At the cottage, we are in the dark ages electronically-speaking. On our 30-year-old workhorse of a television, we can watch only VHS tapes. So we have been enjoying a lot of pre-DVD movies. A few nights ago we watched The Deer Hunter. Directed by Michael Cimino, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978. I am not sure when I first saw this film, but likely after it came out in the theatres. In any event, it was probably 30 years ago or more — a whole generation.
At the time it was released, there was a lot of talk about the film’s treatment of the Viet Cong, especially in the Russian roulette scenes, about director Cimino’s overbearing personality, and about the length and cost of the film. Aside from the length, I didn't know about any of this controversy until reading about the film a few days ago.
So when (uninformed) I saw this movie again after such a long time, what did I notice? Well, the length for one thing. I didn't recall it as a tediously long movie, but this time around, I found the wedding scenes overly drawn out, and I got tired of the ongoing buffoonery of the young men. I also noticed the huge role the Russian Orthodox Church still played in the characters’ lives.
However, what captured my attention most was the characters’ attitude towards guns. I am not a hunter, but I could see that hunting was part of the definition of manliness for those steelworkers. It struck me that there was an unspoken ethos around the proper use for guns.
They carried their rifles in gun cases when going hunting in the wilderness. Now maybe this was just for the movie and was not realistic, but nevertheless I was surprised at their restraint and care.
Eventually that pastime was challenged — at least by Michael , the “single-shot “deer hunter played by Robert De Niro. Having experienced the war and its aftermath, he declines to shoot a prize buck and instead shoots in the air and watches the majestic animal disappear from sight. Is this an affirmation of his true manliness, as it seems Cimino is suggesting, or is it wimpiness? Michael offers no explanation to his friends when they express surprise that he didn’t get a kill.
However much the possession and use of long guns were taken for granted for hunting, carrying a concealed weapon was frowned on. One of the characters is asked, “Why are you carrying that little thing?” in reference to his hand gun. Partly this taunt was a reference to the character’s manliness, but it struck me that there was also the feeling that there was something not right about having a gun concealed on one’s person.
What a contrast to American attitudes today: Not only is carrying a concealed weapon perfectly acceptable in many people’s eyes, but so is flaunting exposed AK-47s — and these are far removed from hunting rifles— in such places as retail stores. Apparently some churches give them away to attract adherents. It is such false heroism.
Where does this attitude come from? The futility and brutality of the Vietnam war and later the war in Iraq and other American foreign policy disasters come to mind. Since 9/11, fear of the Other has been ratcheted up many notches —although harm from domestic terrorism seems much more likely than from external threats.
In an early scene in The Deer Hunter, an unknown serviceman comes in during the wedding and sits alone at the bar. He refuses to engage the boisterous, naive young men who want to celebrate him as a war hero. Later, Michael comes quietly home from the war with much the same attitude. The movie-going audience has seen the trauma he experienced; the characters in the movie know little or nothing about it.
For Cimino, the chief image for the Viet Nam experience is the game of Russian roulette: gambling taken to the extreme. I think of all the associations that come to my mind around gambling in general: a waste of time, luck of the draw, chance, unfeeling, unforgiving, amoral, winner take all …
Even though the Russian roulette scenes may not be factually correct, they act as a metaphor for the moral quagmire of that war and of the generation time that has followed it: at times, life seems to be a meaningless, merciless, and psychologically, if not physically, deadening game of pure chance. In the characters of Nicky and Steve, the film suggests the damage done to the American psyche will be both long-lasting and corrosive, although the characters that remained at home seem to want to ignore that possibility.
When God Bless America is sung at the end of the film, was it a neat and tidy way to end an overly long movie on some kind of optimistic note? Viewed at the time, it could be seen as the characters’ moving on and leaving the war behind — a variation perhaps on the theme of American exceptionalism: This war’s devastating aftermath will never happen here again, so don’t think about it much now that it is over.
However, seen from the point of view of over 30 years down the road, the last scene is so sentimental, the irony is grim. To an outsider, it seems that many Americans’ optimism has hardened and coarsened into extreme fear and mistrust. When we viewed The Deer Hunter the first time, who would have predicted assault rifles in the grocery store or at church?