by Terry Curtis Fox
It is hard to think of a recent American film which has been as classically and persistently misread as The Deer Hunter. Perhaps had the movie indeed played as poor second cousin to Apocalypse Now, it would be possible to like the film, not forced to defend or castigate what is, after all, Michael Cimino’s second directorial effort. That The Deer Hunter should, at this point, be so tightly linked with an as yet unseen movie is both natural and ironically to the point: beyond the obvious subject matter. The Deer Hunter owes a great deal to John Milius, who preceded Cimino as a screenwriter on Magnum Force, who wrote the script for Apocalypse Now and whose passionate concern for closed societies Cimino shares. At the same time, the movie is being discussed in the grandiloquent Great Society metaphors trotted out for Francis Ford Coppola—metaphors which are not only entirely inappropriate to the film at hand but which divert attention from what The Deer Hunter actually manages to do.
As so frequently happens when a movie is misunderstood, The Deer Hunter is being attacked for precisely the scenes which indicate Cimino’s intentions. Throughout the film Cimino has planted sequences which indicate that it is necessary to have a peculiar kind of double vision, in which both the internal and the external logic of an event can be seen. The simplest of these scenes arc those involving the return of a Green Beret in the middle of John Savage’s wedding and the sudden discovery that George Dzundza, barkeep and hunting companion, is capable of rhapsodizing Chopin during off-hours. The point of the latter is not. as even the most sympathetic critics of the film claim, an attempt to show Dzundza’s “sensitivity” or that of his companions. Rather, it is the very incongruity which Cimino wants us to sec. The sequence is neither gratutious nor maudlin, simply direct. These people are going to surprise you, Cimino tells us; they do things you do not expect. At the same time, they do these surprising things in the manner of their culture: Dzunda’s playing remains barroom sentimental—he wills himself to be transported.
The Green Beret sequence is a bit more complex, since Cimino shoots the scene from the point of view of the insider’s group. When Robert DeNiro and his buddies first see the soldier, their respectful, eager approach is one we expect the vet to appreciate, if not share. The completely unfathomable nature of his response is much more easily appreciated by an outside audience than it is by those within the film. History gives us a sense of the scene’s dramatic portents as well as elucidating DeNiro’s and company’s naiveté: they are men who will never have a historical sense of the Vietnam war. Again, the Beret’s symbolic presence is at once direct and to the point: he is there precisely not to be read, much as the frequently discussed Russian Roulette sessions of the film exist in order not to be understood.
It is in this vein that we must also see the film’s two hunting scenes. If Cimino has a consistent problem in the movie, it is most certainly with camera placement. Cimino’s camera most often resembles that of John Huston: his shots all too often draw attention to themselves without being particularly elucidating; his framing is frequently more pictorial than informational. Cimino has the advantages of neo-classicism without its elegance, and this can, at times, confuse his intentions. Certainly there are moments of pure pretention within The Deer Hunter, almost everything around the pool table is shot at an off-tilt angle which contains virtually no meaning. The hunting scenes, with their overdrawn heroism, seem to be much the same—a grand-standing play by a young director making an epic statement.
That the sequences grandstand is not open to question. The use of a choir, the integration of DeNiro into a set of mountains mythically out of proportion to the countryside immediately surround the town (indeed, town and country were literally a continent apart), the upward-looking gaze of the camera—all over-conspire to create a sense of majestic grandeur. Which, again, is precisely the point. For this is the way DeNiro sees himself: a figure who is alone with nature, apart from his society, heroic by divine gift, and representative of the best of his people. It is both his strength and, Cimino shall tell us, his weakness.
To understand DeNiro’s actions through the course of the movie, it is necessary both to understand his feeling about the hunt—so overstated as to be nearly unbelievable—and to stand back and criticize that stance. We do that during the first hunting sequence in which Cimino cuts rather brutally to the head of the dying deer, a moment so critical and undermining of the previous sequence of shots that only their overstatement saves the entire gesture from being a run-of-the-mill anti-hunting diatribe. DeNiro’s subsequent refusal to kill the deer at the end of the film indicates his growth. He remains convinced of his own heroic stature, but he is now able to distinguish what it licenses and what it does not. He has attained the double vision which Cimino wishes his entire audience to attain.
Nowhere is this so important as in the wedding sequence which occupies most of the movie’s first hour. The wedding is the key to The Deer Hunter, a sequence that sets up the concerns and attitudes of the filmmaker in explicit, detailed form. Everything preceding the wedding itself is an indication of how out of place the Ukrainian community is within the context of mill-America. Meryl Streep’s drunken father seems far more in tune with the desperate rhythms of the steel mill—the belching smoke, the careening cars, the mud which constantly threatens to blacken the maids-of-honor’s dresses—than the ornate, highly decorated church which is used for the ceremony. The church itself is almost a setup for anti-clerical comment; in a town with no money, this monument is phenomenally rich.
