Jarhead (2005)

Dir. Sam Mendes

Written by: William Broyles Jr. (from the book by Anthony Swofford)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Skarsgaard, Jamie Foxx


For this week’s post, I thought that it would be fun to dig up some of my old work and share it here. Jarhead is a movie that I chose to write about for a term paper during my capstone course in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. My guess is that I wrote this paper sometime in the Fall of 2006. One of my areas of special interest during my time at Pitt was delving into filmic depictions of masculinity, and examining the way that action cinema has dictated and defined ideal masculinity throughout the ages. As such, I chose to write one of my papers about the problematic and reductive depictions of masculinity in the film Jarhead, and I wanted to reproduce that writing here for posterity. The original files of most of my undergraduate and graduate writings have been lost, victims of various hard drive crashes and my own failure to adequately care for and back up my data, but I still have hard copies of much of my work, so I retyped this paper from over a decade ago. The structure of this post will be significantly different from most of my other writing on this blog, but I hope that some people enjoy it. I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with my own writing and reassess some of my more youthful opinions, but I resisted the urge to editorialize, aside from removing page citations in the body of the text for ease of reading.

I don’t know if I feel like I’m a better or a worse writer than I was when I was producing more academically-styled work, but at the very least I think that I’ve settled into a tone and voice over the course of the first couple of years of this project. This was certainly an interesting exercise that allowed me to see how different my writing style is now from what it was when I was 21, and how some of my opinions on the subjects that are skirted around in this essay and which dominate the discourse around the state of masculinity and gender relations in America today, have changed and evolved from that time. Though it may have been in use at the time, I had certainly never heard the term “toxic masculinity” in 2006, but I think that that is absolutely what is on display in the movie Jarhead and what is at the root cause of the limbo space that the film’s characters find themselves in with regards to what Susan Jefford’s refers to as “externalized” and “internalized” screen masculinities. This status of uncertainty with regards to appropriate or normalized masculine expression leads the characters to exhibit anti-social, destructive, and violent behavior throughout the film, classic symptoms of toxic masculinity. Their lack of an outlet for the externalized forms of masculine expression in the film, and their inability to comprehend a more nuanced and internalized form of masculinity, leads the Marines to only being able to assert their manliness through effacement and degradation of some Other, typically a woman. I don’t think I possessed the vocabulary or insight back then to express these ideas with regards to societal impact, and my essay is largely limited to the purview of academic film theory, but reading it again I realize it could have easily been titled “Jarhead, or a Primer on Problematic Male Behavior.” Anyway, here is something I wrote a long time ago.

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Masculinity Effectively Terminated in Jarhead

In her essay “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?” Susan Jeffords documents the shift in the depiction of screen masculinity in Hollywood films from one that was highly action oriented and spectacular in the 1980s, with “the male body itself becoming often the most fulfilling form of spectacle” to a more internalized screen masculinity in the early 1990s. Jeffords sees the earlier, externalized masculinity as associated with display – of the male body, of physical action – and spectacular, often violent, special effects that become associated with the male body, and serve to confirm its masculine status. According to Jeffords, this propensity to highlight the male body is a result of cultural fears and uncertainties about the status of American masculinity during a period of transition from an industrial to a service economy, and the replacement of “hot” with “cold” warfare. It is the symptom of a sort of cinematic overcompensation. One of the major features of these 1980s action films is their serialization, which Jeffords claims can be seen as attempting to answer the question of “whether and how masculinity can be reproduced successfully in a post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights, and post-women’s movement era.” These serializations, as well as a later reconfiguration of cinematic masculinity to one that would be more in line with the values of that era serve to answer the question with an affirmative “yes, masculinity can in fact be reproduced.”

