by Sid Falko
The Deer Hunter has created such controversy as a political entity that I think it would be valuable to consider it, briefly, purely as an aesthetic object. Certainly art affects us in many ways, but many of these effects are brought to the film by ourselves. Americans, being more comfortable with politics than with art, fumble with their dismissal of the film on any other level but the political, while Europeans, overly conscious of the great guise of Art to propagandize, nervously picket the film. Among popular audiences, however, The Deer Hunter has acquired a loyalty of unusual proportions, and the comments most often heard attest to the emotional power of the film. The experience is “draining,” etc. There are several strands here that need to be clarified. Doubtlessly the film is intense, but only during the Vietnam and roulette sequences. Surrounding these scenes are evocations of ordinary life, scenes which may appeal to the spectators’ sense of their own life receiving the glorification and the permanent iconography of high art. In the tradition of prestige pictures, The Deer Hunter has the air of great art (an aura several Oscars will not dissipate) that only time will eradicate, or confirm. Doubtlessly for a large portion of the audience there is a group-think conformity, in which a spectator will imagine his experience as something vaguely aesthetic, intense, and moving simply because the soil of social conversation makes it easy to talk oneself into joining along. How many people actually found themselves bored with much of the film’s first hour? At any rate, all of this is a part of the film’s life, but I propose to follow a closed approach, to evaluate the film historically, if that is possible, detached but not indifferent to the passions of contemporary politics and audience response. An historical evaluation will attempt to see the film’s place in the future of cinema, reflecting how scholars might view the film, all of which is an indirect way of asking if the film we are seeing right now is any good or not.
The Deer Hunter is an epic of ordinary men and women, whose community is delivered several successive blows, but who finally triumph against the horror and destructiveness of outside forces and inner difficulties, for there is no suggestion of the group’s freedom from internal strife. Linda’s father beats her and Stan is deeply but blindly concerned with his sexual life and the power structure of sexual and non-sexual relationships (to the point, in fact, of always carrying a small gun, clearly a compensation for a feeling of vulnerability in relation to his friends). An opening shot of the Russian Orthodox church reveals in the foreground a street alcoholic; the lead singer of the wedding party’s band is a self- absorbed hustler who affects an enormous cigar. Despite these indications of disharmony, the community is cohesive, and in the end, the singing of “God Bless America” is in no way ambivalent; it signifies a return to prior cohesion that, though altered, is fundamentally sustained. The ending is therefore aesthetically a logical outgrowth of the film’s commitment: Michael’s desire to abide by Nick’s request to not let him be left in Vietnam. Though diverted temporarily by the enormity of the horror his experiences have led him to, Michael makes himself whole again by acting on Nick’s request, which ultimately unites all the survivors.
Michael admits that the other men in the group are “assholes” and that were it not for Nick he would have no part of them. The two friends are extremely close, sharing a trailer, Michael even coveting the other’s girlfriend. Michael is the nag of the two, criticizing Nick for minor things around the house. From the beginning one feels Nick to be the self-destructive one. He was haunted before he went to Vietnam. The French gambler who draws Nick into the dangerous roulette game could only have done so if he were able to sense Nick’s potential for craziness and self-destruction. Nick’s resistances and protestations outside the den seem particularly unemphatic, and the ease with which he is drawn on to the mysterious events below shows a curiosity of destructive proportions. Vietnam did not necessarily make Nick go nuts, but rather, because of his weaker character, the potential for craziness that lay within was released. The key difference between Michael and Nick is that, though sharing the same tendencies, he is able to suppress them, through a number of elaborate rituals, which include the philosophy of the one shot, the evasion of women, and the mania for community. Whether these are good rituals is unimportant; at this point in the film the key thrust is the development of the differences between Michael and Nick.
