THE DEER HUNTER (1978)

The_Deer_Hunter_posterThe vagaries of our lotto system have given us an interesting juxtaposition these past few goes-around. Notably all three have been about war in one way or another. Our last entry’s movie, Braveheart, was a thrilling epic that pulls you into the cause of undeniably heroic protagonist. This rousing medieval battle epic is sandwiched between the previous Best Years of Our Lives, which takes a much more sober view of the effects of war on the people fighting, and our similarly themed current film.

The Deer Hunter concerns a close knit group of friends in a blue collar steel mill town during the Vietnam War. Three of them enlist together, one immediately after his wedding. They celebrate the wedding and enjoy the serenity of one last hunting trip in the mountains before departing. The war proves to be horrific, especially when the men are held as POWs by sadistic guerrilla captors. Later, they adjust to the physical and psychological traumas they received while serving.

This film really comes in three parts – the life of the trio in their hometown before deployment, their time in Vietnam, and the situations they face following the war and being sent home. Cutting between these very different eras was a bit jarring as a viewer, but upon further reflection I think the decision in editing places the viewer in such an emotional state on purpose – to help us empathize with the men themselves. Transitioning from military life and war to civilian life (and vice versa) IS jarring and destabilizing. The juxtaposition of the different experiences of our protagonists helps those of us watching relate to what they are going through.

This film features stellar performances by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep. Walken, in the role of Nick, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He plays a quiet, introspective person who is never far away from De Niro’s character Mike. They take trips to the woods often to hunt deer, exist in nature, and enjoy the quiet, with Nick especially enjoying being in the presence of the trees. When they face the hell of war later in Saigon and other parts of Vietnam, especially as POWs, Mike reminds Nick of this. The memory of that peace is not easily held onto, though, in the midst of brutal torture and violence. The men can barely hold on to the memory of their former lives.

The blind-siding transition between acts one and two is one of my favorite parts of the movie. After an hour of these very warm, chummy scenes between the characters, one guy sits and plays a melancholy piece at the piano that slowly infects the mood in the room, one person at a time. A short moment when the gravity of the situation seems to register. Then, BAM, a helicopter dropping napalm on a village. The scenes set in Vietnam play out like an actual nightmare; rather than one scene leading to the next, we find characters in increasingly terrible situations with little context. We’re not shown the men in training, going into combat, or even exactly how they came to be captured by the enemy. I don’t think it is intended as a realistic depiction of wartime experience. The film is more interested in conveying the idea of war as a nightmare.

It’s hard not to compare The Deer Hunter with our earlier Best Picture All Quiet on the Western Front. Both start with a group of friends volunteering for war together with seemingly optimistic and patriotic notions. Both present the experience of combat as hellish in an almost literal sense: All Quiet has scenes of combat in a heavily damaged cemetery, The Deer Hunter famously uses the motif of fire throughout. There are some differences, though. In All Quiet, there is a suggestion of kinship and shared humanity between the men of various nations sent by their governments to kill each other. The Deer Hunter was criticized for perceived racism against the Vietnamese; in fact Oscar night saw protests organized against it. And while I would hardly call Deer Hunter a recruiting film, I sense less of an overt political agenda than its cinematic forebear. When the surviving characters sing “God Bless America” in the final scene, there is what I believe to be a palpable sense of irony – or perhaps I am simply projecting my own sensibilities onto a more ambiguous scene?

Then there is the effect The Deer Hunter had on the film industry itself, although indirectly. It arrived at the peak of so-called New Hollywood. This generation of directors with an unprecedented level of artistic control seems like an obviously agreeable notion to anyone who has heard about the losing battles visionaries like Orson Welles or Erich Stroheim fought against the studios’ Philistine bean counters. But what happens when a studio marks a director as a True Artist and starts handing him blank checks? The result: Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s catastrophic follow up to The Deer Hunter. The fallout from the Heaven’s Gate fiasco is pointed at by some as the end of the New Hollywood era.

Without giving too much away about the film, there is a pretty specific kind of torture that is depicted in The Deer Hunter. I was surprised when Chris told me there weren’t any documented cases historically of the particular method of torture depicted. This is a big danger when making a picture that depicts history but takes great liberties. It makes me understand why people might have protested the film, though I don’t think all Vietnamese people are presented negatively. The characters in question are presumably the Viet Cong enemy combatants. I can understand why there would be frustration, though, if such a critical and memorable plot point as the torture scenes weren’t historically accurate. That is undeniable misrepresentation, and many viewers probably will mistake it for fact.

There is one other interesting aspect about this film that I want to point out. I’ve noticed it in other films about war. The main trio of characters, the three men who go over to fight in Vietnam, develop such close relationships with one another that it’s difficult to imagine any other kinds of intimacy ever being able to come close. Their connections to one another seem to trump the various romantic or family connections they each have. They find such solace in one another, especially upon returning to civilian life. They are the only ones capable of truly grasping what the others have been through, and without each other’s company, they start to become destabilized. While I felt definitely empathy for the protagonists as I watched this, I also felt it for the other people in their lives who tried to remain close to them. They also suffered some of the wounds of war. This sort of depiction strikes me as realistic.

When I first watched The Deer Hunter, one thing I wondered about was the actor John Cazale, also known for playing Fredo Corleone in the Godfather movies. At the time, he appeared in several genuine classics, sharing screen time with a who’s-who of the most well regarded actors of modern times, all household names. So I wondered why he seemed to have sunk into obscurity. Sadly, it turns out, he died young and was already sick while filming The Deer Hunter. I did find out a couple of interesting things about him after watching the movie this time around. First, owing in part to his abbreviated career, every feature film he acted in earned a Best Picture nomination, a unique distinction. Also, he was laid to rest in the same cemetery in which my own late father is interred.

I think I would have liked John Cazale better in real life than as his character in the film. He plays Stan, a snarky friend of the trio who is often mouthing off, and who at one point hits his girlfriend at Steven’s wedding. (Steven is one of the three men deployed to Vietnam.) There is palpable animosity between Stan and Michael, evidenced in footage of one of their deer hunting trips together as a group. There’s also some tension between the men in the group of friends who go away to Vietnam and those who remain working at home.

One final note: the deer hunting scenes display some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, and mountain landscapes I certainly didn’t recognize as Pennsylvania where the film takes place. Since I live in Pennsylvania, I was curious to establish with a degree of certainty whether or not these outdoor scenes were in fact shot outside of the state. It turns out that most of the scenic overviews involving the hunting trips were shot in the Cascades out in the Pacific Northwest. This decision, while geographically inaccurate, does give this strong work a greater majesty than any mountain range in Pennsylvania might have afforded. This is a difficult and painful film to watch, but also a beautiful one.

Also nominated in 1978:
Coming Home
Heaven Can Wait
Midnight Express
An Unmarried Woman

Next film: CHICAGO (2002)

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One Response to “THE DEER HUNTER (1978)”

  1. […] THE DEER HUNTER (1978) (everybestpicture.wordpress.com) […]

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