Sam Mendes’s 2005 film, Jarhead, allows the viewer to return to the same basic question that Jeffords poses in her essay and to reexamine her findings. By setting his film during the first Desert Storm conflict, and choosing for his characters the very men who must come to terms with changing societal norms of masculinity, Mendes calls into question where masculinity can, in fact, be reproduced, even in an internalized form. In this essay, I will examine the ways that Mendes’s characters show that masculinity can neither be articulated in the externalized forms that Jeffords refers to, nor can the transition to an internalized form of masculinity be fully accomplished. This will be shown through a comparison of the Marines in Jarhead with the male action heroes, both externalized and internalized, that Jeffords references in her essay.

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From the beginning of the film, Mendes begins to deconstruct his characters’ roles as male action heroes. After a brief voice over sequence, the film’s first image is of the face of new Marine, Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal). Through this immediate focus on his character, the audience can assume that Swafford will be the film’s protagonist, and through affiliation with the military, the audience can also assume his role as a traditional male action hero. However, the soundtrack juxtaposed with this image problematizes it, along with its assumed connotations. While the image of Swafford’s face is the first thing seen, the accompanying voice is that of his drill instructor as he says, “You are no longer black, or brown, or yellow, or red. You are now green…”. This denial of Swafford’s, and the other Marines’, individuality is the first step towards robbing them of the status of externalized male heroes. Their individual identity is to be replaced by identification within the group, and their only importance is to benefit and enhance the collective group.

Later in the scene, Swafford is again picked out of the group. The drill instructor approaches him and asks him if he is “the maggot whose father served in Vietnam.” Again, Swafford is given some level of individuality, once again indicating him as the film’s protagonist, but this individuality does not necessarily equate to a role as a male hero. The drill instructor’s attention to Swafford serves to further emasculate him as he questions Swafford’s sexuality. Later in the scene, Swafford is assigned the role of scribe for his unit, but this job also affords him no level of masculine prowess. In fact, Swafford is viewed as a form of property, with the drill instructor repeatedly referring to him as “my scribe.”

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In the next scene, the Marines’ bodies are compartmentalized and recontextualized, denying them the potential for the spectacular properties that Jeffords assigns to the externalized male heroes of the 1980s. Hands become “dickskinners”; mouths are now “receptacles.” The film’s title comes from the Marine slang for the high and tight regulation haircut which resembles a jar. As Swafford puts it in his voiceover, “the Marine’s head, by implication, therefore also a jar, an empty vessel.” With this recontextualization of the individual male body into imagistic slang terms often used by the drill instructors and fellow Marines, the individual soldier loses even the right to claim his own physical presence. The body is to be used in service to the Marine Corps, and the mind is an empty vessel to be filled by superior officers and drill instructors. In contrast to externalized male heroes such as John Rambo, who became a one-man army, fully in control of his own physical body, the Marines in Jarhead give up the rights to their bodies in order to conform to the larger group.

During his time in boot camp, Swafford is trained to become a Marine scout sniper, a high specialized position in the Marine Corps. This role as a sniper not only gives Swafford status within the group, it also gives him access to a high-powered sniper rifle, the kid of weapon that Jeffords claims offers “companion evidence of both the sufficiency and volatility” of the externalized male hero. According to Jeffords, these types of weapons become extensions of the male body, which articulate and complement the already spectacular display of that body. In Jarhead, they gain a different significance. As Swafford and the other snipers repeated the “Creed of A United States Marine,” the become equated with the machinery they now possess. They say, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without my rifle, I am nothing. Without me, my rifle is nothing.” While John Rambo’s weapons simply stood as proof of, or a complement to, his already defined externalized masculinity, these rifles become the very definition of the Marines’ masculinity. They have no claim to an already well-defined masculine presence, since their bodies have been appropriated for use by the Marine Corps, so the rifle becomes their masculinity. This further compromises their individuality as they become equated with machines.

