The Deer Hunter isn’t about Vietnam. It isn’t really a war film.
Before my recent viewing I last saw The Deer Hunter over 9 years ago; at the time I would have said it’s obviously a war film. In actuality it is about friendship and post-traumatic stress, in that order. 3 patriotic steelworkers from suburban Pittsburgh–grown men who have known each other their entire lives–march off, (more or less) unafraid, to the war in the jungles of Vietnam. Mere minutes are spent in combat in Vietnam because it is what these men reveal about themselves before the war, and how these idiosyncrasies are warped and intensified in the wake of its violence, that is the story.
Robert De Niro plays Michael Vronsky. As the introspective witness to the way war shatters his friends, he is present almost constantly. He is the leader of sorts of a group of 6 men who work the steel mills. Maybe he is the leader because he is the best hunter in their group; perhaps it’s because he is the one who makes the craziest gestures. It could also be that he is the leader because he sees the World so differently from the rest of them, and though most of them never say so, they all sense it and it resonates with them.
In any case our introduction to Michael hints at the tension of his life in the provincial suburbs of an industrial city like Pittsburgh. He steps out of the steel plant and looks skyward, noting an ellipse of light around the Sun. He claims that “the Great Wolf has blessed our hunt,” solemnly calling it “an omen.” There is a touch of levity in his voice, of course, and the hint of an educated man. This leads 1 of his friends to say that “The problem with you, Michael, is that no one understands you sometimes.”
In the coming minutes each of these 6 men reveal things about themselves that foreshadow how they will spend the war years. Brooding but wise, Michael will come back shaken by what he has seen, but he comes back whole. Sensitive and perhaps naive, Steve will come back both wounded and traumatized. Quietly-nervous Nikonar won’t come back at all. John the bartender, a talented musician, brings music to the group of friends at their happiest and their saddest moments. Seeing the movie again, his character really stood out to me: We see him singing in his Orthodox church choir, we see him singing with obvious classical training while his friends simply goof-off during the drive out to the hunting grounds. Then we hear his beautiful and wistful playing of the piano in the bar when they return from the hunt. 4 of his normally-clamorous friends go silent; they have distant looks on their faces. When John finishes he looks sad, as if he has confessed to a thwarted ambition. Of all the memorable moments in the film this is 1 of the most-important to me, as it dispels any doubts we have that some of these men have real but rough-hewn talents, and had they been encouraged more or educated differently they might not work at the bar or at the steel mill. They love the safety of their home but they seem to quietly bristle at its blindness to their talents at the same time.
In Vietnam we see mere moments of the brutality of combat. We learn that Michael is no stranger to them at this point in the story, but also that he is not the master of its fast-moving brutality. His vaguely-survivalist philosophy–for some unexplained reason he believes “A deer has to be killed with 1 shot”–serves him surprisingly well when he finds himself in captivity.
The 2 Russian roulette scenes may be the most-famous from this film. Even for our jaded film audiences of today they retain their staggering brutality. Even the lighthearted, almost adolescent early scenes have a kind of gravity to them, so the surreal cruelty of peasants-turned-Viet Cong officers forcing South Vietnamese and American prisoners to take turns pulling the trigger and waiting to find 1 of the bullets loaded into a revolver is at once absurd and totally believable. Steve screams and wimpers; Michael comforts him. Nikonar very quietly undergoes a total spiritual implosion.
The large protest movement never did touch President Nixon’s “silent majority” of Americans. It plays-out far indeed from quiet Clairton where these 3 soldiers are from. When Michael goes home, he finds a town grateful for his sacrifice and apparently none the wiser that there is an antiwar movement. But they also know next to nothing about what he experienced on the other side of the Earth. A local store owner tells him, “You really won over there,” a meaningless statement in the face of the bloody chaos he left behind, and knows to be spreading towards the South-capital Saigon. 1 of his friends even crudely asks, “How does it feel to be shot?”
“Don’t–” Michael begins. “Don’t hurt, if that’s what you wanna know…” Michael is quieter upon coming home, which is striking because he was quiet to begin with. He looks older, though upon consideration the viewer realizes this is mostly because of the relatively stiff, alert way he carries himself. De Niro is such a subtly-declarative actor in these scenes that we can almost see the adrenaline coursing through his veins when, during a hospital visit, a nurse noisily overturns a supply cart and he instantly imagines gunfire.
It occurs to me now that the narrative pitch of The Deer Hunter is aided by its point-to-point depiction of the journey: We see the massacre of a village–by American Air Cavalry and their South Vietnamese allies, no less, the murder of a remote Viet Cong dungeon, the underground space where Russian roulette is outrageously played as a high-stakes betting game, and the chaos of the American embassy as Communist sympathizers close-in around it in the days before South Vietnam’s fall. Then we see Clairton, Pennsylvania. There are no in-between spaces, because in spite of its deliberate pace and considerable length, The Deer Hunter is the story of a gulf of space so much as of being lost in a different world. Michael makes it his personal mission to find Nikonar; what he finds is disturbing-enough that the Liberal Ironist recommends you see it for yourself.
A death among this group of friends carries the full weight of a burial. It is handled by a montage, which is just as well as one can hardly imagine any words were said among these friends at the time. That they should at times so clearly have something to say yet so often want for a better means of expression is interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking. But at this moment that the war in Vietnam has exacted its last toll on them, the musician John has invited all of them over for a large brunch. For a moment he is overcome with emotion, then halting at first, next with resonance, he begins to sing “God Bless America.” Once Linda, a longtime interest who has become involved with Michael by degrees, joins in, they all do. There are no bitter recriminations about the war; director Michael Cimino is not Oliver Stone. This is not a political film, though it does carefully portray people who embody a very simple politics. The people of this Russian-American community feel blessed to live and work in a free country, and they bear a loss that is deeply but not bitterly felt. This is the proletariat of mid-20th century America, and in this account at least it is not alienated.
Where it can be found, this sort of world ought to be defended. This is a serious contender for the saddest film I have ever seen. Seeing it now, I feel The Deer Hunter has as much heart as any film I’ve seen. Rather than war, it’s about knowing where home is, and being able to go back.