Yet the moment the people of this town enter the church, they are transformed: the formless routine of factory, housing, barroom is suddenly connected to a tradition in which fat old ladies have a formative and important place, in which there is a traditional community that could never be sustained without a historically powerful outside influence. The church’s outlandish, oversized presence is as necessary here as the overheroic posture of DeNiro in the mountains. An overriding influence, it must override the audience. (Once again, Cimino cheated on facts: the church belongs in Cleveland, not any of the small towns used for the home sequences of the movie.)
The church itself is a metaphor for the closed nature of the community, its separation from the rest of American society and the overriding ties which bind the people of the movie together. The American Legion hall in which the reception takes place is the reverse side of this—it is the American version of the church and represents the way in which the outside world is subsumed into the smaller culture. From this point in the movie on, it is evident that Cimino’s only interest in the whole world is as it relates to the small world. The film is about a group of men who function within a closed society and who struggle to maintain that society even when threatened by the most overpowering forces of the outside world. The film is not, in the classic sense of the American cinema, about a band of outsiders. Rather it is about an entire culture of outsiders.
Hence the curious position of DeNiro. Archetypically, he should represent the unbalancing force, the man who grows away from the community as it exists. He operates on a set of values which are other than—and unfathomable to— those who surround him. He carries within him the threat both of sexual disruption (in his disturbing relations with Meryl Streep, Walken’s girl who seems destined to become DeNiro’s partner) and of violent dismissal (a role assumed instead by John Cazale, who is only crazy—in contrast to DeNiro, who is super-crazy). When DeNiro leaves for Vietnam, we expect that he will be the agent for the community’s undoing, the man who will bring the war back home. Instead, he is the agent for the community’s survival, the agent for proving there is nothing in the world that can break this communal force apart. DeNiro gains double vision, and comes back not to disrupt the small world but to help insulate it.
The small world, in Cimino’s eyes, is the rational world, opposed to which is the outside world, an Otherness of irrational force and constant worry. The Deer Hunter is thus less about America and Vietnam than about the closed society and the outside world, the community and the Other. Just as DeNiro’s heroics are represented by outsized mountains and the community’s bonds by an out-sized church, so the Other is overrepresented by a game of Russian Roulette which Cimino inserts into Vietnam. Vietnam is here emblematic of the Other—an Other to which, Cimino tells us, there are four possible responses. One is Cazale’s response, that of pure denial. The second. Savage’s fate, is to succumb. Walken, who enters into the world of the Other, merges with it, while DeNiro, the hero, manages to absorb the Other into himself. (This is the departure point between The Deer Hunter and the buddy-movie: DeNiro’s plea to Walken during the final Russian Roulette game is not a plea for personal salvation, but rather one for Walken to assume a place commensurate with DeNiro’s own. Walken can’t: in Cimino’s schematic diagram, at least one character must give way totally, and so Walken’s ultimately unsatisfying death.)
Cimino’s horror of the Otherness of the outside world is seen in the way in which the roulette game is introduced into the film. Sprung on us almost the moment we are in Vietnam, it is a horror impossible to conceive outside the tortured extremes of an incomprehensible war. That Cimino is dealing in pure fantasy should be evident: no three people from the same small town would ever end up in the same Vietnamese trap, except within the realm of myth. That the Roulette game is an invention has certainly hurt the movie’s case and contributed to its misreading. We are not yet far enough from Vietnam to accept either its fictionalization or its use of simple metaphor. As critics of the film have pointed out, there is a distinctly right-wing flavor to The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s obsession with the closed society is, simply put, xenophobic to an extreme that not even the conservative John Ford (Cimino’s obvious model) ever ventured. Nevertheless. the invention of the roulette game is itself in keeping with the other liberties taken in the film. That sense of constant exaggeration is what much of The Deer Hunter is about.
The roulette game, however, turns out not to be an aberration of war. It is, instead, presented as a constant, if brutal, part of South Vietnamese society. The Other is so extreme, Cimino seems to be saying, that protective walls are necessary. Without them, men calmly shoot themselves for money and amusement. In a world in which there are no rules for morality, only a saint (DeNiro) can survive.
Thus, finally, The Deer Hunter‘s last scene, in which Walken’s death is willfully denied by the community. Sitting in Dzundza’s bar after the funeral, the entire group begins to sing “God Bless America,’’ a bastard anthem which, in its startling sincerity, affirms that this society is once again closed—and once again saved.
Film Comment Vol. 15, No. 2, March-April 1979, pp. 22-24