Something ominous has been going on since The Deer Hunter first made its appearance, and especially since it won an Academy Award: Certain activist groups, in an unfortunate misunderstanding of the film, have protested it as a kind of racist document that, as a New York Post article summarized it, “ . . . contrasts the innocence of American GIs . . . with the savage Vietnamese enemy they meet on the battlefield.”

by Nick Pease

Something ominous has been going on since The Deer Hunter first made its appearance, and especially since it won an Academy Award: Certain activist groups, in an unfortunate misunderstanding of the film, have protested it as a kind of racist document that, as a New York Post article summarized it, “ . . . contrasts the innocence of American GIs . . . with the savage Vietnamese enemy they meet on the battlefield.” Disturbingly, this view has evidently led some beyond verbal protest to the firebombing of two New York theaters showing the film. If this was in fact the bombers’ motive, then the misunderstanding has deepened from merely unfortunate to potentially tragic.
Critics have so far been of almost no help in rectifying the situation. Perhaps repelled by the violence in the film, they have failed to give it the searching, careful scrutiny it demands. Instead, a critical concensus has developed that runs something like this:
“The Deer Hunter is a morally muddled (perhaps even jingoistic) story about some rather loutish steelworkers who go mindlessly off to Vietnam, engage in unspeakable violence, and come back so totally unchanged that at the final blackout they’re singing ‘God Bless America’—and meaning it.” The latest version of this view appeared in a May 28 New York Times column by Hans Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam Treat Everything but the War.” Koning complains that the steelworkers return from battle “with­out any cynicism or disillusionment, let alone feelings of guilt. No one stands accused except the old enemy, the Vietcong . . . .” As I hope to demonstrate, the film’s conclusions are quite the opposite of this, and they’re couched not in political terms but in human terms.
Let me begin by addressing the innocent-“us”-vs.-savage-“them” theory. Who are “they,” anyway? Only the VC? Surely their savagery is no greater than that of their counterparts in Saigon, who run a play-for-pay Russian Roulette game under the aegis of a Frenchman. If blame is being assessed, it seems to me it’s being spread around pretty evenly. And as for American innocence, just look what happens to Nick. Blond and blue-eyed, friendly and peaceable, he’s probably the most potent image of innocence since Billy Budd (a comparison I’ll return to later); but in the end his corruption is self-induced and his annihilation self-inflicted. In short, this thesis simply won’t work.
The Deer Hunter does deal with innocence and its loss, but not in pat simplicities. And it is about Vietnam, but only to the extent of showing what we did to ourselves there. Its theme, far from justifying either ourselves or the war, is a penetrating critique of our notions about manhood and valor as epitomized in the Great American Hero.
The hero I’m talking about is Michael (Robert DeNiro), the 4‘deer hunter” mentioned in the title. He’s a hero not only in the conventional sense, insofar as he tries to rescue his buddies, but also in a symbolic sense, for the movie is richly allusive and draws heavily on American literature for its meaning. On this level Michael is, in fact, nothing less than a modern-day version of a timeless American classic: the Deerslayer.
As his tale is told in Cooper, Faulkner, Hemingway and countless other sources, the Deerslayer is the definitive heroic type. He is an able young man who, his vital energies sapped by mundane reality, goes into the wilderness to enact the male-regenerative ritual of the hunt. It’s what scholars call a “mythic” adventure, touching our fantasies about maleness so deeply that we sense and accept its truth without question. According to the imperatives of this myth, the hunter pursues his quarry to the hallowed “killing ground” and, in taking its life, acquires its potency as well (the victim is always a male animal). The myth, then, provides a subliminal nexus between unconscious sexual fantasy and consciously held values of valor and “manliness.”
In the first of the hunt scenes, Michael follows the ritual pattern very closely. Leaving the earth-bound squalor of Iron City, he ascends to what is mythically the ‘‘high holy place” on the mountaintop. As he does, the tacky pop music of reality gives way to ethereal strains that waft through the pristine heights. Alone he begins his stalk, and we know that his prowess is such that he’s never missed his buck. True to his namesake, he corners a young stag and kills it with one clean shot. Cooper himself would have been pleased.
This sounds all wrong, of course—much too literary, and not at all the way Michael really seems to be. The fact of the matter is that he’s neither a heroic nor even a very likeable kind of guy. He’s actually kind of nutsy. Early on, he picks stupid fights and yells meaningless things like “This is this!” Later, he wants to abandon Steve to the VC, and even when he blows the gooks away it’s more like a Travis Bickel freak-out than an act of courage. (And don’t forget, it is De Niro.) Admittedly, he tries to save his buddies, but apart from that he’s moody and inaccessible. What kind of hero is that?
