Let’s Talk About… ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

Film #19 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

I saw The Deer Hunter at a very young age, too young for me to appreciate it for what it was.  The Deer Hunter seems to separate itself from other war films in that it gives an in depth display of the before and after of the soldiers, almost to the point of exhaustion with a 51 minute wedding scene.  However, the small amount of the film that focuses on their time in Vietnam is very well done, with some iconic scenes, namely the one that introduced me and many others to the game of Russian roulette.  The Deer Hunter was also one of the first films from Hollywood that painted a negative picture of Vietnam, even though it was still a ‘hands off’ topic when it was created.  In addition, the movie received push back and some even protested the portrayal of the Vietnamese that were in the film.  Being a Hollywood film, the viewpoint was very much one sided.  Atrocities were surely committed by both sides. The dynamics, politics, the American war machine, why were we there, should we have been there could be explored the context of this film review; but I want to focus on the characters, what I believe the director was trying to convey, and what the film meant to me.  So let us begin.

The film begins in Industrial American in the Pittsburg steel mills, when labor jobs were the back bone of America.  It focuses on a tight knit group of friends who work in the mills, three of which were headed to Vietnam.  These were the blue collared, hardworking, lower to middle class people that served in Vietnam and still make up most of our military today.  It was an honor to go serve your country, in fact, a duty, and anything else was the coward’s way out.  “Make sure you kill a couple for me” can be heard on their last day of work before shipping out.  And those that couldn’t serve felt the need to justify why they couldn’t, like when Axel tells Michael he would be going with them if his body could physically do it.  That was the way of life during that time.  That was the mentality.

The Characters

I believe Michael (Robert De Niro) to be the center of the movie and the other characters enhance and contrast who and what he is.  Michael can quickly be seen as the ‘alpha’ of the group.  Who wouldn’t want to be Michael?  He is a badass.  His car is the mode of transportation and he isn’t afraid to drive recklessly just to get all the boys to the bar after work.  He never goes hunting and comes home empty handed.  I see Michael as the squared away, dependable friend you can count on, the leader.  He devises the plan to get them out of the prison camp, he forcibly brings Steven back to his family, and he attempts to save Nick by going back to an unstable Vietnam.  Michael is conflicting because while he has his shit together, he doesn’t have patience for those who don’t.  This is shown throughout the film on several occasions:

-If it weren’t for Nick (Christopher Walken), he would hunt alone because the other guys are just “assholes”

-Michael doesn’t give his extra boots to Stan (John Cazale) because he “has his head up his ass” every time they go hunting.

-Michael wants to leave Steven at the prison camp

-Up returning from deployment, Michael finally snaps on Stan’s insecurities and pulls the trigger against his head with a live round using Stan’s pistol he carries everywhere

Michael sets himself apart from the average man because he doesn’t want just any girl (Stan actually retells all the women he turns down), he doesn’t dance, and he is very passionate and dedicated to what he loves.  Michael knows what he wants.  Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), and Michael do have a connection but I don’t think Michael wants to ever act on it because of his love for Nick.  He almost succumbs to the temptation at the wedding when it appears he tries to kiss her at the bar after so many drinks.  Michael and Linda do eventually end up together on his return and Nick going AWOL.

Nick serves as the median for Michael and the rest of their friends:

-Getting Michael to give his extra boots to Stan

-Making sure they saved Steven from the prison camp

Michael loves them and tolerates them for most things, but in the end Nick is the guy he counts on when anything matters to him.  Nick is the nice guy, with the pretty girlfriend, the life of the party, and will have fun doing pretty much anything.  Nick is that all around friend that you can take anywhere and do anything.

