Michael Cimino

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Gavin Millar

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The Deer Hunter is not run of the mill. It is made with great seriousness and dedication…. So much about The Deer Hunter is impressive: it is said that strong men are carried, nightly, weeping from the cinema, to say nothing (I suppose) of weak women.

I can see how people are invited to be moved, but without diminishing my admiration for the film's skills … or making itself dislikeable, the film failed to move me. There is something about it—a solemnity, a lack of humour, a lack of warmth, a deviousness even, or, more fairly, a lack of self-awareness—that seems to result in not telling us as much of the truth about human beings as it purports to.

What it is pretending to tell us is that a code of values exists, embracing courage, resourcefulness, strength, ruthlessness even, in the interests of survival, and that this code is principally exemplified by brotherhood. But what it effectively asserts is that there is a bond, deep and strong and true, between men that, beyond other loyalties—to religion, country, family, honesty even—binds them together and is a paramount code of values in itself.

This is a less interesting message partly because it is disguised or unacknowledged, and partly because it is more questionable, and therefore, less can develop from it. In a word, it is built on some kind of self-deceit. If people are moved by the film, it may be that they are moved less by the revelation of human inadequacy and bewildered strength than by the simple, battering terror of the awful events, with which it is always possible, but rarely therapeutic, to move ourselves.

When Michael goes to rescue Nick from the fleshpots and charnel-houses of Saigon, we are invited to care less about the fact that a country—two or three countries—have been torn to shreds than that the knight is not going to be able to rescue the damsel-in-distress. It scarcely matters that the damsel is a man: the buddy-buddy genre is well-established and needs no apology. What matters is that it is here appropriated to serve a thesis of truly national, in other words, historical and philosophical and social, scope; and worse, that it is felt to be adequate on its own to that task. There is something more dissatisfying beyond that: that The Deer Hunter proposes a terrible lesson about war which should, we feel, distil a mood of sober humility; whereas the exultant, hysterical drive in the blood of the film is towards an overwhelming mystique of brotherhood that is not merely chauvinistic (which wouldn't matter so much), but, in the long run, self-congratulatory. (p. 356)

Gavin Millar, "War and Peace" (© Gavin Millar, 1979; reprinted by permission of the author and his agents, Judy Daish Associates, Ltd.), in The Listener, Vol. 101, No. 2601, March 8, 1979, pp. 355-56.

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