Forged in the sweltering steel plants of America’s declining Rust Belt and transcended by the beauty of a majestic mountain range; solidified in the communal commotion of a friend’s wedding or a drunken barroom sing-along and tested beyond all prior measure by the barbarity of a North Vietnamese encampment. Confronted, challenged and upended throughout the course of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, conventional notions of masculinity are routinely conditional to the film’s dominant shifts in setting and tone. As its primary male characters negotiate outward hostilities and adhere to timeworn images of male bravado — fused in a literal and figurative amalgam of fire, belligerence and bloodshed — the resulting journey exposes something deeper, something innate and profoundly poignant. It is a raucous revelation to be sure, but behind the combustible ball of macho energy, there is an elusive vulnerability, equally unstable and perpetually unsettled.
Of his 1978 Vietnam War-era opus, director Cimino would contend to The New York Times, “The war is really incidental to the development of the characters and their story. It’s a part of their lives and just that, nothing more.” This is a difficult concept to accept, given how prominent the war is in The Deer Hunter and how the film has been subsequently recognized as one of the best to deal with the subject of its controversial conflict. To extricate its supplemental content from the wartime climate and associated connotations is well-nigh impossible, no matter how affecting that content may be. And yet, Cimino has a point. There is no denying Vietnam is a — if not the — pivotal episode in the lives of the film’s male protagonists: friends Michael (Robert De Niro), Stan (John Cazale), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren). But however influential the war appears, it is just one of the film’s several emblematic struggles, which are as divisive as they are unifying, and as momentous as they are subtly significant.
From its rowdy workplace beginnings to its somber, memorial end, The Deer Hunter positions a central overriding collective — consulted all together at once or in alternating, detached components — and founds the fundamental motif of a unit in continual transition. It is a niche community, mostly male, and as Cimino suggests, it is a multifaceted form of individual development. The war, as overtly dramatic as it is, and as much as it fortifies all three sections of the film’s distinctly divided segments, is no more persuasive — visually, aurally, thematically, or in terms of narrative exposition — than allusions to the men and their Russian ancestry, their games of pool, the prevalence of the local Pittsburgh Steelers, the booze (the local Rolling Rock), the flannel, the working-class paraphernalia cluttering the homes of these blue-collar types, and the group crooning to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” All these factors, concerning each character with obviously varying degrees of consequence, fashion the men into who they are. There is no blanket description to adequately consign their existence, nor is there any wholesale interpretation of why they do what they do. Before any one of them is branded with the war’s indelible imprint, as Cimino illustrates in the film’s hour-plus first third, there was and will remain more to their character than any single incident, regardless of its magnitude.
Cimino’s representation of middle-aged masculinity, under the influence and pressures of assorted external and internal forces, is complex and shrewdly realized. If there is anything lacking in this portrait, however, it would be the balancing depiction of comparably advanced female allies (or adversaries, for that matter). Women in The Deer Hunter, as noted by Pauline Kael, “exist only on the margins of the men’s lives. Steven’s mother (Shirley Stoler, in a poor, mostly one-note performance) is a virago, his bride is a sallow weakling, and the bridesmaids are overly made-up and have too many curls; they’re plump — stuffed with giggles.” The only woman who could “attract a man of substance for more than a quick fling,” Kael adds, is Meryl Streep’s Linda, who is romantically inclined toward Nick. Still, “her role is to be the supportive woman, who suffers and endures.” She is “a presence rather than a character.” It’s hard to argue with Kael’s assessment (and it doesn’t even address the appalling abuse some of the women are subject to), but that is not to say the absence of any substantial female character is necessarily a deterrent from The Deer Hunter’s essential petition. If anything, this deficiency reflects not on the film itself, but is instead indicative of where and how these men relate to the ancillary women in their lives. Their secondary status, in other words, is not a fault with the picture, but is characteristic of a segregated boys’ club. If women are relegated in this way, it is because Mike, Nick and the others deem it so; it is a byproduct of their interpersonal priorities and their disengaged, slightly sexist nature.