Steven is the third in the group that is going to Vietnam.  I see Steven as the more broad interpretation of those that served in Vietnam.  He is engaging in a spur of the moment marriage at a young age right before he ships off to basic; this was very common at the time (and sadly still is due to the increased benefits and money given to married couples in the military).  It is so spur of the moment that it doubles as a sendoff to him, Michael, and Nick before they go to war.  Steven is also going to Vietnam because it is what he is supposed to do, what everyone else is doing at his age, or because he was drafted and has to.  He has no idea what he is getting into and what he will be sacrificing.  PTSD is huge with today’s veterans and was just as bad, if not worse, with Vietnam because you had men drafted and put in these situations without their own volition.  While Michael and Nick were clearly affected, I believe Steven was intended to represent the more general man who ended up in Vietnam, completed disconnecting with his family upon his return, hiding with other veterans who might understand what he went through, both physically and mentally maimed.

Stan serves as the symbol of tolerance that Michael could deal with before the war, but on return can no longer.  Stan has always been insecure about his role in the group, always trying to be something he is not and always concerned with how he looks or appears (constantly checking his hair, smacking his date for dancing with another guy).  The guy that can talk shit but doesn’t handle it well when it is shot back.  The group loves him but not in the way he wants, thus he always feels on the outside (best shown during the group photo at the wedding).  Stan is the petty, monotonous, day to day, fakeness that is no longer tolerated by Michael on his return from war.  This is most soldiers struggle to assimilate back into normal society.  Your day was ruined because you spilled your coffee on your keyboard?  I just had to play fucking Russian roulette in a Vietnamese prison camp against my best friend before killing them all and carrying my other best friend on my back, who is now a paraplegic, to safety.

The Themes

The reoccurring theme of the movie is One Shot.  Concerning hunting, Michael always talks about one shot.  You only get one shot, everything is one shot, and “two is pussy.”  To Michael, you should only need one shot in hunting because in life, most of the time you only get one shot.  Russian roulette, the vile game they were forced to play, it takes one shot and you’re dead.  They had one shot to get out and that was with three bullets in the gun.  He had one shot to save Nick at the end and that was to buy into the game to play Nick.

I believe this movie does a great job depicting the before and after effects of war.  Arguable my favorite scene is very sad upon consecutive viewings.  Immediately following the wedding when Michael and Nick talk, Michael nonchalantly asks Nick if he thinks they will make it back.  Nick just tells him he loves home and asks Michael to bring him home, don’t leave him over there.  The prisoner experience affected Nick to the point he couldn’t even remember his parent’s names when he is in the hospital.  Nick was home free, he was out, but for whatever reason he couldn’t bring himself to even call Linda.  When Michael returns to bring Nick home, he is a ghost, a shell of his former self and doesn’t even recognize Michael.  Nick has locked everything away and is coping with drugs and Russian roulette tournaments.  After failing to stop Nick, Michael buys into the game to go against Nick.  As Michael begs Nick to stop playing and come home, you can see glimmers of his friend, he begins to cry even as he pulls the trigger.  Nicks luck ran finally out only when Michael played the game to try and save him.  The ‘luck’ that kept Nick alive this long could be considered a curse.  By that reason, Michael was again the hero and saved Nick from the horrible life he had been living.  Both are sad.  In the end Michael can only bring home the lifeless body of Nick.

Closing

The finally movie sequence invokes a whirlwind of emotions for me.  It goes back to when Linda askes Michael in the car “did you ever think life would turn out like this?”  Nick is dead.  Linda waited for him but found comfort in Michael has to feel both sadness and guilt.  Steven confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Though his wife does finally speak at this point, she is forever affected by what happened to him.  Michael can’t bring himself to shoot the deer in the post-war hunt and his lash out on Stan at the cabin will forever change him.  The group of friends is fractured; nothing like it was during the wedding sequence or times before the war, and it will never be the same.  I think about Michael’s question, “do you think we will ever make it back?”  Michael and Steven made it back alive, but did they really come home?  In a lot of ways, all three of them died in Vietnam, who they were is now dead.  They never really made it back home.  This is sad and hits home with me.  I empathize with these men because I was them; I went to the military for the same reasons.  I wanted to be a hero, I felt a call to serve and protect the innocent, I wanted to kill and destroy evil, and be with brothers I would die for and they would do the same.  But you never think about the cost and rarely do the movies depict such sacrifice.  Conversely, I am infuriated.  I think about should we have been there? Why were we even fighting there? Was it worth it?! What was accomplished in the end?!  These men sacrificed all this for a country that won’t even pay for their college, provide healthcare, or in a growing amount of instances, provide clean drinking water!?  They were duped by the public sway of opinion and only realize it too late.  Lastly, it gives me a shred of hope.  The group is fractured, forever changed, but they will live on and be there for one another.  Michael and Linda will find comfort in each other and Steven is now back with his family.  With time, maybe things can come back to a sliver of once was.  I think director Michael Cimino wanted this mixed emotional response, the irony, especially with the final sequence ending with the friends’ rendition of God Bless America.

