With the opening shot of The Deer Hunter (1978), number fifty-three on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list, I was already depressed. It is a dark, desolate steel town deep in the Pennsylvania mountains. It is the kind of place that (if you know your recent American History or are from this area) is going to be even more of a hole when the mill closes. Thus, what you are seeing in the first hour of the film is the last death rattle of American industry. It is fitting, too, because the movie ends with a funeral, and the main characters singing “God Bless America.” None of the entries in AFI’s order that were made during the 1970s have been pleasant, and this is yet another example. It leaves me with one question: how did we ever get through that decade?
All the male characters you see work in the aforementioned steel mill in The Deer Hunter. As they get off their shift, we learn that later that night one of their number, Steven “Steve” Pushkov (John Savage), is getting married. Our principal people are in the wedding party. This includes best friends and roommates Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) and Michael “Mike” Vronsky (Robert De Niro). I mention these three because not long after the wedding they are going to be sent to the war in Vietnam. In the meantime, the have what seems to this slightly introverted fellow to be the most exhausting marriage celebration of all time. Following the ceremony, there is an outrageously raucous reception. There is live music, non-stop dancing, and rivers of booze and beer. Honestly, I have no idea how anyone survived, and it is too chaotic to describe. In the midst of all this, one can tell that Mike has eyes for Linda (Meryl Streep), even though she is Nick’s girl. Nothing happens, however, and by the end of the night, or beginning of the morning depending on your perspective, the completely hammered Nick is asking the equally drunk, and naked, Mike to never leave him behind when they go over to Vietnam. He agrees. The next day, or more properly later that day, the groomsmen all go out to do what the title suggests. This is the last time they will all be together. I wish there was a subtler transition from here, but pretty much the very next shot is the war in Vietnam. Mike is a Green Beret and he is lying wounded with several dead comrades while a North Vietnamese soldier terrorizes a friendly village. Mike then surprises the enemy. Conveniently, it is about this time that a helicopter carrying Nick and Steve lands nearby. This happens as a fresh North Vietnamese attack is arriving. I guess the helicopters forgot about everyone because the next thing you see is everyone as prisoners of war in a makeshift camp along the river. Get ready for a new theme. In order to pass the time and keep themselves occupied, the guards force those they have captured to play Russian roulette, betting on who will survive. After watching this play out a few times, Mike comes up with a plan of escape. He convinces the guards to put three bullets into the revolver and for one of their overseers to join the game. When it comes to be Mike’s turn, he uses the gun on his captors and he, Nick, and Steve take to the river. As they float along, the helicopters finally return. For some reason, only Nick can get into the vehicle, and eventually Mike and Steve fall back into the river. The landing causes Steve to break his legs, and Mike carries him to where they eventually join a stream of refugees fleeing before the North Vietnamese. Nick is haunted by what he witnesses. He leaves the Saigon hospital in which he is convalescing, unable to call home to Linda. He ends up finding a back-alley den where they are gambling on two men playing the same game he and other prisoners had been forced to participate in on the river. Mike is there, too, but he is unable to get to Nick before he disappears into the night, going absent without leave (AWOL). Soon, Mike is sent back to his hometown. Seeing the welcome home banners outside of the home he shared with Nick, now occupied by Linda, he tells the taxi driver to drive past. Instead, he comes back after everyone has left, surprising Linda. He tries to comfort her about Nick, and she even tries to seek a more adult form of comfort, if you get my meaning. Again, nothing happens, other than some light cuddling. Mike also goes to visit Angela (Rutanya Alda), Steve’s wife. She is distraught because Steve has not returned. This time, however, we know where Steve is. Mike learns of this location from Angela, and it turns out to be a nearby veteran’s hospital. Steve is there because he lost both of his legs from the fall from the helicopter and feels unfit to be at home. When Mike goes to visit him, Steve shows Mike a drawer full of hundred dollar bills. Mike guesses that they are from Nick, meaning his old friend is alive. Thus, it is back to a Saigon on the verge of collapse. He ventures out into a crumbling city and finds the same game going on where he had last seen Nick. This time, Nick is going in to compete. Mike tries to stop his old friend, but Nick acts as if he does not recognize him. Trying to get through to him, Mike buys his way into sitting across from Nick during the next Russian roulette match. They exchange a couple of clicks, all the while Mike begging Nick to come home, before the gun goes off in Nick’s hand killing him. Through all this, Mike manages to get Nick’s body home, and there is the funeral discussed in the introduction. It ends with everyone singing “God Bless America” in the familiar setting of the local bar.
So, yeah, chalk up another depressing 1970s film in The Deer Hunter. At least it paid off the title? There are, in fact, deer hunters, and the best of them is Mike. It is suggested that this is the reason he gets into the special forces while Nick and Steve go into the regular army. I have a lot of questions about this movie, but I do not care enough about it to explore them to any degree. I will say, though, that it appears that the filmmakers hired two helicopters for this production and boy did they got their money’s worth. I was slightly piqued by the Russian Orthodox faith of everyone in town. There are a lot of similarities between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and it is really only centuries of drifting apart that make up any real differences. This would be worth exploring further if any of the characters seemed to care about their faith outside of wearing crosses around their neck. There are many so-called Christians out there that claim to love Jesus, and they display this feeling by wearing this symbol of such a relationship around their neck, only to behave however they please. Of course, this does not mean that wearing a cross automatically makes one incapable of sin. I speak from personal experience. At the same time, some of the excesses you see from such people make me wonder why they bother wearing such adornments at all. I get what they are going for in the movie. It is part of a cultural Christianity that, as the song at the end might suggest, is just a component of what it means to be American. In this light, it is interesting that they choose to sing “God Bless America.” God does bless America, even the unrepentant sinners sporting crosses. What we seem to get further from is any understanding of what that means. God is home, and coming home is something the three veterans all struggle with in their own way. I am sure their faith could help with this if they would only listen to His voice calling them to Him instead of just wearing a cross.
The Deer Hunter, ultimately, is about the difficulties veterans face when they come home from fighting wars. It is a challenging process. There are a lot of things done poorly in this film, but it can be appreciated for how it depicts these struggles. I am not sure this makes for a recommendation because there are many questionable aspects to it. Alternatively, it does cover some weighty issues. Make of this what you will.