All of Michael Cimino’s films are remarkable in one way or another, but he made two bona fide American epics during his peak in the late 1970s – Heaven’s Gate, and The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter remains the most acclaimed of these two films, even though it follows a very similar pattern and style to Heaven’s Gate, opting for subtle characterisation, in which traits and relationships emerge gradually, along with an elliptical and atmospheric approach to its subject matter, which in this case is the Vietnam War. Yet The Deer Hunter is less a realist war film than a vision of how small-town American life was twisted and warped by Vietnam – a high-octane sequel to The Best Years of Our Lives that follows three steelworkers, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) as they move from their hometown of Clairton, Pennsylvania (in the first act) to Vietnam (in the second act) and back again to Clairton (in the third act). Their drama is further contoured by the presence of Nick’s fiancée Linda, played by Meryl Streep, and the trio’s friend Stosh, played by John Cazale, whose scenes were shot first, and who would never see the film in its finished form.
Cimino had already proven himself to be a remarkably lyrical director with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but he rose to a new level with The Deer Hunter, pairing an intensely liquid style with graphic physical violence – an approach encapsulated in the opening images of molten metal. This primal fusion of steel and fire evokes an infernal landscape, and an industrial sublime, that has already been contained and managed by the demands of working-class American life. Another kind of film might go on to present the war as a continuation of working-class subjugation, but in Cimino’s vision there is nothing as vital as working-class America. He spends the first act of The Deer Hunter emphasising this vitality, which seems equal to any conceivable military situation, especially since we see it over the 48 hours between the end of a shift and the end of a wedding, when the town is at its most ebullient.
During these scenes, it quickly becomes clear that The Deer Hunter isn’t especially driven by character and story, at least not in the regular sense. It’s an immersion experience, and makes most sense on the big screen, since Cimino doesn’t differentiate the three main characters from the profound collective resilience that catches them up in its sway. Together, they’re more than the sum of their parts, whether crowding around a football game, or overtaking a truck on the inside lane of the local highway. Even so, they yearn for something more – something that Michael, the main character, imagines way up in the mountains, where he can only pinpoint it in the fleeting moments where he locks eye with the deer he’s hunting.
Nothing’s perfect here, then, but despite a few kinks, this opening act is essentially a paean to small-town, working-class life. That’s even more remarkable in that Clairton is already effectively a warscape, a bombed-out industrial wasteland that Cimino composed from the bleakest landscapes in the Allegheny region. Most of the town’s inhabitants are Russian-American, and the chilly austerity of their environment feels transplanted from Russian literature, with all the arctic indifference of the steppes and tundra. Yet Clairton is never just bleak, since it also produces a technological sublime – an awestruck gaze in the face of American industry. Time and again, Cimino opts for long zooms and curvaceous pans, paired with a lavish widescreen approach, that take in the town’s vistas from every imaginable angle.
War films nearly always focus on the horror or sublimity of industrial technology, so by containing both, Clairton also seems to have foreclosed the possibility of Vietnam being truly confronting. In effect, small-town life here promises to act as a prophylactic against military horror, especially when it gathers around the wedding, the biggest whole-town event. This scene is redolent of the opening of The Godfather, except that it lasts much, much longer, as if Cimino were trying to stamp his film as the American cinematic epic par excellence. Cimino is particularly brilliant at centrifigual scenes, when more and more and more people spiral into the frame, so he takes us through a dance sequence that grows faster and more manic, as the wedding sprawls further but grows tighter at its core, like a beneficent hurricane gathering speed. As the spiral of sensation intensifies, the communal cohesion of the town seems totally unbreakable – easily strong enough to weather the bleakest landscapes. I started to actually feel dizzy during these scenes, which are a clear forerunner of the looping, concentric dance scenes of Heaven’s Gate, although Cimino takes them even further there.
We first hear about Vietnam in the midst of this wedding, at the still point in the centre of this vortex of bodies, which subliminally shift the nuptials into a going-away part for Michael, Nick and Steven. Even so, it seems as if these men must carry the cohesive power of the wedding with them when they ship off, if only because this scene is so long. At forty-five minutes, it’s the main reason why the entire film clocks in at over three hours, so it feels like it must carry its momentum over into the Vietnam sequences of the second act. Nevertheless, the dance slowly starts to slacken, as fights emerge and drunkenness takes over. This gradually creates a more centripetal rhythm that propels the three friends out of the main hall and into the bar, where they meet a solitary veteran who has just returned from combat.
As the veteran turns away from their advances, the dance modulates ever so slightly too, decelerating in some particulars but intensifying in others, until the mania overtakes itself, and the whole edifice threatens to come crashing down. For a brief interlude, the three men restore themselves with their last hunting trip before Vietnam, heading out to the mountains in search of the mythic deer. Cimino was a master of landscape cinema, and his widescreen gifts shine through here, as he takes us through a series of sublime mountainous vistas, each more breathtaking than the last. These are emphasised as the friends comically swerve and reverse their car on a windy patch of road, where it is meticulously framed by lakes and woods. For a brief moment, Michael is able to transcend his working-class horizons, only for Cimino to shift abruptly to Vietnam, in the first of two great temporal transitions in the film.
