So ends The Deer Hunter, starring Vietnam as the myth that lets America off the hook and Robert De Niro in his finest role.
Battle Hymn Of The Republic
The Deer Hunter is a brilliant epic about the simple things of life. To its director Michael Cimino they are ‘friendship, courage, dignity, grace’ and through them the movie’s Vietnam veterans turn into Homeric heroes. Chris Auty pays his respects, but wonders if this catalogue of rituals hasn’t tried to make time stand still.
by Chris Auty
Ulysses, king of Ithaca, sails for the Trojan wars. Years on, exhausted by Phyrric colonial struggle, he regains his native land, only to find himself an alien, ejected and rootless after his ordeal. For Ithaca read Clairton, Pennsylvania, for Troy read Vietnam, and for Ulysses read Robert De Niro in his best role to date. He is the heroic protagonist of a remarkable new film, The Deer Hunter, which makes a personal odyssey and a national epic out of the apparently intractable material of American involvement in Vietnam.
The Deer Hunter runs head-on against liberal guilt or socialist analysis, and its overriding mythology—a fusion of sentiment with hard-nosed heroism—is something that we’d immediately associate with the Hollywood of a John Ford. Surprisingly the film’s finance is British—although Hollywood declared Vietnam an acceptable movie topic a couple of years ago, the industry as a whole remains very cautious about putting up money for close-to-the-bone treatments of such a nationally sensitive subject.
The power of The Deer Hunter lies in its grand pace and its dignified and eloquent visuals—things that don’t cut much ice in ’70s Hollywood unless you’re building a blockbuster. Yet the career of its soft-spoken director, Mike Cimino, has been remarkably pedestrian. After a successful debut in advertising-films, he worked, like many of the young directors, as a scriptwriter, with credits on Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and John Milius’ Magnum Force.
Then Clint Eastwood invited him to direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a rather wayward capers-and-buddyhood movie starring and produced by Eastwood. That was moderately successful, but doesn’t really seem to herald the bizarre beginnings of Deer Hunter. EMI approached him with a project which he turned down, offering them instead an idea (and some locations) but no script. They took it, flew him to his locations, round which he then scripted and cast the whole thing.
“I think it’s rather remarkable that a British company should finance something that the American companies have been so reluctant to deal with. There’s a certain irony in that: it takes a lot to bet $13, maybe $14, million dollars on something that all the American companies would not touch.
Apocalypse Now (Coppola’s long-delayed Vietnam movie) is financed largely by distribution deals made in advance. We had an extraordinary amount of support, and as the budget escalated there was tremendous pressure on the people at EMI, but in terms of shooting there was never an attempt to compromise the power of the film.”
The unusual origins of the project were compounded by more straightforward difficulties: the photography had to simulate gloomy winter weather during a record-breaking summer heatwave (another triumph for Hollywood’s ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who handled the photography on McCabe and Mrs Miller, Deliverance and Close Encounters). The Vietnam sequences were shot in remote jungle on the River Kwai and in Bangkok, but the monsoon came early, the cast was frequently ill. Thai extras had to be coached in Vietnamese (!), and a political coup threatened to end the production. With logistical problems on that scale, the budget soared from $8 to $13 million dollars. Two and a bit years later the movie is here. EMI’s faith in Cimino seems to have been vindicated, The Deer Hunter is already a box-office smash in the Slates.
It’s the story of a trio of buddies from the Polish community of a Pennsylvania steel town. Steve (John Savage) is getting married, and the wedding celebrations are also the farewell party for him, Mike (De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) who have all volunteered for Vietnam. The traditional orthodox wedding is followed by a drunken party. On their last day the men go out for a final taste of their weekend sport: deer-hunting in the Allegheny mountains.
Then it’s Vietnam: battle (briefly) and captivity (at length). Combining gambling with torture, their Vietcong gaolers force the prisoners to play Russian roulette to the death amongst themselves. When the trio manage to escape, the psychologically destroyed Nick goes AWOL to become a professional Russian roulette player (infrequently, and for massive stakes) in Saigon’s gambling underworld. Steve is a cripple. Mike returns home, where he finds himself lost, reserved, incapable of involvement, marking time in a surrogate love-affair with Nick’s girlfriend, Linda.
In desperation he flies back to Saigon in the last days before its fall, and finds Nick, who no longer recognises him. Together they play the only game they both still know—Russian roulette—and Nick is killed. His funeral, back home, is followed by a small wake: sitting round a table in their local bar, his tearful friends begin to sing ‘God bless America’ and raise their glasses in a toast to Nick. The image freezes, and the credits roll.