If the point is that Michael seems an unsympathetic character, it’s well taken. Even more to the point is the fact of Nick, who upstages him at every turn. In quite obvious ways, the two are antithetical: Michael is dark, brooding, and withdrawn, Nick fair and genial; Michael is a quarreler, Nick a peace-maker; Michael’s a loner and a misfit, Nick the All-American Boy, who not only wants to marry the home-town girl but tells us, flat-out, “God, I love this place!” As a result, Nick constantly draws our sympathies away from Michael, even at the moment when Michael puts his life on the line for him.
There is method in this. The director is carefully controlling our responses, letting us see Michael only from the outside and with a certain critical detachment. We don’t know who he is, as a person, but only what he does. Yet there is one pivotal scene, just prior to the first hunt, that brings him to the surface and indicates the course his inner development will take: It is his confrontation with the Green Beret.
The build-up to the scene is the wedding reception, a sequence that methodically underscores Michael’s alienation. A number of vivid contrasts are established, among them the life-affirming ethnic tradition vs. the deadening rites of patriotism, and romantic love (Nick and Linda) vs. the vulgar expedience of marriage (Steve and his “used” bride, who is pregnant by another man). In every instance, Michael is odd-man-out. He can neither join in the ethnic dances nor wave the flag, and when he goes to make a pass at Linda he loses his nerve. He tries to drink off his anomie, but even that won’t work. Finally, like an apparition, the soldier arrives.
Nick’s eyes widen. “Wow, a Green Beret!” he gushes. Michael just stares. Before him is the ultimate American hero, the paragon of manhood who’s been through the hell of Nam and knows what it’s all about. What’s more, he even looks like Michael, only older. They buy him drinks and offer to toast the war, but the man’s response is enigmatic. “Fuck it,” he says, raising his glass. Michael misses a beat. “What does that mean?” he asks. The man repeats himself. Michael stares harder into that impenetrable face, so like his own, and asks again. The moment is catalytic: With Innocence (Nick) literally tugging at his elbow, he is suddenly eye-ball-to- eyeball with Experience, and he desperately wants to know what it means. What is war like? What does it mean to be a hero? Why this fathomless cynicism (if that’s what it is)?
There are no answers. “Fuck it” is all the man will say.
Unnerved by his uncertainty, Michael has to be dragged bodily from the bar, and moments later he’s running through the streets tearing feverishly at his clothes. His downhill progress images his state of mind, for he’s mentally bottoming out after this confrontation with absurdity. His stripping, too, has a corollary, because unconsciously he’s casting off all the phony values and illusory promises that pass for “meaning” in society’s man/citizen/soldier/ killer equation of heroism. The bitter wisdom of the Vietnam Era has been thrust upon him: There is no glory there, and (in the parlance of the time) there are no more heroes.
That harsh note is sounded early in the film, however, and much is still to be said. In fact, the scene marks not an ending but a beginning, for in his nakedness Michael undergoes an almost existential kind of rebirth. Though he’s been disabused of his hopeful fantasies by the Green Beret, it does not mean that he rejects reality (as Nick will later do through drugs and suicide). On the contrary, this psychological crisis marks the point at which he begins to accept the real world in all its meaninglessness and, by degrees, his own place in it. This, not Vietnam, is the true subject of the film: how an alienated young man comes to terms with himself and is gradually reintegrated into the society that spawned him.
The evidence begins to mount in the roadside scene that follows, when Michael picks a fight with one of his pals—a dime- store cowboy who carries around a loaded revolver. By refusing to lend him a pair of boots (as he’s always done before), Michael is purposely setting himself apart from the man and the phony machismo he subscribes to. When he insists that “This is this,’’ it’s not a senseless remark; Michael is pointing to his rifle, and what he means is “This is a killing instrument, not the macho-man phallic symbol you take it to be.’’ Later on, he’ll reinforce the point by pointing the man’s revolver at his head—and pulling the trigger.
Following the first hunt sequence, Michael’s behavior appears to be somewhat ambiguous. He offers to abandon Steve, for example, but then, unaccountably, saves his life. Possibly death-obsessed in the VC roulette game, he tells Nick “Shoot!” But in the later game he urges just the opposite. Furthermore, when Nick first discovers the game in Saigon, Michael is in the audience.
Following the first hunt sequence, Michael’s behavior appears to be somewhat ambiguous. He offers to abandon Steve, for example, but then, unaccountably, saves his life. Possibly death-obsessed in the VC roulette game, he tells Nick “Shoot!” But in the later game he urges just the opposite. Furthermore, when Nick first discovers the game in Saigon, Michael is in the audience.
