Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
There is no story [in The Deer Hunter], only a succession of unconnected episodes strung together for what seems like an interminable three hours and four minutes. Cimino has refused to be trammeled by dramatic convention. Problems of motivation, plausibility, relationship, even chronology, are ignored. There is no development or illumination of character. Instead of dialogue there are grunts and obscenities.
Cimino has said he was not, after all, trying to make a realistic film. The implication is that he could do so if he wanted to, but that would be like setting Picasso to painting a barn. The Deer Hunter, he has said, is surrealistic, a dreamscape. He is wrong. His characters, their milieu, his version of the Vietnam war, all suffer from the same defect. They are neither real nor surreal—merely pretentious and false.
[The Deer Hunter] doesn't hold the mirror up to nature. It holds it up to Cimino. (p. 85)
[The early scenes in the bar, at the wedding, and of the hunt] run for more than an hour and they provide little more than negative inferences. The dominant impressions one gets are that Mike, Nick, Steve, and the three others who make up their circle prefer the company of one another to that of women, and that they are the only six men in the United States who have never talked about the Vietnam war. (pp. 85-6)
In fact, as presented by Cimino, these relatively prosperous, strongly unionized steelworkers of western Pennsylvania are revenants of the 1930s. Their houses are little better than shacks, enveloped in the acrid smoke of the mill. They don't read the papers or look at television except for sports events, they haven't traveled and are without curiosity about the land beyond the Alleghenies….
[One scene] reveals Cimino's undeniable accomplishment in The Deer Hunter. In a medium that has been soaked in depictions of cruelty and violent death since its earliest days, he has hit upon a novel and, it must be said, particularly repulsive method of presenting torture and murder. One by one the prisoners are pulled up into the hut by a grinning giant. While their implacably cruel captors, most of whom are played by Thais, perhaps on the theory that all Orientals look alike, giggle and bet heavily on the outcome, they are forced to play Russian roulette with the survivor of the previous coup. Those who refuse are beaten and confined in a cage submerged in the river, there to be nibbled by rats and eventually to drown. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any reward for playing and winning—that is, pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. You apparently continue against other opponents until you lose….
It is a brilliant scene, acted with ferocious intensity, directed and edited in staccato flashes, and all the more exciting because it comes after so much tedium. But the effects that Cimino learned in the [Clint] Eastwood school of violence must be pushed to the limit because they occur in a dramatic vacuum. (p. 86)
[The final scene would be] a remarkable conclusion if there were ironic intent, but there isn't. The political and moral issues of the Vietnam war, for ten years and more this country's overriding concern, are entirely ignored. By implication, at any rate, the truth is turned inside out. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong become the murderers and torturers and the Americans their gallant victims.
Cimino's ignorance of what the war was about, symbolically and actually, as reflected in The Deer Hunter, is incomplete and perverse to the point of being megalomaniacal. He had no technical adviser and no one who even served in Vietnam on his production staff. It is as though he believed that the power of his genius could radically alter the outlines of a real event in which millions of Americans took part and that is still fresh in the memory of the nation.
The Deer Hunter is a version of comradeship in the factory and the battlefield as it might have been rendered by Luchino Visconti, the late filmmaker, or Helmut Newton, the fashion photographer, both of them experts in the lush presentation of perversity.
Intense male friendships have always existed in wartime, of course, but for several reasons the Spartan virtues seemed rare in Vietnam….
The Deer Hunter does not examine cruelty, it exploits it. Cimino, in a small way, seems to be as insulated from reality as the Marquis de Sade in his cell. To invent forms of cruelty—the Russian roulette game—where so much suffering actually occurred seems doubly perverse. (p. 88)
Tom Buckley, "Hollywood's War," in Harper's (copyright © 1979 by Tom Buckley; reprinted by permission of International Creative Management), Vol. 258, No. 1547, April, 1979, pp. 84-6, 88.