The Deer Hunter is a self-appointed American epic. Its scale is large, its ambition vast. It seeks to invest a sweep of American experience with mythic significance. It is designed to overwhelm.
Its subject is the Vietnam War. Consciously or not, it approaches Vietnam in terms of ancient American themes. The very title recalls The Deerslayer of Cooper, and Deerslayer recalls D. H. Lawrence's famous comment: "You have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of byplay. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."
Deerslayer embodied the hunter myth that the white man's encounter with the wilderness had given peculiar force in America. This myth reached its literary culmination in the greatest hunt of all, in Moby Dick, and it has been utilized by Faulkner. Hemingway, and Mailer in our own time. Lawrence's account of the American as hunter is perhaps incomplete. For the American soul, at least in the national mythology, does melt….
The seeds of many American tragedies, [as Richard Slotkin concludes in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860], "are planted in the captive-and-hunter myth, the myth of regeneration through violence." (p. 50)
[A] new captivity, a new hunt, and a new ceremony of exorcism repeat the myth scenario. Michael Cimino, the director and co-author of the story on which the screenplay was based, has, deliberately or inadvertently, adopted salient elements of the old mythology. I cannot say, however, that he has successfully fused them into an organic whole. There is too much confused symbolism—not only the hunter and captivity myths, but Russian roulette and the blast furnaces—and too little integration and characterization.
The pervading defect is in the writing. It is not enough to say that Pennsylvania steelworkers cannot be expected to talk like characters out of a novel by Henry James….
The language in The Deer Hunter is boring and banal…. [The] characters are badly undernourished…. Cimino's deer hunter remains unrevealed to the end….
Where Cimino succeeds brilliantly is in his panorama of war—refugees along the jungle road, Walpurgisnacht on the Saigon strip, panic and hysteria in the last days of Saigon. These scenes fulfill the film's epic pretensions. But in the end an epic should leave a sense of purpose, not of confusion…. The Deer Hunter, for all its merits, substitutes portentousness (the choral singing behind the deer hunt) for pattern, noise for observation, obscurantism for dramatic coherence. A failure, yet an exciting failure. (p. 51)
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Deer Hunter, Man Slayer," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol, VI, No. 4, February 17, 1979, pp. 50-1.