“One shot, the deer has to be taken in one shot” is the central philosophy, proudly proclaimed by the ‘weird’ Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro), that permeates throughout Michael Cimino‘s Oscar laden 1978 film The Deer Hunter. Set In the late 1960s in the small working class industrial city of Clairton in Pennsylvania, where steel production is the thread that binds the community, three friends from a close knit Russian-America community, Michael, Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) are drafted into the army to fight in America’s ill-fated war in Vietnam. Not that they know of the impending disaster at the time. Patriotism abounds as they glorify their departure in a long wedding sequence celebrating Steven’s union with Angela (Rutanya Alda), who’s baby may or not be his.
The opening act (the films structure is often compared to that of a play, with three acts: before, during and after Vietnam – but make no mistake that this film is cinematic) is famed for its length and will either enrapture or infuriate. I fall into the former category. Over a period of time we get to know a community and all their foibles. Getting wasted in a bar early in the morning listening to Andy Williams’ I can’t take my eyes off of you while playing pool, unhinged Stan (John Cazale, who sadly passed away from cancer before the film’s release) knocking his girlfriend to the floor for allowing herself to be groped by another man, to Michael running through the streets stripping down to his bare body before having a soul searching conversation with Nick. “Whatever happens over there…don’t leave me…you gotta promise” says Nick. Michael accepts and their bond is sealed. The small details slowly lull us in and soften the blow before the intense action comes. The film resembles a Woody Allen dramedy rather than the powerful drama that it is until an America G.I is introduced to the wedding proceedings. He is subsequently taunted by the three departing hero’s for being unengaged and abrasive when probed about the action zones ‘over there’ in Vietnam. The emphasis is on being on ‘over there’, as opposed to ‘here’ with Nick declaring ‘I love this fucking place’. They don’t want to leave but they have been forced to fight for an American dream that they already live.
Michael’s doctrine is tested on a final pre-Nam hunting trip. He will only hunt with Nick as the rest of the group are a “bunch of assholes” when it comes to hunting. He is a “control freak” who “doesn’t like any surprises”. He informs Stan that “this is this, this ain’t something else…this…is this” as he holds a bullet in exasperation at his lack of preparedness for hunting. Michael is true to his word, and will gladly walk away if he doesn’t catch his prey in one fell swoop. Nevertheless, Michael and his friends are about to learn a lesson they will never forget. After a touching rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G Minor, Opus 15-3 by John (George Dzunda), the action brutally cuts to Vietnam with a Communist-held village being napalmed by US fighter jets. A clearly wounded Michael tries in vain to be the hero and is then reunited with Nick and Steve, who have been dropped by helicopter into the vicinity. However, they are captured by the Vietcong and so begins one of the most famous, controversial and intense sequences in film history.
Whatever your reading of it, Quentin Tarantino, a huge admirer of the film, once said:“The Russian roulette sequence is just out and out one of the best pieces of film ever made, ever shot, ever edited, ever performed. … Anybody can go off about Michael Cimino all they want but when you get to that sequence you just have to shut up.” The Vietcong force captured America and South Vietnamese soldiers to play Russian roulette whilst betting on their survival. It is without doubt one of the most brutal and horrific scenes ever shot. According to Cimino, the actors didn’t bath during the shoot to make it more authentic and the slaps are genuine. De Niro and John Savage required no stunt doubles to fall from a helicopter. Michael stays strong in the madness ensuing while Nick and Steve fall apart to varying degrees. De Niro’s acting has to be seen to be believed. In one moment he goes from defiance to sarcasm, from machismo to tears, from laughter to action. He is the glue that holds his friends together in the face of extreme prejudice.
Some critics, such as Mark Kermode, who I admire greatly, will argue that the scene is flat out racist. It is certainly troubling in many regards. Black Americans are in short supply in combat, and actual instances of Russian roulette perpetuated by the Vietcong have never been confirmed. The Vietcong appear to be the aggressors and Americans the victims, but as a metaphor for the randomness of violence, fear of death and its knock-on effects, the scene cannot be faulted.
The remaining characters go their separate ways in the aftermath of their experience. De Niro being the star of the film, it is no spoiler to say that Michael survives. Upon his return to Clairton he struggles to fit in and feels “a lot of distance and far away”. His three way love triangle, teased in the wedding sequence, with Nick’s fiancée Linda (Meryl Streep) resumes. Michael attempts to discover the fate of Nick and Steve. A post Vietnam hunting trip, alone this time on the actual hunt while his “asshole” friends play about like John Wayne with Stan’s stupid little gun, shows what Michael has learned. He has in effect become the American soldier he goaded earlier, embittered and cynical. Michael is true to his word and plays the reluctant hero again in an attempt the bring the group together as it once was, rather than as a shadow of its former glory. What he discovers will change their lives irrevocably.
There is a famous rendition of God bless America sung by the group. Again, some people use this to attack the film as right-wing propaganda piece. The Deer Hunter was interpreted by some to be to the right politically of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, the other Vietnam film that collected Oscars for 1978, starring renowned anti-war activists Jon Voight and Jane Fonda who both received Oscars for their performances. The Deer Hunter is a depiction of small town American life, which in the 1960s/70s was largely demographically patriotic, Republican-voting Americans for whom it was rare to venture into the next state let alone leave the country. If The Deer Hunter is racist because the largely realistically depicted characters don’t actively denounce the American dream, then so be it.
Young men, black and white, were routinely plucked from local communities, big cities, small towns to fight for a country’s ideology when for some they were already living in their own contended bubble. They died arguably for a cause of self preservation perpetuated by the ruling elite whilst those at the top of societies ladder, such as George Bush Junior, largely got away it.