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A scene later in the film confirms the assumption that Mendes is questioning how Hollywood films shape the general public’s perception and ideals of masculinity. Shortly after watching Dan Rather announce that Iraqi troops have invaded Kuwait, a theater full of Marines is shown watching the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The marines shout and sing along with the film, acting along with the soldiers on the screen. They tap boxes of candy to their heads along with the Marines in the film who pack their ammunition cartridges by tapping them against their helmets. Their excitement builds to a frenzy as the helicopters approach the beach and the Vietnamese village, exploding as Swafford cries, “Shoot that motherfucker!” and the first Vietnamese people on the beach are shown being gunned down. As the excitement is reaching a fever pitch, the film is shut off, the lights in the theater raised, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker saying, “Now hear this: All personnel from 2-7 are to report, immediately, to your company area. Get some, Marines! Get Some!”

The Marines are now on their way to Iraq, but their experience of war will be highly different from that depicted in either Coppola’s film or any of the other action films that may have played a role in forming their perceptions of war and wartime masculinity. What the Marines expect is an opportunity to prove themselves as men and soldiers, and “kick some Iraqi ass,” anticipating a stay of no more than a few weeks. What actually follows, however, is a long, drawn out defensive campaign in which the Marines are only entrusted with guarding oil fields. Swafford describes the Marines’ activities: “Six times a day we gather in formation, and we hydrate. We patrol the empty desert, and we dehydrate. We throw hand grenades…into nowhere. We navigate imaginary mine fields. We fire…at…nothing, and we hydrate some more.” These activities are far from living up to the Marines’ expectations of war, expectations set by Hollywood films.

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When actual combat does break out in the film, even this does not satisfactorily allow the Marines to prove themselves as equals to their cinematic role models. Even though their Staff Sergeant (Foxx) describes his Marines as the “righteous hammer of God,” and promises that the hammer is coming down, the facts are that in modern warfare, infantry troops do not supply the brunt of the attack. After waiting to see combat for 175 days, the Marines learn that Operation: Desert Storm will be primarily fought through the air. As one Marine puts it, “this war is gonna move too fast for us. All right, we can shoot a thousand yards. To go that far in Vietnam, that would take a week, in World War I, a year. Here it’s gonna take about ten seconds.”

That prediction proves to be accurate as the Marines travel across the desert, walking through the wreckage left in the wake of earlier bombing runs. Upon finally reaching their destination and meeting up with the rest of the troops, however, Swafford and another Marine are given the task of sniping a high-ranking Iraqi officer. They finally have the opportunity to engage in real combat and prove their masculinity. They find a sniping post and Swafford gets the officer in his rifle sights. Clearance is given for him to take the shot. He readies himself to take the shot as his partner (Skarsgaard) whispers, “fire, fire, fire.” After the last “fire,” a loud crack is heard on the soundtrack, which is initially assumed to be the sound of Swafford’s rifle. This expectation is frustrated, however, as a high-ranking Marine walks in the room, causing the noise. He informs Swafford and his partner that he is going to call in an air strike and blow the entire building up, rather than letting them take out their target quietly. Swafford’s partner begs the officer to let him take the shot before the air strike arrives, but he is repeatedly denied. After this, Swafford’s partner breaks down crying, and screaming that the officer “doesn’t know what [they] go through.” Their once chance to live up to expectations of wartime masculinity is denied as two fighter planes are shown, in the reflection in the glass in front of Swafford’s face, dropping bombs on their target.

The last scene of the Marines in Iraq shows them having a bonfire to burn their desert camouflage, drinking, and playing loud music. Amidst all of this celebration, Swafford and his partner return to their unit, and admit to the rest of the Marines that they did not get their kill. Swafford says to his partner, “I never shot my rifle,” to which his partner replies, “Then do it now.” Swafford points his rifle to the sky and fires off one round, starting a ripple effect in which all of his fellow Marines begin firing thousands of rounds into the sky. The result is a frustrated, meaningless spectacle of masculine bravado. These Marines might be able to emulate the externalized male heroes that they wish so badly to be, but this world simply has no place for them anymore.

