Arthur Lubow

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

The Deer Hunter is the first postwar Vietnam epic, a film that tries to say it all…. Into three hours of well-written, artfully edited, superlatively acted color film, director Michael Cimino has packed an extraordinary emotional wallop, making The Deer Hunter the most memorable American saga since Coppola's Godfather II. Like Coppola, who chose the Mafia as a microcosm of America, Cimino uses Vietnam to try to explain far more that one particular war. The white-faced, silent audiences leaving the theater tremble from a sense of knowledge they think that they understand not just Vietnam but some larger truths about America.

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Like most great war stories, The Deer Hunter is a Bildungsroman tracking the passage of young men to maturity, Cimino's ambition is impressive. (pp. 95-6)

The movie is structured as a symphonic song cycle. From a number-one single it moves to a Slavic dance at the wedding, a requiem at the hunt, a Chopin Prelude at a bar; and then, in an abrupt, brilliant cut to the rice paddies of Vietnam, the only music is artillery blasts and duets for AK-47s and M-16s. The songs resume in the Saigon bars…. The film's coda is a moving, ambiguous rendition of "God Bless America," sung by Nick's friends in the bar after the funeral.

Music belongs in a Vietnam movie. For soldiers, pop music was a common cultural reference, and the radio was a link to "the World"—GI slang for America…. Propped up against the events recounted in The Deer Hunter, pop songs acquire the poignancy of old photographs. They are historical relics, cultural artifacts that have survived intact. Although not intrinsically connected to the war, they have soaked up its blood, sweat, and tears, and swelled with meaning, simply by being there.

The innovative pop music of the sixties grew out of the drug-conscious, pacifist, anti-establishment counterculture. And yet, curiously, no such songs are sung in The Deer Hunter: no Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young…. In a three-hour 1979 movie that hopes to record what the Vietnam War did to America, this omission is puzzling. There are other oversights: we notice that while blacks constituted nearly a third of U.S. combat troops at the start of the war, all the Americans in The Deer Hunter are white. Take another look, and we see that although heroin is an important element in the film's scrutiny of the seamy side of Saigon, Cimino takes no notice of dope smoking among American GIs, or among Americans at home. He never acknowledges that this was the first American army that fought a war stoned, the first college generation that matriculated high. Subtract antiwar sentiment, black self-assertion, and marijuana from a film about the impact of Vietnam, and what remains?

The traditional war story. The Deer Hunter, like most of the new wave of Vietnam culture, focuses on the camaraderie among soldiers and the intensity of life under fire. When each moment could be your last, each moment takes on a new power. (p. 96)

In The Deer Hunter, the Vietcong are sadistic killers and the Americans heroic saviors. Like any big lie, this is such a fantastic distortion that, when presented with assurance, it appears plausible. It isn't even presented in The Deer Hunter; it is assumed….

[The] legacy of bitterness, among those who fought the war and those who fought against it, is the central issue for anyone who hopes to depict how the Vietnam War affected Americans…. It can be addressed in many ways, but it must be addressed. Cimino ducks it.

No one in The Deer Hunter is demoralized by the traitorous home front. No one is disillusioned by the strange logic of a war in which a country is destroyed in order to save it from its own inhabitants. For Cimino, the Vietnam War is horrible in the way all war is horrible. That vision leads him to choose the movie's terrifying metaphor, the image he uses to convey the hideousness of Vietnam—Russian roulette….

There is something unsettling about Cimino's image. Every other postwar movie about Vietnam has employed a central moral metaphor…. The metaphor in The Deer Hunter is amoral; it is also by far the most shocking.

Russian roulette. It embodies the random, senseless violence of war. We can feel much more of war's impact in a gun barrel against the skull than we can in the countless color photos that we have deadened ourselves against. As an emotional metaphor, Russian roulette works. It's beside the point that these casinos did not exist, and that Vietcong soldiers did not use that form of torture. Or is it? It's beside the point, yes; but it's not far from it. The use of a metaphor that seems to be descriptive of Vietnam but is not is symptomatic of a movie that appears to be about Vietnam but is not. By shooting a film not about a particular war but about War—seeking to capture not the meaning of America's involvement in Vietnam but rather the grander truths of friendship, strength of will, and the American character—Cimino becomes trapped by the mythical web he spins. If at this point, after the loss of our men, our money, and our pride, all we have learned is that war is hell, we have salvaged pitifully little from the wreckage. (p. 97)

Arthur Lubow, "Natty Bumppo Goes to War," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 4, April, 1979, pp. 95-8.

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