In Steven’s impending marriage to Angela, on the other hand, there is an understood submission to imminent domestication and affection, an implicit aptitude, one could assume, for romantic affection. But this burgeoning facet of his character is never elaborated upon, and the fact Angela is already pregnant by another man (Cimino says Nick, though it is never stated in the film) is only alluded to in passing, lest it undermine Steven’s masculine potency and primacy. Instead, this conformist heterosexual union is presented in contrast to the aggressive, similarly illuminating engagement between the film’s male counterparts. At work, at home and at play, these buddies live and breathe in delineated proximity, where touch — hearty handshakes and backslaps, general roughhousing — is an unavoidable, certainly unspoken, aspect of their sincere rapport (platonic, some will contend; homoerotic, others might argue; perfectly natural, in any case). The unkempt male disorder would be curtailed by marital approval, in a traditional scenario at least, as well as the mobilization into war. Not surprisingly, then, this swing in their core disposition is met with some resistance, as Mike and his cohorts compensate for the inherent trepidation concerning such reform. They resort to lingering remnants of adolescent physicality (spirited horseplay), reckless exploits (automobile racing) and cruel, essentially friendly, ridicule (mocking each other, cracking jokes at each other’s expense). Even the way they sing and dance, which is positively exuberant, is more than it needs to be, and perhaps more than it should be for men of a certain age (though the actors look considerably older than their characters would be). The inflated bluster, in any case, and the immature posturing, are ways to maintain a youthful vigor, to resist the encroaching means of maturation. Men have to be men, but if they can also remain boys, that might be ideal.
This oppositional disposition is largely evident in the film’s first third, its pre-war overture, where the banter and behavior convey an innocence soon to be lost, and the freedom and carelessness soon to be displaced or minimized within the life-altering context of Vietnam. The jovial veneer of these men, which they have tried so hard, knowingly or not, to preserve, will be worn down by the ensuing violence and spatiotemporal disconnect. Only Mike, owing to his “group leader” status and his incarnation by a classically austere De Niro, hints at an already emergent stoicism and willful separation. He, more than any other, tries to carve out the most unique identity within the circle of friends (and the film), and in so doing, affirms his solitary capacity. In a further demonstration of likely inadvertent preparation, his existential discipline is encapsulated in the belief that a hunter should take down a deer with one shot and one shot only; a second attempt is as good as failure. Mike is also strict and impatient with his friends, decrying their helplessness and forgetfulness, refusing to let Stan borrow an extra pair of boots, for example, chiding him, training him: “You gotta learn.” And yet, for all of this, Mike is not fully reserved. He will also strip down and run drunkenly through the streets, in a cathartic acting out at the end of which he confesses in an exhausted, inebriated moment of candidness, acknowledging his muddled reading of life’s hasty advancement: “Everything’s going so fast.”
To express, support and envelop The Deer Hunter’s fitful masculinity, Cimino was afforded an exceptional allotment of time and money (too much of both, by some accounts), and over the course of three hours, shooting in several states, he enlivens a uniquely American composite: the working-class city of Clairton, one of many exemplary mill towns in the Ohio/West Virginia/Pennsylvania region circa 1967. Similarly, the resonant, earthy cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond and the measured editing by Peter Zinner enrich and stabilize the disparities of the film’s various settings and situations. Into the mountains for what could be one last hunting trip (for reasons of war and marriage), the ostensibly unexceptional trek becomes a weighty, philosophical, nearly divine expedition. It isn’t entirely clear if the men recognize the hunt as such, as anything more than just a scenic outing, but the pictorial and tonal rendering plainly stresses the harmonious interplay of the primitive and the ceremonial (another curious contrast/precursor echoed in the subsequent wedding and march to war). As untamed as these fellows are, with their practical jokes, their drunkenness, their homophobic slurs and insults, there persists an acceptance, albeit fleeting, of routine and restraint. These tranquil hunting scenes are presented in an airy, open calm, with an understated sensitivity. It is a respite from the deep-seated anxieties otherwise defying the men from seemingly all sides. As they progress toward the unknown, with confounding expectations and the specter of Vietnam hovering over all that they do, Cimino includes perceptive, reflective breaks, pausing the surface drama to clinch angst-ridden expressions in isolated frames, holding for a beat before moving on as if nothing ever happened. Though it is faintly acknowledged by anyone in the film, the impression is resounding, and it reaches its zenith when John plays a Chopin nocturne on the barroom piano and the camera slowly pans to the faces of these solemn, suddenly meditative men. The scene is primed and transitory; it is anxiously serene and proposes a sizeable shift in substance. The confirmation of that shift is in the sonic cue of helicopters, bullets and explosions, permeating the soundtrack before the scene cuts, in one of the film’s many poignant contrasts, to The Deer Hunter’s staggering midsection and its brutalizing carnage. The temporarily glimpsed serenity, delicate and somber and refreshing the film’s predominantly dispassionate shell, is abruptly lacerated by the overwhelmingly male world of combat, which is itself harrowing and yet discloses a hitherto unrealized helplessness.