Side Notes/Fun Facts

I love the way the film was shot, I don’t have a film background so I am sure it was the camera but I love that grainy look that the movies from the 70’s and 80’s have.  No green screen makes the hunting scenes (Mount Baker, Washington State) absolutely beautiful, especially the iconic scene in the 3rd act where he misses his shot on the deer, followed by the waterfall shot.

The confirmed occurrence of Russian roulette in Vietnam is hazy at best.  Supposedly the director read that it happened but never cited a source, critics say it never happened.  Cimino pretty much responded that you could not prove that it didn’t happen.

The slapping that occurred in the Russian roulette sequence were real.

I touched on this earlier, but the negative portrayal of the Vietnamese and the fact that the director wanted the extras to slap the main actors during the Russian roulette scene, made it hard to find someone to play the character that runs the game.  They had to reach out to locals who found and casted a guy who specifically didn’t like Americans

The end sequence where Christopher Walken spits on Robert De Niro’s face was instructed by the director, De Niro didn’t know about it and was pretty pissed

According to IMDB trivia, the deaths of 28 people from Russian roulette were reported as being influence by this movie.

John Cazale (Stan) was fighting cancer during filming.  The director knew but the studio did not and when they found out they didn’t want to insure him (yes healthcare was just as much a shit show then as it is now).  He was dating Meryl Streep (Linda) at the time and she threatened to quit if the studio dropped him.  He died shortly after filming and never saw the finished product.

The first deer shot and showed close up was actually hit with a tranquilizer dart (my wife was concerned so I looked it up).

Posting the trailer for this is actually the first time I have ever watched it, and if you watched it, you can see that trailers that show too much aren’t anything new.

  • sailor monsoon

    I believe Michael cimino was one of the greatest directors of all time and The Deer Hunter was his masterpiece

  • Joe Newman

    I haven’t watched this film, but this article put it higher on my list. My late grandfather was an air traffic controller outside Saigon and I can confirm that Russian roulette in Vietnam definitely happened.

  • Tanis11

    Was going to put that into the fun facts at the end. You are right, the director wanted the wedding to feel authentic so he told the guests to bring boxes that they wrapped themselves as mock presents. When he was setting them up he noticed some were heavy and unwrapped a few to realize that people were bringing actual gifts.

  • King Alvarez

    Great review for a great movie. I don’t think a director today could get away with something like this. The day of the wedding is a movie in itself!! I also love that the guests at the wedding were locals and actually wrapped real presents!

  • Tanis11

    It is pretty intense. My girl had never seen it so it was enjoyable to share the movie with someone who hadn’t seen it before.

  • Tanis11

    Thanks a lot. Duke had to ride me to get this done and I almost ducked out. I have never done a review and put it in writing, most of the time it is verbal. So this was a great experience.

  • Indianamcclain

    Great write up. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember loving it. That final Russian Roulette sequence is still thrilling.

  • Poppity

    What a stellar review, Tanis! I love your writing style and the way that you broke up the sections of your review. (And you once again set the bar super high! Did I really sign-up to do more of these? LOL)
    I have never seen this movie, most likely because I don’t usually go for war genre films; however, after reading your review, I think my mind could be changed. 🙂