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The answer that Jeffords proposes to this dilemma is the shift from the externalized male hero to “a ‘new’ more internalized man, who thinks with his heart,” but as Mendes shows, this shift is tenuous at best. For Jeffords, the most obvious change in this shift is the change from an externalized masculinity validated by destruction to an internalized masculinity validated by production, or reproduction. Jeffords maps out this shift in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character from the first film, Terminator, to its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the first film, the Terminator was a robot sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the woman who would give birth to the leader of a future human revolution against machines bent on destroying all humans. In the second film, the Terminator is again sent back in time, but this time he is sent by Sarah’s son John, with the mission to protect a 12-year-old version of John Connor from a newer, stronger Terminator. Over the course of the film, the Terminator makes the shift from a killing machine to a proctor, and eventually even takes the place of Sarah Connor as John’s “parent.”

If, as Jeffords claims, fathering is “the vehicle for that transformation” from externalized to internalized masculinity, then the Marines of Jarhead are unable to make the transformation. In the homosocial world of these soldiers, women exist only as pictures of girlfriends and wives back home, and, as is established early in the film, these girlfriends and wives are automatically to be suspected of cuckolding their men. This uncertainty of male mastery of a female partner serves to further emasculate the Marines as one scene clearly points out. On a rest and relaxation trip away from the desert, the Marines whose girlfriends have not already been hung up on the “Wall of Shame” receive packages and letter from their significant others. One wife sends her husband a copy of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. The Marines gather around to watch the film, but before the credit sequences is over, the image cuts to a couple having sex on a couch. At first, the Marines think that the wife has simply dubbed the tape over with pornography, but eventually her husband realizes that he is actually watching his wife have sex with his neighbor. He starts to break down, and cries, eventually being led out of the room by two Marines. This reversal of roles, from the soldier who is typically envisioned as sleeping with women while he is away at war while his wife waits at home, to the wife actively cuckolding her husband and then sending him a videotape and making him a passive spectator of his own betrayal is highly emasculating.

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So, the Marines’ attempts to become the sort of externalized masculine heroes that they idolize have been frustrated, and through their betrayal by wives and girlfriends, they have no families to which they can return. Without the ability to reenter society through entry into the domestic sphere of fatherhood, these characters can also not be the internalized masculine heroes. As the coda to the film shows, they simply become stuck in a sort of limbo. The Marines are given a welcoming parade upon their return to America. A Vietnam veteran jumps onto their bus and shouts “Semper Fi, Marines!” to which the Marines all cheer. But as the Vietnam veteran continues his speech, telling the Marines what a good job they have done, it becomes clear that he is lost without the Corps. Just like these Marines, his identity has become wrapped up in that of the group, and he can no longer embody either of the types of masculinity that Jeffords proposes. The unsettled looks on the faces of Swafford and the other Marines indicate that they have come to the realization that they, too, will one day become this man.

The film’s final sequence shows the key members of Swafford’s unity, presumably in the present day. Swafford returns to his girlfriend’s home only to find that another man opens the door. Others are shown working dead end jobs or becoming alcoholics. One simply stays in the Marine Corps and is shown in Iraq again. Only two seem to have successfully assimilated into society: one man is shown with a family, and the other is shown giving a presentation to a group of business men in a fancy office. At the end of the sequence Swafford is told of the death of his partner from the war, and the group is brought together one more time for the funeral. Swafford starts to cry, but slams his fist on the coffin instead, still clinging to an attempt at stoicism.

