Michael Cimino’s second film sets up a close-knit community we recognise, but it is broken down and irreversibly changed following the Vietnam War. We don’t see Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken) or Stevie’s (John Savage) superiors when they are sent to war. They are people, thrust into a conflict that breaks them physically, emotionally and mentally – with only their loved ones to pick up the pieces. The disheartening and tragic rendition of ‘God Bless America’ before the closing credits has never lacked such hope (a controversial stance to take in 1978).
Broken into three definitive acts, The Deer Hunter introduces the group as they complete a gruelling day at the local mill. For three of them, this is their final day before they are drafted. The wedding between Stevie and Ange is doubled-up to become a leaving ceremony for the groom, Mike and Nicky. Their portraits hang on the wall, almost in remembrance, undercutting the celebratory atmosphere created as a send-off. The remaining friends, clumsy Stan (John Cazale in his final role), “fu**in A” Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and Bar owner John (George Dzundza) playact and get drunk, with a final deer hunt the following morning. Through lingering looks and flirtatious banter, Nicky’s partner Linda (Meryl Streep) and Mike hold a deep connection. Maybe going to war has forced them to confront this or maybe this has always been the case. Jarringly, the film suddenly cuts to the soldiers in the middle of the crisis. Women and children are decimated while Michael uses a flamethrower to burn an opponent. The three friends suddenly find themselves holed up beneath a small shack whereby Asian soldiers play Russian roulette with the lives of our leads. They escape, but not without consequence. Stevie has severely damaged his legs leaving him paraplegic. Nicky has lost parts of his memory and can’t escape the horrors of what he has seen. A hardened Michael returns to Pennsylvania and realises nothing will ever be the same again.
The Deer Hunter is truly a masterpiece when screened at the cinema. From the vast landscapes as they wander the misty American hills in search of a lone deer through to the explosive horrors in Vietnam. The clear contrast between nature and industrialism elevates their meaning and provides ample opportunity for interpretation. The initial mill-worker scenes are dangerous and violent until we see the fire within the war-torn village in Vietnam. The factory-like perspectives of militarism as people are put into the mill and the death of young men is churned out. There is a genuine chemistry between the actors and we can only feel saddened by the chaos created in the era, and its consequences.
The racist depiction of the Viet Cong is an unfortunate aside as they purposefully represent an enemy. In the same manner that Russian roulette (no evidence has been found that claim this happened in the conflict) is merely representing the gamble these men have placed with their lives. These are men that Cimino has purposefully framed within a small town where “everybody knows your name”. Tony Curtis Fox, for Film Comment, writes how the church and bar (locations that dominate the first hour of the film) are “metaphor[s] for the closed nature of community”. The Green Beret who sits in the bar dismissively says “fuck it” to the war, but he is an outsider. He is also berated and bothered by the boys before they leave. When Michael returns, he realises how he has changed. This is front and centre of The Deer Hunter. The horrendous destruction and wanton loss of war on the one hand. The beauty of America and tender friendships on the other. The Deer Hunter is bold and defiant in its stance, and at the cinema it is incredibly powerful. At a time whereby war is only a few thousand miles away and we celebrate the centenary of WWI, this sobering attitude couldn’t be more timely.