(Dir. Michael Cimino) (1978)
How war tears a small, close-knit community to shreds. Beer-drinking buddies from a steel town in Pennsylvanian hinterland, totally committed to going off to fight in Vietnam, all black-and-white in a world of grey, find themselves traumatised, humiliated, chewed-up and spat out, coming home completely changed and with a darker world-view. Cimino’s best (one might say, only decent) film is a remarkable, potent effort, one tending to galvanise heated reactions in the viewer.
There have been objections to its length. Certainly, the initial wedding ceremony and celebrations are long but whilst The Varnished Culture generally much prefers concision, these scenes are useful rites to establish the characters, per se and in their community setting. After the drunken wedding and the confrontation with a sour Green Beret in the bar (which might have given less naïve soldiers an idea of what they were in for), there is additional bonding material as the lads go hunting. Remember, the deer has to be taken with one shot. And then, Mike, Nick and Steven (John Savage) go off to ‘Nam.
The acting is more or less faultless and particularly impressive are Robert De Niro as Mike, Christopher Walken as the sensitive and apparently stable Nick, Meryl Streep as Linda, John Cazale as Stan and George Dzundza as the boys’ putative uncle.
In a sense, we can ignore the tacked-on, slightly ludicrous Russian roulette motif in the latter part of the film. It was cannibalised from an earlier script and serves as a (heavy-handed) way of synthesizing the horrors of war and juxtaposing the figures losing their innocence with those who lost that luxury aeons ago. At the time of the film’s release, those against American involvement in Vietnam violently objected to the depiction of US Soldiers as victims, preferring to wallow in My Lai massacre narrative. They had a point – when the survivors sing ‘God Bless America’ at the conclusion, you wonder whether this is propaganda and if so, in which cause – but these contentious aspects serve a dramatic purpose here, and remember folks – it’s only a movie.
It is less a war movie than a coming-of-age movie – Boys, unite!
The Vietnam War was a tragic conflict within the umbrella of the Cold War, one this writer maintains to have been a necessary evil. (That is an argument in which he invariably receives a black eye, but we will chance that again below). As for The Deer Hunter, we commend it as a very human and poignant piece on the nightmare of war and its aftermath – the baby-boomer generation’s answer to The Best Years of Our Lives.
Let’s now re-fight the Vietnam War, bare-knuckled!