphorically as the Heart of Darkness; Michael, the disciplined Deer Hunter, doesn’t succumb. He has the will and courage to save the three of them. These prison-camp torture sequences are among the finest-edited action scenes that I know of; they are so fast and powerful — and so violent — that some people will no doubt be forced to walk out. They are the very center of the film—the test it was preparing for. Although Michael, the superman who forces his friends to develop the will to survive, belongs to the boys’-book world of grit and sacrifice, the sheer force of these pulp atrocity scenes takes over one’s consciousness. I say “pulp” because the Vietcong are treated in the standard inscrutable-evil-Oriental style of the Japanese in Second World War movies and because Russian roulette takes over as the ruling metaphor for all the action scenes in the rest of the movie, even in the later episodes in Saigon and back home. Why is Russian roulette used this way? Possibly because it goes so completely against the American grain — it’s like a metaphor for the General Westmoreland theory that Asians don’t value human life the way we do. But also because it has a boyish vainglory about it: does one have the guts to pull the trigger? It’s a boy’s kicky idea of courage.

If The Deer Hunter had been a serious consideration of boys’-book values, it might have demonstrated that they did not apply in the mechanized destructiveness of modern warfare — that Michael was basical­ly as vulnerable as everybody else. But the fact is that Cimino believes they do apply, and so Michael is put up against curs and sadists; he’s in a Victorian test of manhood. And no doubt many people will go along with the film and accept Michael, the superior being, as a realistic hero, because of the general understanding that comradeship and depending on your buddies and helping them is finally all that you can believe in when you’re in the midst of war. Cimino, who believes in those Hemingwayesque one-clean-shot values that Michael (whom he has obviously named for himself) represents, has framed the whole war in terms of that kind of courage. Everything that happens appears to be the result of the atrocities of the Vietcong. Yet the film’s point of view isn’t clear. The American helicopters are like Walpurgisnacht locusts coming down on your head, and no one who believed that the Americans behaved honorably in Vietnam would have staged the evacuation of Saigon as Cimino has done, with thousands of Vietnamese abandoned and despairing. And, although Michael proves himself by performing extraordinary feats of valor, he is not ennobled by them, as movie heroes used to be. The Deer Hunter is Beau Geste-goes-to-Vietnam, all right, but with a difference: when Michael returns to his home and goes up to the mountain peaks again, and the male choir chants, he has the deer in front of him but he doesn’t kill it. Cimino has made a film that vindicates the boys’-book values (without them, Michael and his friends would not have survived the prison camp) and then rejects them.

This movie may offend conventional liberal thinking more by its commitment to parochial, “local” values than by any defense of the Vietnam War — for it makes none. Neither does it take any political position against the war. But the film’s very substance — the Clairton community in contrast with the Asian chaos — is the traditional isolationist message: Asia should be left to the Asians, and we should stay where we belong, but if we have to go over there we’ll show how tough we are. This parochialism may be the key to why some people will reject the film in toto — even find it despicable in toto. Although cosmopolitan values were actually the ones that got us into Vietnam (the government planners weren’t small-town American Legionnaires; they were Harvard men), it has become the custom to pin the guilt on the military “hawks.” Michael is not a liberal hero, like the Jon Voight character of Coming Home; we can feel (without being told) that he’s grounded in the rigid values of people who are suspicious of science and world affairs and anything foreign. Cimino is as careful to leave controversy out of his idealized town as Louis B. Mayer used to be. Clairton is abstracted from even those issues that people in beer joints quarrel about; no one ever asks what the Americans are doing in Vietnam, there are no racial jokes, and there isn’t as much as a passing reference to strikes or welfare, or anything else that might show dissension, anger, or narrowness. And, of course, there are no homosexu­als in the town (or even in the war); if there were, the film’s underpinnings would collapse, and its eerie romanticism would become funny. In this film, evil itself is totally unsexual; Russian roulette is the perfect solution — Nick, who has had his soul burned out by it, goes AWOL and disappears into the dives of Saigon, where civilians play that game. Without sharing the implicit God-and-country, flag-on-the-door political assumptions of The Deer Hunter, one can see, I think, that, even with its pulp components and the racism of its Saigon dens-of-vice scenes and its superman hero, it is not merely trying to move people by pandering to their prejudices — it is also caught in its own obsessions. And, because it plays them out on such a vast canvas, it has an inchoate, stirring quality. Audiences can project into The Deer Hunter in a way they couldn’t with such male-comradeship films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, because it gives us the feeling that it’s got a grand design lurking somewhere in those sensual rhythms and inconsistent themes.

