Michael Cimino Richard West - Essay

Richard West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It might be said … that Michael Cimino, who wrote and directed The Deer Hunter, had chosen an off-beat locale for the part of his film set in America. But what of his treatment of Vietnam? Naturally it can and has been argued that The Deer Hunter is not a film about Vietnam, and that those parts portraying the war (less than a third of the three-hour total) were introduced only to show how this experience marked three young Americans. After all, to invent a grand comparison, the battle scenes in War and Peace are of interest not in themselves but in the way they affect Prince André and Pierre.

But the Vietnam war was much more than just a series of battles…. Vietnam, both during and after the war, has been too unpleasant for most Americans to contemplate, which is why it has so far failed to produce any great work of imagination, whether novel, poem, painting or film. (p. 10)

[A plot] summary should convey the excitement and shock of The Deer Hunter. But is it true of the Vietnam war, either historically or poetically? It is true that the American forces frequently bombed and burned out villages where they suspected that the enemy were taking shelter. But why should the Vietcong then murder the very peasants who might be presumed to be on their side?…

Michael Cimino may say Russian roulette has only symbolic significance—though for the life of me I cannot see what this is. No symbolism, however, can justify the representation of all the Vietnamese in this film (and also the one Frenchman) as fiendish torturers and killers. This perpetuates and even exaggerates the worst propaganda produced while the war was still on…. [The Deer Hunter] is a travesty of the war and an insult to those who fought in it. (p. 11)

Richard West, "Vietnam and 'The Deer Hunter'," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 242, No. 7962, March 17, 1979, pp. 10-11.