#33 – The Deer Hunter
The Plot in Brief: Michael (Robert De Niro) works in a Pittsburgh steel mill with friends since childhood Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage). Steven is due to be married before he, Michael, and Nick leave to fight in Vietnam. The wedding party also includes Linda (Meryl Streep), Stan (John Cazale), and John (George Dzundza). After the wedding reception, the men go on a final hunting trip before they ship out.
In Vietnam, Michael, Nick, and Steven are captured by the Viet Cong, who pit the prisoners against each other in cruel and grueling matches of Russian roulette. After a daring escape, Steven suffers a tragic injury and returns home. Michael also returns home and wonders why Nick has not yet returned. Michael then returns to Vietnam to search for Nick.
The film was very controversial when it was originally released. American audiences had two main problems with the film: its odd structure and length, and the historical accuracy of its Russian roulette sequences.
The first charge—that The Deer Hunter is too long and too oddly structured—has always baffled me. Even the early wedding sequence, which tries the patience of some viewers, works for me; I’ve never found the film over-long. The structure may be unusual for an American film, but it’s not unusual for a narrative. In his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell suggests that hero narratives from around the world and from different time periods are all basically the same; they share a built-in structure that is somehow inherent to the human mind. Looking at The Deer Hunter through Campbell’s mythic lens, we see it follows that seminal plot: The hero embarks upon a journey that takes him far away (the literal journey being a metaphor for his spiritual journey); the hero engages in a series of adventures, which changes the way he thinks about the world; and the hero returns home with a new consciousness and understanding. In The Deer Hunter, Michael fills the role of our mythic hero; the film follows the exact structure of Homer’s Odyssey.
In this case, because there is no plausible evidence that captive American soldiers were ever forced to play Russian roulette in Vietnam, some viewers reject the film on the grounds of historical inaccuracy. But The Deer Hunter is a fiction; it is an artifice, an illusion. Because it is so well-constructed and vividly realized, it fools us into thinking it is fact, and that any action depicted must, therefore, be based in fact. Yet The Deer Hunter is not a documentary; it is a work of art that explores the subject and meaning of war. It has no more or less a responsibility to this narrow definition of “realism” than does a movie about a statue that can come to life and dance with museum patrons. It pains me that this myopia of American audiences has prevented the art form from growing as it has in some other countries, where audiences are much more accepting of metaphor, symbolism, and allegory.
Deeley continues, “Self-blame has been a great burden for many war veterans. So how does a soldier come to terms with his defeat and yet still retain his self-respect? One way is to present the conquering enemy as so inhuman, and the battle between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them) so uneven, as to render defeat irrelevant. Inhumanity was the theme of The Deer Hunter’s portrayal of the North Vietnamese prison guards forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The audience’s sympathy with prisoners who (quite understandably) cracked thus completes the chain. Accordingly, some veterans who suffered in that war found the Russian roulette a valid allegory.”
Heaven’s Gate debacle, was an exciting, even revolutionary, director. Rest in Peace, Mister Cimino.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”