If synopsis makes the film sound both melodramatic and pathos-ridden, that’s because its largeness of spirit defies reduction. To call it a Vietnam movie is almost a misnomer: only one of the film’s three hour-long sections is set in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter is marked by Vietnam as little—and as much—as the rest of contemporary American cinema. Its hero (De Niro) shares a past with his character in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (a piece of self-conscious casting that overstated the film). But then what recent American film can escape that nation’s history? Even a ‘simple’ product like American Graffiti can be seen in this light. Its final credits carry potted biographies of the film’s adolescent protagonists.
All of them are affected by one concealed fact, Vietnam. Some of the kids become draft-evaders, others die in battle: all are members of the Nam generation.
Deer Hunter isn’t really a war movie either. We only see ten minutes of battle, and war-film staples like basic training and the Big Push don’t figure. It’s hard, in fact, to think of another film that so thoroughly bestrides war and peace without making one just a function of the other. Deer Hunter neither indicts the war nor offers social comment about the economic system in which men can find combat an attractive alternative to their work. The men here are as heroic in their labour as they are in love and war: an opening scene shows them tapping a blast-furnace, and it’s like an epic Hell populated by men in silver armour, (Deer Hunter, like Blue Collar, marks an important change in what the industry thinks is filmable though to very different ends.)
Yet there’s no suggestion that “capitalism creates the cannon-fodder of imperialism”, for the men are shown to grow as they suffer, and the Mike (De Niro) who returns from war seems almost physically larger, more Ulyssean than before: the chief of his clan.
The only genre within which The Deer Hunter sits even half-way comfortably is that of epics like Gone With The Wind, as Cimino himself hints when asked to say what the movie’s about: “I think it’s about … I hope it’s about what the best movies are about, which is about simple things friendship, courage, dignity, grace.”
As Hemingway’s famous aphorism has it, “Courage is grace under pressure”, and a Hemingway quote appropriately fronts the film’s script: “There is no hunting like the hunting of men.”
Cimino: “Well. I think that once you have hunted men, you change, and are changed. I don’t think you can help but be changed. The hunting was not intended as a metaphor (though I don’t mind if it’s read that way). It’s more about the way that Mike, the particular way that De Niro appreciates the mountains. He has somehow a greater understanding of the informing spirit of the high country. I had a simple intent, but one makes an intuitive choice and an intuitive choice carries with it a lot of things you don’t articulate. You make a choice and then it becomes meaningful.”
This is a romantic, male, almost Nietzschean world of omens and hidden understanding, untouched by the blight of Scorsese-style realism. When the men go hunting on high misty slopes in the mountains, an almost Wagnerian chorus chants, during the wedding celebrations, the singing and the dances all suggest a moving spirit at which we can only guess. Even the steel mills, as in the film’s opening shot, are glorified by a camera whose sweeping movements are knowingly majestic.
In this context Mike (De Niro), bearded, stocky, is made the embracingly virile spirit: he is like a father to Steve (John Savage) whom he saves (and whose marriage signals weakness). He is like a lover to Nick (Christopher Walken), sharing a cabin with him before they go to Vietnam and talking to him of the mutual intuition that marks out their relationship. They also share a girlfriend, and the two men’s final confrontation, re-enacting sadistic days in a Vietcong cage, belongs to a great tradition of repressed sado-masochistic love-affairs which culminate in death. (An interesting parallel might be drawn with Genet’s erotic film-poem on the subject: Un Chant d ’Amour).
Christopher Walken (whose previous credits include Rosebud and Annie Hall) turns in a staggering performance as Nick. By the end his face is inhumanly pallid, his mind vacant of everything but the rituals of Russian roulette. His death in Mike’s arms, blood fountaining from his temple, in front of a howling mob of gamblers, is haunting.
Nick’s blithe grace and boyish sensitivity are, ultimately, fatal weaknesses. But what makes Mike the survivor?
“His will. His strength of will. It sets him apart. I think that because he spends time alone, because he reads, because he’s connected in some way and has an understanding of Indian culture, because he loves the mountains in a way that we don’t always, he has a greater understanding of things.” When Mike and Nick are planning their escape, Mike’s “greater understanding” makes him reckon on abandoning Steve, who is wounded. It’s a case of private integrity not running parallel with public responsibility. The Hunter can’t also be the Leader, can he?
“I don’t agree at all. Even in a primitive tribe that is very close-knit there are always exceptional people. I don’t think that one precludes the other. I don’t see why that view of the De Niro character is in any way contradictory to a sense of family, a sense of community.
