The opening shot of screenwriter and director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter frames an industrial center nestled into the hills of Western Pennsylvania with an underpass as light shifts against its black walls. It’s an eerie and strangely evocative image for a movie about the Vietnam War, a war which is memorialized in the nation’s capital with two slabs of granite forming long, angled and descending black walls.
I had never seen The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar’s Best Picture for 1978. With that distinctive shot and gentle music by Stanley Myers over black-and-white opening credits, announcing that this was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) with a story by the late Michael Cimino and three others, one of whom wrote the script, the scene is set.
Part of why the film made its mark is this unique focus on a certain place. I do not think The Deer Hunter is a great motion picture. But it depicts a company of characters that are men and women from the beleaguered American industrial middle class which, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, would never regain its status as the center of America’s culture. This is an untold story. And the epic downfall of the middle class is portrayed with grit.
But not with depth. The hot steel being poured and controlled by factory steelworkers dramatizes man molding metal for a higher purpose. This capitalist ideal comes full circle when The Deer Hunter later dramatizes at mid-point man reducing himself to the mercy of a piece of machinery for deadly risk without purpose, arguably the essence of the quagmire which was the American war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter shows men being driven from the joyful exercise of forging the manmade to the abysmal duty of destroying human life for self-abnegation, not self-defense.
Yet even at their best, the excited and boisterous factory workers, who bound around in camaraderie with naked vitality, rarely seem more than aimless, mindless pawns. They cavort with equally mindless women before a wedding. They assemble in a cavernous church. The women are beaten by their men, who drink to excess in incessant displays of boorish profanity. The bride fusses in her wedding dress and veil with a crucifix on the wall. She never stops to think about the meaning.
Neither do the men, played here by a gaggle of young actors, including Robert De Niro (The Intern, New York, New York) and Christopher Walken (Hairspray) as best friends. Men recklessly go drag-racing between a classic car and a big rig, taunting a Green Beret and screaming and carousing while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV. In the ethnic neighborhood in which they live, old women pull a wedding cake past a telephone booth and corner grocery market while bridesmaids (including one played by Meryl Streep before her role in Kramer Vs. Kramer) go gallivanting in the street.
These aren’t the best and brightest being dislodged from glorious lives and dispatched to a jungle. Their place of worship and ritual ceremony is meaningless. A banner proclaims that the young men being sent (by force of the draft) into an undeclared, unwinnable war are “serving God and country proudly.” But these young men and women are too drunk and disorderly to be proud, let alone have pride in themselves. The wedded couple drives off, tin cans and all, for a hillside jaunt of drunken driving.
They’re lushes and oafs, with De Niro’s leader running down the street in his underpants. They go deer hunting while drunk.
But their mindless lives are their own, and this is how The Deer Hunter leaves its tracks. Just as Cimino gets the audience ready for action in Vietnam’s swamps, rivers and rice paddies, with war movie cliches to match, the band quietly gathers for piano playing after their revelry. The men are dumbstruck. They bond in reflection of uncertainty to come.
Cut to the sound of a helicopter and explosions as they’re under siege somewhere in Vietnam. Some fight, some cower, some stay home. But all are changed, moved and torn. Scenes of gunplay on a river boat as Americans are held as prisoners of war by the Communists form the central theme of The Deer Hunter…that each soldier is hunted and haunted in war.
That this is unequivocal and that this is deeply, irreversibly painful and wicked comes as a matter of fact when one man returns. The deer hunting goes stale. The hills hold no hope. The emptiness of their lives can’t be ignored. The party’s over. The band of drunks are left to drink without the delusion that being alive doesn’t mean being aware of the dead or wounded.
Suicide, fatigue and the end of Saigon during its last days play out as the measure of a man brought by war to the brink comes around. A mindlessly sung version of “God Bless America” plays with neither vigor nor life and this, bookended by a drunken white wedding and a sober black funeral, captures the sad, vacant, elegiac essence of our emergent American nihilism which is the byproduct of the Vietnam War.
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter might have filled the emptiness of these mid-American lives which might have elevated this tragic movie, a film which skillfully puts the anti-war movement offscreen. As it is, The Deer Hunter depicts a slice of empty lives, which informs and explains the deadly doubts and outcomes in chilling, frightening and grisly detail.