Reflections on "The Deer Hunter" (1978)

Directed by Michael Cimino

Screenplay by Deric Washburn

Story by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle

and Quinn K Redeker

Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale

Music by Stanley Myers

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

"The Deer Hunter" is the story of three friends from an industrial town in Pennsylvania, Michael, Nick and Steven, who join the American army to fight in Vietnam toward the end of the war.

Although the Vietnam war is largely the context for the action of the film, political issues concerning American involvement in the conflict are avoided. We focus on the experiences of our three main characters and the effects these experiences have on them.

The film may usefully be thought to be divided into three sections; an examination of their "normal" lives in Clairton, their home town; the trauma they endure in Vietnam, especially when captured; and the consequences for all three on their physical health, their mental health, their relationships and their futures.

Normality

Through scenes in and around their workplace, Steven's wedding and a hunting trip, a picture is built up of a blue-collar community in an industrial town in eastern America. We focus on a group of friends who are close, hard-working, relaxed and fun-loving. Their lives may be somewhat dull and predictable but they are unpretentious, honest and genuine. They are happy to be in work and are happy to have good friends with whom to share the ups and downs of their lives.

In scenes that are rich in characterisation and subtle plot development, we learn something more about each of the characters and their relationships, problems and feelings with virtually every segment.

Family and honour are clearly very important to Steven even if they can cause conflict. Nick and Linda are drawn to one another, though Michael also has unexpressed feelings for Linda, which he is avoiding. Stanley is disorganised and is something of a failure and he carries a gun to compensate. Axel is a fun-loving simple guy with a limited vocabulary and there are numerous other secondary characters who contribute to a bustling, positive atmosphere and the image of a group of diverse but devoted friends who appear willing to overlook foibles and potential minor conflict for the sake of their continued friendship. They may be considered typical of many close-knit communities across America.

Michael is a skilled hunter whose motto is "one shot". Apparently, he believes that a hunter should restrict himself to a single shot when pursuing his prey, perhaps thus proving his prowess. He may feel that anything more would be an unfair advantage and would diminish the test of skill in this one-on-one contest. There is an essential difference between the prey and its armed hunter in that the prey will kill for survival while man will kill for sport and fun, an aspect of hunting and killing that will resonate with Michael in his wartime experiences and will eventually cause him to re-evaluate his attitude to hunting.

Two or three events indicate that change is coming. At Steven's wedding, a lone soldier distractedly enters the hall and orders a drink. When Michael and Nick offer to buy him another in a gesture of respect and solidarity, the soldier raises his glass and glumly says "Fuck it". While Michael and Nick laugh it off, this is something of a portent of what awaits them and provides a clear contrast of attitude between the idealistic volunteers and the experienced soldier.

When Steven and his bride Angela drive away, Michael runs off, stripping as he goes and he is eventually found by Nick who sits with him and they have a heart to heart chat. Nick reveals he loves his home town and his life, and he asks Michael not to leave him in Vietnam should the worst happen. Clearly, his upcoming departure and its potentially lethal consequences are causing Nick to reflect on and appreciate his life. Naturally, Michael promises his friend he will take care of him.

On the way to a hunting trip, the friends stop off to change and prepare. As usual, Stanley is disorganised and needs to borrow a pair of Michael's boots. On this occasion, Michael surprises Stanley and the others by refusing to help Stanley out. There is a minor argument, but it is clear that Michael, no doubt thinking ahead to the situation and dangers that await him, is all too aware of the need to be prepared and to be independent. He wants to give Stanley a lesson in realism and responsibility, though Stanley, and perhaps the others, see only that Michael is refusing to help his friend. The very prospect of leaving for war is creating tension and is leading to change in perception and the dynamic of their friendship.

This part of the film ends with the friends gathered in their regular bar one last time before the departure of Michael, Nick and Steven, drinking contentedly to the future with the sanctity of friendship placed above all other considerations.

Trauma

In sudden and complete contrast with this familiar and calm sight, we are then assaulted, visually and audibly, by the brutal killings of innocent civilians by an unidentified assailant and then by the vicious response by Michael to these attacks.

We are no longer in polite, well-ordered society surrounded by the warmth of friendship and stability. This is war-ravaged Vietnam subjected to acts of inhumanity and abject cruelty in an attempt to instil fear and compliance. Michael has adapted to his circumstances and is willing to do whatever it takes to survive and overcome, including fighting fire with fire, literally.

In the immediate aftermath of this battle, Michael meets Nick and Steven who have arrived to help, but all three are captured and taken to a floating stockade where prisoners are forced to play Russian Roulette for the pleasure of their captors who place bets on their chances of survival.

Within the film, Russian Roulette (which was not, apparently, played during the Vietnam conflict) is an ingenious metaphor as it links with Michael's one-shot hunting philosophy but it contradicts and negates the element of skill and focuses on chance and the end result of death by shooting for sport and fun. It may also represent any battle or combat in which one’s life is at risk, as bullets fly all around you, and it takes just one random bullet to end your life, while amply clarifying the devastating psychological pressure that risk entails.

Steven is gripped by fear and falls apart psychologically to the extent that he is unable to function, thus providing no sport for his captors but also offering no support to his captive friends, Michael and Nick.

