Here we go on another trip around those old American obsessions—the primacy of courage, the worship of nature, the inflation of male friendship into a love surpassing the love of women. Writers as varied as Mark Twain and Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman and Jack London, have contributed to the development of this cowboy ethic, which finds its clearest expression in Hemingway…. The disappointing thing about The Deer Hunter is that it starts as if it's going to be a critique of [the cowboy loner ethic popularized by Hemingway] and then proceeds in wild confusion both to glorify and dilute it….
The three buddies are bound for Vietnam but before leaving they join some companions for a final hunting trip in the mountains. By now Mike is taking shape as the stereotype Hemingway Hero: he's revered by the others (whom he refers to as 'assholes') but has only one really intimate friend, Nick. He's not much good with women, and in fact is loyally repressing his love for Nick's woman….
[The] merits of the film are apolitical: the joyous recreation of a homogeneous community (no blacks in view), the animistic vision of valley and mountain, the alternation of Nietzschean rhapsody and Slav gloom, and the intensity of the roulette confrontations. The style swings constantly from German Expressionism to Russian Epic, reminding us that the Americans have almost nothing in common with the English….
To this English eye the film is a naive romantic fantasy of male self-sufficiency, compromised by the attempt to hitch this to the communal good. At his best the Hemingway hero had no interest in family or society, which is why he is so popular in the suburbs now. What we get here is Hemingway plus vodka and patriotism.
Ted Whitehead, "Loners," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 242, No. 7860, March 3, 1979, p. 26.