Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.
Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.
The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.
The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.
However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.
At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.
It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.
The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.
The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.
The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.