The Deer Hunter (1978)
Dir. Michael Cimino
Written by: Deric Washburn
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage
The Deer Hunter stands as a landmark of 1970s filmmaking, winning critical and audience acclaim, and enduring throughout the years as one of the representative filmic explorations of the Viet Nam War and its effects on individuals and on American society, as a whole. The film is a thoughtfully crafted ensemble drama that goes further than many films of the time to depict the lasting horrors of war, and the mental scars that stayed with American soldiers long after they had returned home from Viet Nam. The Deer Hunter was a must see for me when I was a teen, as I was a big proponent of 1970s American films, the movement that is often referred to as the New Hollywood, and this film is often seen as one of the defining films of the movement. The movie has remained on my shelf for all these years since, going largely unwatched. However, when I sat down to watch the film again, over a decade since my last viewing, I was struck by the way that it exists in my head as a film of impressions. The Deer Hunter’s iconic scenes are instantly memorable: its Viet Nam scenes are gritty and intense, while the scenes back home in rural Pennsylvania are light and airy, with an undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia. The interstitial segments of the film were hazier, but they were ultimately the moments that made the film for me upon this viewing. The Deer Hunter’s cinematic climaxes are epic, but it’s the quieter moments that have been resonating with me over the last few days as I’ve turned the film over in my mind.
The Deer Hunter opens in the late 1960s in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a mill town just south of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River. The film follows three young men, Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Stevie (Savage), as they prepare to leave their home in the rust belt for deployments in Viet Nam. The film takes its time getting the principles to the war, with Cimino carefully establishing a sense of place in Clairton, and introducing the viewer to the protagonists’ friends and families, as well as their way of life in this typical working class American town. Much of the film’s first act is taken up with a beautifully shot wedding scene, in which the relationships between the friends is established, as well as their anxieties on the outset of setting off for war. Cimino uses these early scenes to establish a holy triumvirate of family, God, and country that rules the lives of his characters, informing their sense of identity. When the film finally arrives in Viet Nam, the pace and intensity are ratcheted up significantly, with all three men being captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette, as their sadistic captors revel in their misery. While these scenes are some of The Deer Hunter’s most memorable, the Viet Nam section of the film is actually quite brief, with Mike quickly leading a daring escape from the makeshift prison. While he and Stevie eventually return stateside, attempting to adjust to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of war, Nick is pulled further into a seedy world of underground betting, where human life is devalued and thrown away. Although Nick is the character who is most obviously lost to his experience in Viet Nam, by the film’s end, it’s clear that all of these characters, even the ones who stayed home during the war, have lost something.
This film is an epic in every sense of the word. It is over three hours in length, and sets out to depict the ravages of war, not just on the individual, but on society as a whole. Cimino famously clashed with producers and his studio about the film’s runtime and its controversial, graphic, and intimate depictions of violence, but ultimately the film that he delivered feels important and necessary in its scope. The Deer Hunter has the impact that it does precisely because Cimino takes his time to establish a sense of place and normalcy early in the film through the scenes set in Clairton. Without the deliberate pacing of the film’s first third, the overall psychological and societal devastation that the Viet Nam war has on these characters wouldn’t be as profound. The locations, the traditions, and the people in these scenes will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in small town America. Cimino revels in showing these working class traditions up close, dropping in on intimate moments in both churches and bars, letting his camera casually investigate the culture of this particular Southwest Pennsylvania hamlet. The lengthy wedding scene that dominates the film’s first act is a beautifully shot celebration of this type of specific small town tradition. Traditional conservative values of religious piety and family togetherness are fully on display, and traditional gender roles and machismo are reinforced throughout the scene, but cracks start to show in the façade of traditionalism through the anxieties that Stevie, Nick, and, especially, Mike, begin to subtly express regarding their impending deployment. As the wedding reception continues and the men get drunker, their reservations about leaving their familiar homes for a killing field on the other side of the globe become ever more apparent, acted out demonstratively against a backdrop of ostentatiously draped American flags. The film’s opening section lays the groundwork of normalcy that will be eroded by the toll that the Viet Nam war takes on all of the characters.
When the film abruptly shifts its focus to Viet Nam, the pace quickens and the intensity is ratcheted up, dropping the audience in country immediately before Mike, Nick, and Stevie are captured and held as POWs by the Viet Cong. While the cast does good work early in the film depicting the internal turmoil that the characters are experiencing regarding their deployment, De Niro and Walken, in particular, shine in the Viet Nam segments. De Niro plays Mike with a determination bordering on insanity, born of a promise that he made to see his friends home safe from the war. The intensity of his performance is matched and exceeded by Walken, who internalizes the trauma that his character has experienced, and who plays Nick as a shell of a man in the film’s second half. While he doesn’t play Nick with the outwardly demonstrative aggression of De Niro’s Mike or the histrionic emotional register of Savage’s Stevie, Walken’s Nick is unforgettable, hollow and haunted. His characteristically stilted line delivery benefits this performance, as well, as Nick seems to be communicating on a different emotional and cognitive level than the characters around him. All three of the actors are tasked with giving dynamic performances that require them to portray genuine celebration and happiness during the film’s beginning and slowly descending into emotional vacancy by the film’s end. They all deliver admirably, making clear the subtle shifts in personality and emotionality that the trauma of imprisonment and the constant threat of death has rendered in their characters.