Finally, Swafford is shown at his home, alone still. He provides a voiceover, describing that once a man has been to war and held a rifle, no matter he does with his hands in his life, he will always remember the feeling of that rifle. He will always “be a Jarhead,” he says. “And all the Jarheads, killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.” While the final line in the film is clearly meant as a political statement about the current conflict in Iraq, it also summarizes the ways that these characters remain stuck in limbo. They will always be Jarheads, unable to live up to normative masculine standards of either the externalized or internalized variety. And they will always be stuck in that metaphorical desert.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz


Despite him being my favorite filmmaker when I was in high school, and despite the fact that engaging with Tarantino’s cinema was one of the most important and influential developments in my early introduction to the movies, I really fell off of Quentin Tarantino almost immediately after high school. The Kill Bill movies were released at the beginning and the end of my senior year of high school, and I remember spending much of the ensuing summer under the thrall of their pastiche of cinematic influences, continuing my love affair with Hong Kong action cinema and getting more seriously interested in Sergio Leone. When I came to Pittsburgh for college, however, I found myself with access to a wealth of movies to explore, and I was eager to explore the texts that had informed the post-modern cinema of my favorite director. Somewhere along the way, revisiting Tarantino’s actual films seemed less and less important. Death Proof, released the summer before my senior year of college, didn’t move the needle for me, and I don’t think I saw Inglourious Basterds until as much as a year after its initial release. Missing it on the big screen is a big regret of mine, since I’ve seen every other Tarantino since Kill Bill: Vol 1 in the theater, and because after nearly a decade of returning to Inglourious Basterds, I’ve found it to be my favorite 21st century Tarantino movie. It might be the quintessential Tarantino film, perhaps more so than even Pulp Fiction, and the more I watch it, the closer, and more comfortable, I get to declaring it my favorite Tarantino movie ever.

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Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s revisionist history of World War II, framed through the lens of Italian B- action movies, American Westerns, both classic and revisionist, and the European New Wave cinemas of the 1960s. It finds Tarantino at his most appropriative, and at his most original, weaving a tapestry of these disparate styles to create a pattern that’s distinctively unique, while fabricating from whole cloth a compelling narrative worthy of a 1940s dime store pulp serial. Set in and around occupied Paris, Inglourious Basterds introduces the audience to a cast of misfits – American soldiers, defected former-Nazis, English spies, and one vengeful French Jewish cinema owner – who are brought together by their fervor for killing Nazis. The titular Basterds are a renegade squad made up primarily of American Jews and led by Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Pitt), feared throughout Europe for their penchant for ambushing and murdering entire Nazi units. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent), is a French Jew hiding out in Paris and posing as a cinema owner, whose whole family was killed by an infamous Nazi interrogator, Hans Landa, nicknamed The Jew Hunter (Waltz), who also happens to be on the trail of the Basterds. Through a chance meeting with an over-eager Nazi war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Shoshanna’s cinema is chosen to host the propaganda film that Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made about Zoller’s military exploits. This screening is to be attended by much of the high brass of the Third Reich, including Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself, which prompts Shoshanna to launch a plan to burn down the theater with the Nazis inside. All of the involved parties are put on a collision course culminating in the film’s literally explosive climax during the film’s premiere.

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I’ll be writing about two of the movies that Tarantino directed in between Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds within the next couple of months, so I won’t delve into either Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, but after watching Inglourious Basterds for the sixth or seventh time, I feel more assured than I ever have that this is Tarantino’s best work post-Pulp Fiction. It’s tough for me to take any of the credit away from the latter film, as it has rightly gained a classic status for its role in shaping post-modernism in cinema, its announcement of Tarantino as a major influencer and voice in independent film, and its radical reinvention of visual and narrative cinematic language. That being said, I am really starting to think that Inglourious Basterds does everything that Tarantino’s earlier film does while also improving upon some of Pulp Fiction’s rougher edges. Simply put, Inglourious Basterds is the work of a more mature filmmaker. By 2009, Tarantino had already fully established his signature style of cinematic collage, wearing his wide set of influences on his sleeve, and often straddling the line between homage and plagiarism, but Inglourious Basterds is the movie that sees him mastering his style and seamlessly meshing his own visual aesthetic with the visual and storytelling styles of his influences in service of a tight narrative, creating a sharp film in which form and content are perfectly complementary. It’s a blend of the artistic modernism embodied by the French New Wave and the exciting, slapdash postmodernism of the New Wave of American independent film that established itself in the 1990s.