In terms of the film, Michael is quite obviously a difficult figure, not only because of the detached manner of the presentation (in which it is not clear whether it is an artistic choice, or whether a European sensibility is intruding in an attempt to allow the spectator more freedom of feeling about him), and the quite wide lacunas in our knowledge of him, but because what we do learn about him contradicts the moral expectations of the spectator: his killing the deer, the momentary decision to leave Steve behind at the compound, his drunken pursuit of Linda at the wedding party, and his nude trek through the streets. As in many contemporary films, the director seems to abrogate his role as moral arbitor and active, feeling presence. An example of this is Michael’s early morning homecoming and his conversation with Linda. What is the existential truth of the situation? Streep’s performance of an “ordinary” person is brilliant, her delivery of the dialogue is so reminiscent of people we might know in its inflection and accent as to make her touching, but the spectator may also have a feeling of superiority to her. One asks oneself why Michael, presented for the most part as if he were not a part of his group, but rather, above it, would be interested in her at all. He may well wonder himself, but it is not clear from the film. They are ill at ease with each other, but her holding up to Michael’s chest the sweater she was knitting for Nick is a foreshadowing of her eventual transference of affection. But Michael is kept in an emotional shadow, and it is not possible to see this as a part of the film’s design. It is a failure to work out some of the inherent ambiguities, the same ambiguities which are seized upon to defend the film and portray its politics as more correct. The shooting of the first deer is not ambiguous, however. There is no moral disdain in the close-up of the deer as it falls, as there is moral revulsion in the death of the rabbits in La Regie du Jeu. Also the scene where Michael tells Stan, while holding the bullet, that “this is this, this is not something else, this is this,” is unclear to me even after much pondering. What does he mean? one asks oneself, and ultimately one’s sympathy goes to Stan, who sarcastically” mimics Michael. The spectator may be reminded of the novels of the dime-store philosopher Ayn Rand, which are populated by mediocre masses and one or two Ubermensches who must rise above them toward the “truth,” while resisting being torn down by jealous “weasels.”
The first movement of the film, the wedding and related incidents through which we meet the various characters, is designed to bring us to the moment when Michael kills the deer. The subsequent events of Vietnam, the roulette games, etc., bring Michael to the second deer, which he cannot shoot because of the new seriousness with which he takes life (contrasted with the “games” Stan plays with his little pistol). The retrieval of Nick is the gap he must fill, the fulfillment of his promise to Nick, and the realization of his desire for a whole, restored community, despite his criticisms and previous disdain, as illustrated by the argument over whether or not he will lend Stan his boots. Mike must accept his place in the community, even if it is as a leader, a possibility he is uncomfortable with, one of the many reasons he cannot face his homecoming. The film places him in the only position to be able to reunite the others.
Before discussing the scenes in Vietnam, I would like to state unequivocally that it does not matter if the actors playing Vietnamese are actually from Thailand, nor that it is a military inaccuracy to have a prisoner compound on the bank of a river, or that there were never any roulette games in Vietnam as put forth by the film. The Russian Roulette game is a metaphor, a condensation of many impulses that would extend the film’s already three-hour length if they were given full artistic incidence; for example, the theme of self-destructiveness, the cruelty of other men, the emotionally volatile quality of the war situation. It is not an “intellectual” or documentary approach. Rather, emotions are communicated through violent images. What is important about the roulette game is the variety of reactions to its agony, the fact that the game is a variation on the Russian backgrounds of the principals, and that it is a parody of Michael’s “one shot” ritual.
The audio flicker of a helicopter intrudes on the peaceful bar in which Welsh is playing Chopin, a logical extension of the general musicality of the whole community (it is Welsh who begins singing “God Bless America” later). With a shock cut the spectator is transported to Vietnam, apparently several years later. Michael is now a Green Beret and has been knocked unconscious by American warcraft, an indication of the confusion of the war experience. A V.C. drops a hand grenade into a village bomb shelter, and Michael, waking up and seeing the action, goes into a rage (which shows how disturbed his personality has become), leading to his incinerating the V.C. We see how far Michael has descended from his own principles with his machine- gunning the charred corpse. The spectator has been thrust into a situation of confusion that has taken the three friends much longer to get to. Michael does not recognize Nick and Steve, who have landed in another helicopter. There is no time for a reunion. In long shot, through clearing smoke, the V.C. are advancing, then with another shock cut, the spectator is at the riverside stockade. While the Russian society of Clairton is presented with a varying level of sympathy, nonetheless there is no doubt that it is a positive presentation. The expansive compassion given to the Russian- Americans leaves none left over for the wicked North Vietnamese, all of whom are ruthless primitives. Clearly, if one supports the American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war there is no other way to view the North Vietnamese and still sustain the energy to fight them. Though politically incorrect, perhaps it is in this way that the close Russian-Americans would see them (though at no point in the film are we given the impression that any of the incidents are seen from any particular perspective). It is not only the V.C., however; the French and the South Vietnamese are also seen as evil, immoral, corrupting, even though there is the potential for these qualities in the Clairton community. The long takes of the Clairton sequences, though leading to some rather boring transitional scenes (as in the scene where Welsh takes a piss and the others drive off) is in broad contrast to the rapid cutting and close camera placement of the Vietnam sequences, which reiterates the immoral atmosphere by our physical closeness to the principals and by the unease the editing creates.