In Vietnam, Mike, Steven and Nick find themselves in a Viet Cong hell hole, submerged in a squalid river pit where the torturous conditions have shaken Steven, in particular, to his core, leading to a near-complete mental fracture. While Nick glides through the horror in a state of stunned bewilderment, Mike’s cruel pragmaticism manifests itself in two forms: in his initial insistence to leave the debilitated Steven behind if it jeopardizes their own safety; and in his reinforcement of Nick’s persistence, encouraging his friend in gut-wrenching defiance. Though it is evident throughout The Deer Hunter, one sees in the film’s notorious Russian roulette sequence a prime reason why the masculine depiction is indeed so potent. The performances are astounding, and they achieve an excruciating physiological frenzy as the actors, especially De Niro, grimace through tears and strained laughter, expressing simmering rage and a powerful sense of devotion, desperation and dependency, upholding in their emotional fury the importance of their camaraderie. Despite intermittent fabrication (games of Russian roulette were rare to nonexistent during Vietnam), the Vietnam scenes are conspicuously effective due to a visceral, vitalized validity, which is rather ironic given screenwriter Deric Washburn’s admission to doing minimal research, mainly watching television coverage of the war. On location in Thailand, wading amongst the rats and insects infesting the River Kwai, the actors performed their own stunts and imbued the film with an authenticity likewise applied in its American-set passages: see, too, the casting of amateur Chuck Aspegren, a steelworker foreman discovered by De Niro and Cimino while scouting locations; De Niro’s insistence on using a live round when he puts a gun to the head of Cazale’s rightfully terrified Stan; and, most ambitiously, the prolonged wedding sequence, filmed at the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland, a spontaneous, grueling, very real set piece lasting some 50 minutes.
The Academy Awards that honored The Deer Hunter — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor for Walken (nominations went to De Niro, Zsigmond, the film’s writer, and Streep, her first of more than 20) — were critical validation for what was a complicated and contentious production, from the convoluted genesis of its screenplay, involving multiple contributors with inequitable credit, to Cimino’s exaggeration of his own military service. There was also Cazale’s failing health (he wouldn’t live to see the completed film), the accusations of racism (though The Deer Hunter is hardly the only American war movie to present the enemy combatant as a monstrous Other) and the film’s concluding sequence, in which gathered members of the Clairton clique sing “God Bless America” in a contentious punctuation point open to an interpretive array of pro and anti-American sentiment. For Cimino, making just his second film (only five more would follow), it was all part of a preference for compressed time and synthesized characters, settings and actions, for symbolism and, in his words, a “non-literal” approach, especially, again, as it concerns the war. “The specific details of the war are unimportant,” he stated. “Because this is not a film of the intellect, it’s a film of the heart — I hope.”
“The Deer Hunter,” Roger Ebert wrote, “is said to be about many subjects: About male bonding, about mindless patriotism, about the dehumanizing effects of war, about Nixon’s ‘silent majority.’ It is about any of those things that you choose, if you choose, but more than anything else, it is a heartbreakingly effective fictional machine that evokes the agony of the Vietnam time.” The “Vietnam time” here is important, because The Deer Hunter encapsulates a commanding representation of a precise period in American history, a precise location and precise types of men — somewhat clichéd, yes, but remarkably representative. The film, then, is about more than the war; it is about the before and after as much as the during. It is about how the survivors reacclimate themselves into the world, how deeply scarred, restless men like Mike suffer from social reticence and communicative ineptitude, agonizing alone in his motel room, crouched down in a silent demonstration of physical and mental anguish. “I feel a lot of distance,” he tells Linda, with whom moments of tenderness are an ephemeral relief. “I feel far away.” Meanwhile, as Mike and Linda act as mutual surrogates for Nick, he remains in Saigon, diminished in the depths of dazed distraction and self-destruction. In the same way their surroundings at home provide a continual encirclement of gendered expectations and commonplace habits and interests, the war’s aftermath has reduced men like Nick to dispensable types, feeding their baser instincts with prostitutes, gambling, drugs and alcohol, and taking advantage of the despairing temptations that keep destitute men down and down for good.
Opposed to the amiable momentum of the film’s first third, there is in its concluding chapter a formidable, stilted uncertainty. The previously animated friends are unexpectedly inexpressive, their behavior is wooden, their perception skewed. In struggling to articulate these vagaries, they usually come up short. “How’s it feel to be shot?” Stan asks Mike in banal fashion. For all that they were before, together, there is now a barrier, something those who remained in Clairton can’t understand, something they will never understand. But this isn’t the case in the Veterans Administration hospital where Steven, now an amputee, has been residing and refusing to come home. It isn’t exactly a comfortable location, but there is a degree of consolation in the unit, in the solidarity that exists even in this weakened state. The war has yielded a new band of brothers, joined by an implicit understanding and the faith that an overriding positive can still exist, for some. As Mike states simply, attempting to inspire and uplift Steven, affirming all that can perhaps be hoped for, “We made it.”
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.