In traditional American literature — in Mark Twain, say — the boys with pluck run away from proprieties, restrictions, manners, chores. Women represent the civilization that must be escaped. But in The Deer Hunter women are not even that much: they exist only on the margins of the men’s lives. Steven’s mother (Shirley Stoler, in a poor, mostly one-note performance) is a virago, his bride is a sallow weakling, and the bridesmaids are overly made-up and have too many curls; they’re plump — stuffed with giggles. The only woman we see in Clairton who could attract a man of substance for more than a quick fling is Meryl Streep’s Linda, who works in the supermarket; Streep has the clear-eyed blond handsomeness of a Valkyrie — the slight extra length of her nose gives her face a distinction that takes her out of the pretty class into real beauty. She doesn’t do anything standard; everything seems fresh. But her role is to be the supportive woman, who suffers and endures, and it’s a testament to Meryl Streep’s heroic resources as a mime that she makes herself felt — she has practically no lines. There were three writers on this project in addition to Cimino (Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Ouinn K. Redeker worked on the story with him, and Washburn did the screenplay), but Linda is a presence rather than a character. She’s a possibility glimpsed, rather than a woman, or even a sex object — least of all, a sex object. Michael and Nick, the two central characters, both have some sort of commitment to her, without our knowing what either of them feels for her — it’s a very limp triangle. She is the film’s token of romance, and Cimino’s unwillingness to go beyond Victorian tokenism muddies the film when Michael returns from Vietnam and his relations with Linda consist mostly of the exchange of unhappy, solicitous looks. Does he love her but feel that she’s pledged to Nick, who he thinks is dead? (There’s no clue to why he would think Nick was dead.) Michael shows no physical desire for Linda. They lie on a bed together, he fully clothed—should we know what they’re thinking? We don’t. And when, for one night, they’re under the covers together, without their clothes, and he rolls over on top of her, the scene is deliberately vague, passionless. He never even kisses her — would that be too personal? He was hotter for the deer.

Finally (and improbably), Michael learns that Nick may still be alive, and goes back to Vietnam to find him and pull him out from the Heart of Darkness. The scenes in Vietnam, with all those people clamoring to survive, and with him going back in there to rescue a man who doesn’t care to live, are so sweeping yet so slick that they’re like Coppola without brains or sensibility. Exotic steaminess is pushed to the melodramatic limit, as Michael, looking for his friend, passes through the inferno of war and enters Saigon’s sin city, operating in the midst of flames and human misery. The film’s last hour, in which it loses its sure progression and its confident editing, would have been far less wobbly if Michael had not come home until after he had made this rescue attempt. As it is, he returns from Vietnam twice, and during the period when he’s home for the first time the story weaves back and forth, with fumbling scenes of Michael trying to make up his mind whether he should go see Steven, who’s in a hospital. This period is unformed; it lacks resonance and gives us the impression that we’re missing something — that pieces of the plot have been cut out.

It’s possible that Cimino grew as an artist during the years of making this film (the production costs doubled, to thirteen million) but was locked into certain fantasy conceptions, and was never able to clarify the characters without violating the whole deer-hunting mystique he’d started with. And even after he’d shot the sequences that re-created the obscenity of the evacuation of Saigon, he was still committed to the gimmickry of the roulette game of life and death. The Deer Hunter is a small-minded film with greatness in it — Cimino’s technique has pushed him further than he has been able to think out. His major characters don’t articulate their feelings; they’re floating in a wordless, almost plotless atmosphere, and their relations aren’t sharp enough for us to feel the full range of the film’s themes. Too many of the motifs are merely symbolic — are dropped in rather than dramatized. At times, we feel that we’re there to be awed rather than to understand. We come out knowing the secondary characters — John Cazale’s weak Stan (who hits women and kills deer sloppily) and George Dzundza’s music-loving Welsh and John Savage’s simple-hearted, ingenuous Steven — far better than we know Michael or Nick.

This isn’t because De Niro and Walken don’t do their jobs. Walken seems completely authentic one minute and totally false the next, because he has so little that’s definite to project that he’s straining. Yet he has never been so forceful on the screen, and when he’s feverish and wet in the Vietnamese jungle and his hair is plastered down on his head, his large eyes, sharp chin, and jutting cheekbones suggest Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc; he has a feminine delicacy without effeminacy. He’s right for his part, but his Tightness for it is all that the part is. And this is true of De Niro. He’s lean, wiry, strong. Physically, he’s everything that one wants the hero to be. (The only thing that’s unheroic about him is that he’s still using the cretinous grin he developed for Bang the Drum Slowly.) He fails conspicuously in only one sequence — when he’s required to grab Nick’s bloody head and shake it. You don’t shake someone who’s bleeding, and De Niro can’t rise above the stupidity of this conception; even his weeping doesn’t move us. We have come to expect a lot from De Niro: miracles. And he delivers them — he brings a bronze statue almost to life. He takes the Pathfinder-Deerslayer role and gives it every flourish he can dream up. He does improvisations on nothing, and his sea-to-shining-sea muscularity is impressive. But Michael, the transcendent hero, is a hollow figure. There is never a moment when we feel. Oh my God, I know that man, I am that man.

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 18, 1978 Issue

Republished in Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down, 1980, pp. 512-519

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