The roulette game is the horrible and logical extension of Michael’s beliefs. That he is able to fight the V.C., deceive them at their own game, shows that, on some level, he realizes himself in the cruel parody, as well as revealing his own mastery of the game and general superiority, but also his ultimate rejection of the game (he gets them to use three bullets) and the conquest of his internal need for the self-imposed ritual. Steve fails because of his inability to deal with the emotional weight of the experience, and Nick fails the human test because of the self-destructive impulses the experience releases. We follow Nick as he drifts further from humanity, from communication, first with the doctor, then with Linda, then love, and finally sex. His ceasing to be human is what keeps him alive for so long as a professional gambler. When Mike comes to retrieve him, the structure of incidents leads by association to imply that it is Nick’s memory of Clairton that “kills” him; but it seems to me that the roulette game is rigged, hence the great show of holding up the bullet, the way a magician uses misdirection to hide his necessary manipulations, and hence also the further comparison with Michael, who makes a great show of his philosophy. At any rate he is murdered, possibly to prevent the exposure of the ring by his defection (but then, why would Michael be allowed to take his body back home, much less leave the place alive himself?).
Michael tells Nick that he loves him, and it is this, plus Michael’s disregard for Linda, that suggests a homoerotic connection between the two friends; that is, that his wanting to have sex with Linda is an indirect way of fulfilling his relationship with Nick. But a great deal of the film is taken up with the troubled sexuality of the characters: Steve marries a woman who apparently (it is never very clear) became pregnant by another man, Stan’s need to overcompensate, and Michael’s classically American flight from women; that is, his fixation on Linda is an excuse to not pursue other women. Stan openly berates Michael over the possibility of his being homosexual, his sole criterion being Michael’s disinclination to fuck girls with whom Stan has set him up (we see an example of one later in the film). If he does love Nick, it is not reciprocated in the same way, and Michael does struggle to save Steve, who breaks his leg in a Deliverance-esque manner. In any event, it is not an overtly expressed theme, and there is nothing wrong with Michael telling Nick he loves him, and if such a homosexual sub-text is perceived, it reveals a certain attitude on the part of the critic who discusses it. It is interesting that the action-oriented, male-oriented artists in whom a homosexual sub-text is often seen (Hawks and Bertolucci, for example) are accused of the most violent and inhuman emotions, as if the suppression of these “tendencies” brought out overreaction and self-loathing. Conversely, women in The Deer Hunter are not so much treated badly as simply ignored (Stanley, though, does hit his date, rather than the man who made a pass at her, yet by virtue of the fact of the others fighting him, I don’t believe his behavior is endorsed. It is consistent with his irresponsibly vain character that he would fear an encounter with a man). Stanley is the character who offsets the relationship between Michael and Nick, who indicates the quality of their commitment to each other. Michael, however, seems impatient with others, and when he finds Linda in the back of the store crying, he seems incapable of understanding and sympathizing with her. Though the meaning of the scene is apparently in the showing of the small ways in which the town is affected by the war, the look of incomprehension on Michael’s face is painful, and this elegiac sadness is realized much better a little later with the dialogue in Michael’s car (“Did you think life would ever turn out like this?” “No.” which is slightly reminiscent of the dialogue in Tokyo Monogatari). This is another moment when the audience is alienated from Michael, yet it occurs in the middle of a significant growth period for him. What is the nature of this growth?
The whole middle section concerning Michael’s return to Clairton to his attempt to rescue Nick brings Michael to a new maturity that subsequently receives several tests of strength.