Because he can be alone, Mike has a greater understanding of what makes him lonely, and that’s what the film is partly about as well, the great American tradition, the overriding characteristic of America: loneliness. That’s why the road has always been such a popular theme in American fiction, for good reason.”
Fate helps the man who helps himself?
“Quite the opposite. It’s saying that fate does not help men at all, fate has nothing to do with it. It’s saying that you bear responsibility for your own life, that nothing is going to get us out of here unless we will ourselves out. That’s what Mike tells Nick: ‘there is no bullet in the chamber’. You’ve got to will your yourself to survive. That’s what it’s all about.”
Doesn’t that just avoid the whole problem of social and political responsibility?
“I think the greatest responsibility to society is to be responsible to oneself. I think it’s that you bear the responsibility for your own survival, on all levels, that in having a personal ethic about life you are more responsible to society than someone who has no ethic, no sense of life.”
The arguments short-circuit: society, love, “a sense of life” are all absorbed into the ethic of survival. The old ideal which makes the fighting hero a political leader through his mystical intuition of “nature”, reduces public and private reality to a common denominator. But it’s a terribly hard part to play and De Niro manages admirably. The sort of Method School rigidity which made Taxi Driver rather disappointing is here perfect, conferring a rather formal tone, a sense of self-aware dignity.
Deer Hunter, the first commercial feature to look the Vietnam experience in the face, produces dignity rather than intimate liberal guilt, largely, one suspects, because the meaning of Vietnam for Cimino is moral, not political. Nam serves as an ultimate testing ground of epic virtues and the men who go are already heroes, ready to be tested to destruction in search of personal (and national) self-respect.
It’s a mammoth task, an attempt to reverse the accepted opinion of American defeat, and Cimino does not try to speak for all America (who could?). Instead he picks a community which is courageous, religious, culturally cohesive (Intriguingly, not one black appears in the film—it’s as though he couldn’t afford to complicate the issue.) Then he pits these heroes of good stock against a Vietcong enemy who are shown as nightmare figures, inhuman sadists. This piece of manipulation will probably raise a storm of controversy, but Cimino coolly comments that “it was done that way for dramatic reasons, nothing to do with politics”, done because American TV had anaesthetised its audience to the real shock of war with 24-hour-a-day coverage. For us that argument itself already looks like a political one, but it’s certainly in keeping with Deer Hunter’s general ethic: unrepentant heroism, integrity, tortured patriotism.
Cimino himself trained as a medic for the Special Forces, but never got to Vietnam. The war he knew was not one of confusion and draft-evasion but one for which he (like his characters) volunteered. Once, quite rightly, he remarks that “There was really nothing unique about the Vietnam war in the history of the world.” But in the history of America the war is unique because it was lost, physically and psychologically. If one saw the war as a test of the nation’s moral integrity, defeat must have seemed to be compounded by betrayal.
“There’s a period of re-adjustment, and in the case of people who had come back from Vietnam there was a terrible period of never being fully adjusted because … (bitterly).. . there is no acceptance. Because people fought in the war, because they were in the military, doesn’t automatically make them monsters. The Vietnam veterans have had the worst time of any returning vets in the history of America.”
It’s a view of the world in which clean heroes are impossibly alien in the sick society to which, paradoxically, they belong. Society can perhaps be purified, but only by a return to the past, by a suspension of history. In a sense Deer Hunter is precisely that: a catalogue of rituals defying time. From the opening marriage and the deer hunt to the “game” of Russian roulette, rituals are seen to resume experience and consummate life, without speech and outside history. They’re sacraments. That’s just how the climax elevates the social to the religious: the fragile chant of “God Bless America” is, as one might guess, a million miles from crude irony, it’s a gesture straight out of Ford.
At the very end the film’s script describes the group of friends: “… all of them there and singing one thing, a thing inevitable, older than the memory of man.”
What is that thing?
Cimino: “It’s just, simply, making a sound in the darkness”.
“That’s a great deal. I think. A communal sound, on some level it’s like the sacred chord, a note. I think it’s a lot.”
On the one hand the community back home, on the other Mike with his flamethrower in battle, “the Angel with the flaming sword”. The mass, the hero, a mystic chord (consensus, election, divinity) that brings them together.
It’s the great opposition of classic American cinema.
The Deer Hunter opens at ABC West End and Studio West End from Wednesday. See Film Listings for further details.
Time Out, February 23-March 1, 1979, No.462; pp.