Yet in light of what Michael is becoming, the ambiguities are only apparent. Having seen through the hollowness of conventionality, he’s going beyond the rigid abstractions of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” and evolving a wholly personal value system. Again, this involves an acceptance of his own, not-uncorrupted reality. Psychologically, it means accepting his own mortality, so that he’s not devastated by what happens and can return to the game as a spectator. Morally, too, he’s neither overwhelmed with guilt for the “evil” he’s done nor prevented from doing what’s personally valuable to him. The most moving evidence of this is when he learns that Steve has survived the war. At first he, like the rest of the town, refuses to acknowledge the fact of Steve’s disfigurement (even Steve acquiesces in his nonperson status at the VA hospital). But, in time, he takes it upon himself to reintegrate his friend with the community.
As Michael grows, assimilating all aspects of his personality into a unified whole, the changes are registered in subtle but telling ways. Fully bearded at first, for example, while in combat he is clean-shaven, but afterward he wears a half-beard. Likewise, on furlough he’s in uniform—including a beret—but in both Saigon scenes he’s dressed in civvies.
His change is most dramatically established in the second hunt sequence. Paralleling the action in the first hunt, he again brings a stag to bay, and this time it’s a fully mature animal. But now he raises his rifle and deliberately misses the shot. The meaning here is unmistakable: He is renouncing his status as a hero (the Deer-slayer) for the more hard-won status of a human being. Again reality triumphs over the mystique of heroism. The sequence ends as it should, anticlimactically and ignobly, as his beer-drenched pals wound a half-grown deer and struggle to kill it by drowning.
This commentary on heroism is rounded out, with gut-wrenching effectiveness, in the fate of Nick. As mentioned above, among Nick’s literary antecedents is Billy Budd, the fair-haired innocent in Melville, and he also partakes of Nick Carraway, the naive young narrator in The Great Gatsby. But more importantly, he is the ironic counterpart of Nick Adams, the war-ravaged youth in Hemingway’s short stories. I’m reminded most strongly of “Big Two-Hearted River,” in which Nick Adams, tainted and soul- wearied by war, enacts his ritual hunt in the form of a fishing expedition. Amid the pristine waters of the mythic river, Nick’s guilt is washed away, his innocence is reclaimed, and his masculine potency is restored (the last thing he does is clean and rescabbard his hunting knife). For The Deer Hunter’s Nick, though, there can be no regeneration. Contrary to what we would like to think, he is not a sinless victim of the war; after all, both Michael and Steve participate as he does, but both of them survive. Instead, Nick wilfully becomes one of “them” and dies by his own hand.
His motives are much the same as Billy Budd’s. In that story Billy, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of human evil, is provoked into an act of homicide; tongue-tied when falsely accused by Claggart, reflexively he deals him a single, deadly blow. Nick’s story varies somewhat, in that it’s the fact of death he can’t accept (he gags at the sight of the body boxes), and his violence is self-directed. But the point is basically the same—i.e., that a refusal to accept evil, in oneself or in others, is itself a form of corruption. Once and for all, his suicide gives the lie to the myth of heroic American innocence as perpetrated by Hemingway and Cooper. Held up against the unpretty landscape of historical reality, Nick is, like the title of a song he sings, “Too Good to Be True.”
If The Deer Hunter ended here, it would be nothing more than a thesis film, and it isn’t. It goes on to show the mature, loving relationship that develops between Michael and Linda and ends, I think, on a note of affirmation.
The love story began with the abortive flirtation already mentioned. It continues when Linda, reluctant to accept the reality of Nick’s loss, seeks sex with Michael as a means of “being a comfort” to one another; but escapism won’t work, and they merely sleep together in the same bed. She has much at stake in this, for Nick represents to her the antitype of her sadistic father, and to give up this fantasy means having to accept the ambiguities and uncertainties of a real man. Yet she does accept Michael, even when her worst fears are confirmed. At the same time, by taking a part in Steve’s rehabilitation she shows that, like Michael, she is achieving not just integration but genuine integrity. If the movie has earlier said that in post-Vietnam America there are “no more heroes,” now it adds “but there are still good men and women.” The final tableau finds the older and younger generations together again, chastened and subdued as “God Bless America” is sung. There is no political comment here, only one last moment of unsentimentalized truth, showing that though scars remain, the self-inflicted wound of Vietnam has closed. The characters we see are exactly life-size. The war has neither sanctified them nor corrupted them. For those who participated, it has tempered them, made them more human and real; for those who have not (the older man and Steve’s wife), life will go on much as before—and that, too, is a reality. So when Michael, no longer the Deer Hunter but only a man, joins in the singing, it is an act of acceptance and nothing more. The song is a ritual as powerful and affecting and meaningless as that of the hunt itself.

Nick Pease
New School for Social Research

Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (1979), pp. 254-259


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