1) Arriving in town he sees the homecoming party and goes to a motel instead, where he pulls out of his wallet a picture of Linda. I’ve suggested that he can’t face being a hero. Doubtlessly there is also the feeling of separateness caused by his experiences. But also it is Linda he wants to see, not the others.
2) In the morning he goes back to the trailer as everyone else is leaving. With Linda the first tentative moves are made for union.
3) He finds a few of his friends in town and learns that Steve is alive and in the U.S.
4) Forcing Steve’s wife to give him the telephone number where he can be reached, he goes to make the call, and then gives up. He cannot yet face that uniting act. He must first become a different person.
5) Michael attempts to leave town, but Linda, with surprising honesty and forthrightness, convinces him to stay. She is prepared to make love to him, but he has fallen asleep with his clothes on (unquestionably a flight from intimacy on his part). There is a shot out the window of the room.
6) Michael and his friends go hunting. He has caught the deer, but is unable to shoot it, firing above it instead. He sits above a waterfall and yells, “OK? OK?” This is a cry of relinquishment, defeat, the first realization that he is losing hold of the rituals he previously needed to survive psychologically, the growth of a new humanity that is spontaneous, open, and vital.
7) He fights with Stan over the small pistol. He is sick of games, and sees himself in Stan. The one bullet, though obviously a working out of the roulette game, also reminds us of the one shot Michael fired into the air during the fight in the first hunting scene.
8) Back in Clairton he finds Linda weeping. Perhaps his reaction is again one of compensation; he reacts against her because, for the first time, he is drawn to her.
9) After work he catches her as she is about to leave with the vulgar singer. Her need for some comfort, even in shallow intimacy, has driven her to him. Michael takes her away.
10) The make love, presumably for the first time, tenderly, gently. Afterwards, there is another shot of Clairton through the window, as if the city were now able to reassert itself on Michael’s consciousness.
11) Early the next morning he goes into a phone booth near the church and calls Steve. He has achieved the maturity necessary to confront the challenge of reuniting his friends.
12) Upon learning from Steve that Nick is still alive, his resolve is complete. He takes Steve home and returns to Vietnam.
Though it really is not within the province of the critic to speculate on the origins of a film, and in this case especially there is no proof that I can offer to validate my theory, the fact that such people as James Toback can claim some influence on The Deer Hunter (in the Boston Real Paper Toback claims that some of his script of the Frank Costello story found its way into Cimino’s film) opens the field up. The artists of the New Hollywood all know each other and talk to each other about their films. John Milius and Cimino apparently became good friends during the time it took to get The Deer Hunter off the ground. It is well known that Milius was disappointed with what Coppola did to his script of Apocalypse Now, and it is interesting to imagine the influence he may have had on The Deer Hunter, as if he were doing by proxy the Apocalypse Now that was no longer under his control. There certainly cannot be much similarity of plot; the stories as we know them are very different (though the original AN was about Green Berets). We will soon know about Coppola’s film, and perhaps someday we will see the original script that Milius wrote. In mood and tone The Deer Hunter is very much like a Milius film, though I would suggest less coherent in structure. It has been noted elsewhere how much Michael, with his neatly trimmed beard and black hair, resembles an idealized Milius, and it would not be the first time Milius has been “put” in a film: he was the basis for the John Milner character in American Graffiti and the Han Solo character in Star Wars.
Of course, none of this idle speculation has any bearing on an evaluation of The Deer Hunter, unless one were attempting to show how one film worked while another did not. This said, I will admit to valuing Big Wednesday as a rich, complete work of cinematic art over The Deer Hunter. On a large scale The Deer Hunter works, but when we turn our attention to the small-scale level of individual scenes, there seems to be a sense of fullness and detail lacking, as if the most obvious possibility were seized upon without thinking out a scene (take, for example, the obvious irony of the drops of wine on the wedding gown, as well as the choral music during the hunts). Also one hopes that art, as in Tolstoi’s War and Peace, while taking sides as is its prerogative, can nevertheless create in the viewer compassion out of the harsh realities it faces, and the dichotomy of moral positions it presents.
Cinemonkey, Spring 1979 Volume 5, Number 2; pp. 11-14