Sandwiching the horrors of war between two dramatic opposites within a three-act story, Michael Cimino’s 1978 The Deer Hunter – a truly compelling tale of friendships gone awry – is the film which surely helped to propel the careers of its superstar actors to the stratosphere.
By the end of The Deer Hunter, when these close-knit friends sing ‘God Bless America’ around a bar table – longing for the safe haven of the past – they have been through a poignant arc in their lives. Though the three men who left for Vietnam somewhat return home, only one of them stays halfway sane; the other two are either dead or reduced to a traumatized child. During the movie’s three hours, these people mature so dramatically, almost becoming different men and women, as to infuse the picture’s last scene with so much ambiguity.
Russian-Americans Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are steelworkers in the small Pennsylvania town of Clairton, who are about to leave for the Vietnam War. Before they depart, there is Steven and Angela’s wedding celebration, where we get to know them and their circle of friends. Linda (Meryl Streep) is Nick’s girlfriend, who somehow reciprocates Michael’s flirting looks. Stan (John Cazale) is vain and superficial, bar owner John (George Dzundza) is musically literate and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is like a big and goofy bear of a guy. Of the three main characters: Michael is the rational and disciplined leader of the pack; Nick, though sensitive, he seems secure in himself; and Steven is very naïve and child-like.
In Vietnam, after being reunited during a village massacre, Mike, Nick and Steve are captured and forced to play a horrendous game of Russian roulette. As they manage to escape and Nick gets separated from the other two, he ends up in Saigon and gets involved in a dangerous way of making money through Russian roulette gambling. As Steve is sent back home, Mike goes looking for Nick. Although he eventually finds his friend, Nick does not see him. Mike returns home and finds difficult to adapt to civilian life. When he gets involved romantically with Linda, Mike decides to go back to Saigon to try to find Nick. He eventually does and in order to entice his old friend (now traumatized beyond repair) to leave with him, Mike plays one last game of Russian roulette, in which Nick kills himself.
..‘At Long Last Love has Arrived / and I Thank God I’m Alive’
The first hour of the film – so criticized by many as unnecessary (!?!?) – is pure exposition genius. Why is that so hard to get that by the time these three guys had their Vietnam nightmare, this joyous celebration of uniting a man and a woman in holy matrimony acquires a whole new and significant poignancy? They were themselves, and although not perfect, they had their monsters well buried deep inside their subconscious. It is true that they lived in that grey town doing those awful jobs but they didn’t have their heads screwed up yet. They had dirt crawling under their nails and smoke watering their eyes but they also had their epic ‘one shot’ hunts and those wonderful mountains.
The scene where Mike appears at John’s bar for the first time after returning from Vietnam is painful to watch for the loss that has been created. In a private room, away from the noisy customers, John grabs some dirty glasses and pour vodka for himself, Michael, Stan and Axel. The discomfort is almost tangible. These are guys that were really close before the war but now seem unable to connect with Mike again. He knows (and they know that too!) that his war experience has cut an abyss between them. Mike knows that their worldview is very much limited compared to what he has seen in the jungles of South East Asia. On the other hand, his friends know – or at least feel – that he is not the same old Mike. Obviously, we all know that they are right too!
Michael, as the strong character who guides us through the film, does well in personifying America, stunned by the Vietnam War. Like the country itself, which although presumptuous of its own power, isn’t totally naïve, Michael showcases the ambiguity that is induced into him after the military experience. He now sees his country the same way he does see Linda – with a little shame and a ton of guilt. And perhaps the best confirmation that his country will never appear the same way for Mike is his rejection of Linda’s reciprocal affection. He can’t stop lusting for her in the first part of the film, before the war, but now, guilt-ridden, he can’t commit fully to Linda.
One thing though cannot be denied, and that’s Michael’s transformation into a fully individuated and mature man. Although in the end he will understand that his rigid, supposedly rational, way of thinking (‘Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain’t something else. This is this. From now on, you’re on your own’) isn’t completely accurate and there are different shades even to old certainties, it is from such a perspective of discipline and rigid rational thought that he was able to first endure the horrors of war and then to absorb those horrors in such a way as not to let them destroy his personality. Nick and Steven were not so luck – their old selves now vanished into the thick smoke of the steel mills.
I don’t think the film should be understood either as a political statement about the Vietnam War or an accurate account of the conflict. The great art of The Deer Hunter resides in its ability to illustrate the unbearable damage that the horrors of war inflict on men.