Early in the 1960s I joined the protests against US involvement in Vietnam, kept protesting as that involvement grew, and kept on after the withdrawal of US troops while money and supplies continued to flow to Vietnam. I mention my actions, which were no more than what thousands of others did, only to "place" myself on the subject. And to me, the torture sequence in The Deer Hunter—the Viet Cong forcing their US prisoners to play Russian roulette—did not seem intrinsically incredible: because neither I nor anyone I knew objected to the Vietnam War on the ground that the North was angelic. We knew fairly early of the tortures and murders done by South Vietnamese and US forces, but we also knew of tortures and murders done by the North Vietnamese. The issue for us was US intervention—its effects there and at home—not the moral superiority of North over South Vietnam. Thus when I saw this 15-to-20 minute torture sequence in the middle of this three-hour film, I took it as given. I had no knowledge as to whether the Russian-roulette routine had ever actually been practiced (and much has since been made by ex-correspondents of the fact that they never heard of it there), but I accepted it as symbolic, for two reasons.
First, the Viet Cong were quite capable of barbarism and the killing of prisoners. Does anyone doubt that? Second, the sequence fits the film, thematically and metaphorically. The Deer Hunter is not about Vietnam: it's about three steelworkers, bonded in maleness, who work and drink and hunt together, who enlist together as paratroopers, who are captured and tortured together, who escape together, and who then—which is usually omitted in comment—move on to the longest part of their story, the differing resolutions of that experience with their futures. They do not see the war as other, embittered, horrified or numbed soldiers saw it, or as I saw it, or for that matter, as Jane Fonda saw it: they see their war. The Russian roulette was the obvious extension of the "one shot" credo by which these former hunters had lived; enlistment in war and survival of torture were the testings in extremis of their maleness. I was so convinced of this—and still am, after seeing the film again—that I suggested the alternative ironic title Games People Play.
So I was surprised that some intelligent people—I disregard the loudmouthed opportunists—have seen the film otherwise. The Vietnam experience, in all its ramifications, was a wound from which this country may never recover, worse in some ways than either of the World Wars; perceptive people are understandably sensitive about it. Still their reaction here seems odd: the objection seems to be not so much that the VC are shown as vicious, but that the ARVN and US forces are not also shown as vicious, maybe more so. This seems to me an inhibiting, almost juvenile critical equation: if we show bad actions by people with whom we sympathize, we must at least balance them with bad actions by people with whom we don't sympathize. Did these critics also object to Slaughterhouse-Five, novel and film, because it showed the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden but did not show the German bombing of Coventry? (p. 22)
I submit that, if we are going to be moved to thought and action by The Deer Hunter , it ought to be by the implications of its true subject: the limitations for our society of the traditions of male mystique, the hobbling by sentimentality of a community that, after all the horror, still wants...
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the beeriness of "God Bless America" instead of a moral rigor and growth that might help this country.
None of the above is to say the The Deer Hunter is a first-class film, as such. It is not. Although the direction is generally good and the acting is always fine, the script flounders increasingly as it goes on, particularly in the third and longest section. The extraordinary acting is what holds the film together when the script straggles. Still, it ought to be slated for its real faults, not for adduced ones. Anyway, with further irony, The Deer Hunter is a much better piece of work, in artistic wholeness and thematic cogency, than Coming Home, that flabby and compromised picture on the Vietnam War made by people whose political views are, apparently, close to my own. (p. 23)
Stanley Kauffmann, "The Hunting of the Hunters" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1979 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 21, May 26, 1979, pp. 22-3.