Nick is profoundly unhappy and distressed but he is persuaded by Michael that there is a chance to survive and also to escape. Michael is unhappy but remains calm and calculating enough to formulate a daring plan in which he will turn his captors' cruelty against them. Once again, Michael demonstrates realism and a willingness to do whatever is necessary in the most awful of circumstances.

The three friends escape, though Michael's realism and determination have to be tempered by Nick's devotion to friendship to ensure Steven's survival. All three survive but they are separated and we learn that they suffer varying types and degrees of injury and trauma.

We join Nick in hospital and he is severely traumatised at first, barely able to communicate and function mentally, though he is physically well. When he has recovered sufficiently to be discharged, he tries to phone Linda at home but he gives up relatively easily. This is something of a turning point for Nick as he appears to turn his back on his past life. No direct explanation is offered for this but several factors may have contributed to this significant change of heart.

His service in Vietnam has effectively derailed his life. With his senses heightened and focused on survival in the face of very real threat to his life every day, he may have found it easier to cope with the present by not considering the past.

He is now in a completely different and far-off environment with no link or connection to his past. Perhaps he feels his past life is irrelevant as he faces fresh challenges and must make choices based on his current situation.

He hears bullets fired and is instantly transported back to his experiences at the hands of his captors when he was forced to play Russian Roulette. He discovers the game in progress, run by gangsters with volunteer participants, and he has a conflicted response to this as he is both repulsed and fascinated. Perhaps he is drawn to the game because everything is dull by comparison as the whole of life is reduced to a simple, uncomplicated but all-important choice and act. Yet he also recognises the waste and devaluation of life as onlookers place bets and seek to profit from others' compulsion to play with their own lives.

We see him being driven off toward temptation and the indulgence of personal demons, pursued by Michael who fails to catch up with and protect his friend, and we will learn shortly that Nick is reported as AWOL.

Consequences

Michael returns home and is eventually reunited with his friends who are basically unchanged, but Michael is no longer the same man. There is an awkwardness in their encounters as they no longer have shared experiences to unite them and to discuss.

Michael has seen and done terrible things - he appears to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - and these experiences affect his perception and help to form his response to situations. Having lived at a heightened level, it is difficult to return to what may now seem mundane and dull activities and tasks though they may have fulfilled him prior to his experience in Vietnam. Michael wears his military uniform almost constantly, accentuating the change in his outlook and demeanour, but also underscoring the new-found difference between him and his friends.

There is a burgeoning relationship with Linda but it is burdened by scruples over Nick, and Linda's continued feelings for him.

On a hunting trip, Michael pursues a buck and has it in his sights but he cannot bring himself to kill it, and this may be because he has gained an appreciation for life, all life.

During this trip, Stanley light-heartedly threatens Axel with a gun, largely because he feels empowered by it. Axel does not take it seriously but Michael is distressed by the ease and lack of reflection with which Stanley endangers Axel's life so he gives Stanley a taste of Russian Roulette in order to teach him a lesson about the value of life and responsibility. Needless to say, this leads to a rift in their friendship, fuelled by the different perceptions, values and outlook brought about by Michael's time in Vietnam while Stanley appears not to have grown or developed.

Michael discovers that Steven is back from Vietnam and is resident in a military hospital. He was badly injured and is a multiple amputee. This has resulted not only in profound physical consequences but has also incurred problems with mental health, emotional wellbeing, relationship issues and a severe lack of self-esteem.

Desperate to restore things to how they were prior to the war, Michael wants to take Steven home and discovers a large cache of money in Steven's things, money sent regularly from Vietnam, allowing Michael to surmise that it is coming from Nick.

Returning to Vietnam, Michael eventually finds Nick embroiled in the gangster-run games of Russian Roulette. Nick has been deeply psychologically damaged by his experiences and is now lost in a drug-addled but lucid state of denial and living for the moment. He appears to have rejected all thought of his previous life and has been overwhelmed by his gaming with life and death, to the point where his life may have no value to him except when it is under threat.

Nick rejects Michael's attempts to reason with him and to remind him of his past and thus the value he attached to his life. In a last-ditch attempt to bring Nick back to himself, Michael takes him on at Russian Roulette, tells him he loves him and tries to resurrect memories from his past. This rekindles a vague and happy memory of hunting and Nick recalls, with considerable irony, Michael's motto of "one shot" before raising a gun and shooting himself with the single bullet required to end his life, a bullet that didn't need to be fired and a life that didn't need to be lost.

After Nick's funeral at home, his friends gather in the same bar where they all drank together before the three departed for Vietnam. There is an awkward atmosphere and uncomfortable attempts to chat until they all join in singing "God bless America". This was a subject of some debate at the time of release, but I see it as an attempt to unite these friends torn apart by grief and experience, perhaps seeking to restore faith and confidence and maybe asking for help, guidance and direction at a time of uncertainty and disillusionment.

By building a richly detailed portrait of these people's lives, this immensely powerful and emotionally charged film captures the pain, anguish, intensity, brutality, isolation, fraternity and love felt not only by those caught up in the Vietnam war, but by those involved in any such conflict. It deals with universal themes and is a study of the tragic, insidious and devastating effects of conflict on the common soldier and his or her family and loved ones.

The acting, direction, script and music combine to make it a highly memorable and worthwhile cinematic experience, if at times necessarily painful.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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