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Inglourious Basterds also features the single best performance in a Tarantino film in Waltz’s truly terrifying turn as The Jew Hunter. The film’s masterfully suspenseful opening scene is the perfect introduction to Waltz’s truly villainous SS Col. Hans Landa. He plays the Nazi interrogator with equal parts sophisticated charm, savage brutality, and ruthless cunning, creating a layered villain who is as fearsome for his silver tongue as he is for his abject viciousness. In the scene, Landa is interrogating a French farmer, M. LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), who is suspected of hiding a Jewish family in his home. The Jew Hunter begins his investigation by complementing and cajoling with the farmer, but of course this is a pretense, as both parties are well aware of the deadly consequences that will befall LaPadite and his family should his wards be discovered, or if he resists the line of questioning in any way. The two actors circle around one another verbally as Tarantino allows the scene to play out languorously, tension building by the second. There’s no doubt as to the outcome of the scene, but this doesn’t make the moment when Landa calls in his goons to machine gun the poor family hiding beneath the floor boards any less shocking or viscerally horrible. The violence isn’t what makes the scene so particularly horrifying, but rather the fact that Landa has been building to this particular climax with a smile pasted to his face, relishing the discomfort he is causing in LaPadite. The character’s erudition and charm are insufficient to mask his inner monstrosity, and Waltz is perfectly cast as an actor who at once can embody the exterior of societal niceties, as well as the flinty interior of a cold-hearted, remorseless killer.

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Inglourious Basterds also finds Tarantino drawing from a broader set of influences than in many of his earlier films. While Jackie Brown drew its inspiration solely from the world of Blacksploitation films and Kill Bill operates in a Western milieu, with dashes of Hong Kong action and Wuxia thrown in for good measure, Inglorious Basterds is a beautiful pastiche, borrowing liberally from the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Leni Riefenstahl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Howard Hawks, as well as featuring homages to famous films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Dirty Dozen, and Unforgiven, among others. The film is a love letter to classic cinema, and it’s the Tarantino film which most explicitly highlights his cinephilia, placing films and their exhibition at the core of its narrative. I’ve heard a criticism of Tarantino and of post-modernist filmmaking in general that it offers up great style with little substance, essentially functioning as a checklist of “in” references to be discovered by fellow movie nerds, but I’ve always felt that that criticism is hollow and really doesn’t stand up to the actual experience of watching a Tarantino film. The director might bear his influences proudly and obviously, but his frequent liberal borrowing from film texts always serves as a complement to original and engaging narratives, and this is truer than ever in Inglourious Basterds. Certainly Tarantino has lifted some settings and motifs from earlier films, but they serve as the window dressing for a revisionist history fable that is thoroughly modern and original and that, at the same time, couldn’t exist without being informed and influenced by its predecessors. In this way Inglourious Basterds forms a feedback loop, or an Ouroboros, a B-movie that achieves actual prestige, propped up by a host of earlier texts while also informing those texts and imbuing them with new meaning and life. It’s the perfect Quentin Tarantino movie.

I reserve the right to reevaluate this judgment when I soon write about Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, but I don’t expect that I will. While those are both movies that I love and that I relish the opportunity to engage with in a more critical manner, I think that I am familiar enough with them all that at this point my mind is made up. Inglourious Basterds achieves levels of meaning and critical engagement with its influences that those movies fail to, and it’s a better movie for that reason. It lacks the shock factor that must have accompanied Pulp Fiction’s initial release in 1994, but only because it takes a similar, and already accepted, template and perfects it. Tarantino followed up Inglourious Basterds with two films that I enjoyed, but that I felt were more style than substance and which I haven’t had a lot of interest in going back to in the way that I have with all of his other films. As a fan for life, I’ll turn up with interest for any new Tarantino project, but it will difficult to top the high water mark that Inglourious Basterds holds in my mind.

The Deer Hunter

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.