The supporting cast provides solid work around the film’s stars, as well. The three protagonists leave behind them a network of friends and family in Clairton, and the film’s third act, with Mike’s return home from the war, shows the ways that the war has changed people on the home front. A very young Meryl Streep plays Linda, Nick’s, and eventually Mike’s, girlfriend. Initially, the character was poorly scripted, and Cimino encouraged Streep to flesh the character out, bringing her own ideas and feelings into the performance. Streep’s talent is obvious, as she’s able to easily convey without words the sort of pained longing that war brides must always experience. Linda has to stay strong, working her job at the Giant supermarket, and keeping up the house that she, Nick, and Mike shared, without any knowledge of if or when her lover might return. When Mike finally does return home, it’s obvious that his time away has seen Linda go from a happy, smiling young woman to a ball of frayed nerves. Streep’s performance is full of the little details that communicate more information about a character than voice over or monologue ever can. The way that she clings to Mike’s arm when he walks her to work, or the way that she perches in her chair after all the guests have left from Mike’s aborted homecoming party give a window into the quiet suffering that her character has had to endure. John Cazale is equally strong in his final performance. He plays Stan, a friend who didn’t go to war with Mike, Nick, and Steve, and who can never really understand the experiences that they’ve shared. Stan’s blustery bravado and penchant for pistol-toting provide a screen for the fact that he was too cowardly to go to war like his friends. Cazale’s cocksure performance belies the fact that his health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer. He wouldn’t live to see the film’s completion, but his final performance offers a nuanced look at the crisis of American masculinity during the 1970s. Stan is a typical working class American man of his time, attempting to paper over his personal inadequacies with a hard-drinking, hard-headed lifestyle, while at the same time, the nation as a whole was struggling to reconfigure its own identity in the face of military embarrassment abroad and societal upheaval and the beginning of the end of American industrial dominance at home.
More than just a film about war or violence, The Deer Hunter is really an elegy for a way of life that was rapidly coming to an end at the close of the 1970s. Real life towns like Clairton all over the rust belt were beginning to die out, as steel mills and factories closed, and the livelihood of the American worker was challenged. The trauma of war may have broken Nick, and driven him down a rabbit hole of destruction and nihilism in Viet Nam, but Mike’s difficulty in assimilating to civilian life shows that Nick may have never been able to come home anyway. The town that they left wasn’t the same one that Mike returns to at the film’s end, and the prospects for him finding peace and meaning in the future seem bleak. The Deer Hunter’s final scene is beautiful, as Nick’s family and friends gather together to mourn his passing, and they all join in a slow, mournful rendition of “God Bless America,” as they share a meal together. Though it’s Nick that they’re ostensibly mourning, they are also recognizing the passing of a way of life, a societal sea change. The war is the catalyst for change in the film, but it’s also symptomatic of a larger shifting of values and lifestyles both in the film, and in the society into which it was released in 1978. The final scene’s tone is nostalgic, but also cynical, as if Cimino recognized the American dream had long since died out, and the patriotism expressed by his characters as they sing “God Bless America,” is an attempt to grasp at the remaining straws of normalcy.
The Deer Hunter is a difficult movie. The strains of its production and the fights between Cimino and his studio are apparent when watching the film. I don’t mean that the end result seems flawed or complicated as a result, but that the tension and passion involved in creating this film are palpable in the final cut. Ultimately, it seems that Cimino was able to keep much of what his studio deemed objectionable in the final cut, and The Deer Hunter is a better film for it. It’s a film that attempts to depict one of the most fraught and difficult portions of American history, and its broad scope allows it to present the central problems of the period in multiple lights. The Deer Hunter is unique among war films in the amount of attention that it pays to the home front, and the parallels that it draws between war and overall societal downfall. The film is doubly difficult in that it doesn’t provide any real answers to the societal problems that it documents, instead leaving its viewer with a profound sense of sadness and cynicism. However, it is a film that is well worth watching. Viewers sitting down to enjoy a war movie might be turned off by the film’s initial hesitance to deliver on the promise of action, but to really appreciate The Deer Hunter, you have to get a sense of the entire tapestry that Cimino has woven.