We only get the briefest glimpse of combat, however, before we shift again to a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp, where Michael, Nick and Steven are all being held captive, after having being separated for most of their tour of duty. It’s here that Cimino introduces the central spectacle of the film – Russian Roulette. Not only do the Viet Cong play Russian Roulette with each other to pass the time, but they force their prisoners to play it too. This element of the film has copped a fair amount of criticism for being historically inaccurate, but that seems beside the point, since The Deer Hunter doesn’t really claim to be a realistic war film. Instead, Cimino uses Russian Roulette as a concise way to enact the sensation field of Vietnam – and the sheer amount of sensation it took for the war to disturb the cohesion of small-town, working-class America. While the Russian Roulette was imported from an earlier screenplay, called The Man Who Came To Play, about the darker side of Las Vegas gambling, its incongruity works brilliantly to evoke a horror that realism alone cannot hope to represent.
The choice of Russian Roulette as an escalation mechanism is especially ingenious for a couple of more specific reasons. First, the sheer experience of watching Russian Roulette is traumatic in itself, meaning that its visual power works very effectively to counteract the vast swathe of communal motifs in the first act. Second, the rules of Russian Roulette turn camaraderie in on itself, since the only way that the friends can escape execution from the Viet Cong is to egg each other on to play the fatal game. Finally, Russian Roulette gets exponentially more intense as it proceeds, since a shot becomes more likely with each empty round, meaning that the Russian Roulette sequences more than rival the escalating intensity of the dance scenes in the opening act. By the final stages of each round, Michael, Nick and Steven are so wired that they don’t know how to respond any more, laughing and crying at the same time. It’s a nice touch, too that these three characters are all Russian-American, meaning that this perverse “Russian” game fractures their fraternity in a particularly painful and pointed way.
As the Russian Roulette motif makes clear, then, The Deer Hunter is totally disinterested in historical veracity – it’s looking for a concise image to capture the sensation field of Vietnam, along with the way in which this field exceeded even the most profound vitalities of American working-class life. Concomitantly, the war is stripped of all political and ideological content, and reduced to a sadistic game enacted by the Viet Cong, who keep their prisoners submerged in barb-wire cages where they shoot them just for fun. While there is lots of Vietnamese dialogue, the lack of subtitles removes it all to a remote distance, which may not tell the Vietnamese side of the story, but feels remarkably true to the horror and disorientation of the average American soldier. In fact, Cimino often seems to be aiming for war horror more than war realism, evoking the raw brutality of war, above and beyond any attempts to rationalise or historicise it. At heart, The Deer Hunter is a melodrama that reaches its histrionic peak with the final Vietnam scene, which entirely dissociates Russian Roulette from the imperatives of war, and instead presents it as an ongoing Vietnamese bloodsport that continues in American occupied territory, and is destined to continue after the war too.
You can see, in these scenes, the origin of the Southeast Asian-tinged horror and action that would proliferate in the wake of Vietnam – most iconically Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport – as Russian Roulette becomes a cipher for the fractured camaradie and self-destructive impotence of the Vietnam vet. No film, including the Rambo series, does a better job at capturing the cognitive dissonance of Vietnam vets returning home, as Cimino moves to the third act as elliptically as he moves to the second, cutting abruptly from a scene of recreational Russian Roulette to a wintry re-establishing shot of Clairmont. We now follow Michael as he returns home, for a much quieter and starker act, focused more on individual relationships than the collective male camaraderie of the first act. Yet even as the film becomes more interpersonal, its romantic and sexual relationships are fractured and dispersed, opening up space for Meryl Streep to step up in the role of Linda, but also for Michael to retreat into the brooding silence that many critics have interpreted as an opaque refraction of Cimino’s own homoerotic tendencies: “I just…feel a lot of distance right now.”
This third act also intensifies the crushing darkness that we often glimpsed in the first act. There, the wedding ceremony and the sheer collective energy of the characters kept it at bay whenever it threatened to drift into town from the factory fringes where it gathered and pooled. Without that collective camaraderie in place now, the factory feels much more continuous with the town – there’s always some sightline leading to it – even as the factory appears to have descended into desuetude as well. It’s as if Michael’s return from Nam coincided exactly with the decline of the Rust Belt, as Bruce Springsteen’s darknesses on the edge of town start to creep in, and Russian Roulette makes two more dramatic appearances.
The first takes place in Clairton, where Michael threatens Stosh with a game of Russian Roulette during one last half-hearted effort to recoup the transcendence of the local mountains. The second takes place back in Vietnam, after Michael realises that Nick has remained there all along, where he has become a recreational Russian Roulette legend, and has sent his monthly earnings back to support Steven, who lost both legs and an arm in the way. Everything in the film comes together beautifully now, as Michael returns to Nam just as Saigon is falling, and seeks out Nick through a nightmarish landscape that must have been an inspiration for Apocalypse Now – a surreal river journey as boats, bodies and burning objects float by. By this stage, Vietnam doesn’t even feel like a theatre of war, but a sick twisted game that has been entirely extrapolated from recreational Russian roulette. When Michael does meet Nick, Nick barely recognises him, averting his gaze until Michael realises that the only way to truly lock eyes, and effect proper recognition, is to play one final game.
This is one of the great climactic set pieces of the 70s, as Michael holds the gun to his head and intones “I love you,” and Nick evinces the slightest glimpse of recognition before shooting himself with a bullet in the chamber. The sacred gaze of the deer now becomes the sacred gaze of the two men, suggesting a homosocial or even homosexual between these two perennially single characters that gives their rapport and trauma an even deeper and more mystical bent. The final scene seems as much an elegy for this unspoken love as for the fallen soldiers, taking us through a haunting rendition of “God Bless America,” before Cimino cycles through a freeze frame of all the major actors, and ends with a freeze frame of the opening wedding ceremony. In these final moments, the individual is inextricably severed from the collective, and the mystical homoeroticism of the film is repressed in its tracks, while the death of Cazale adds an almost unbearable touch to this beautifully composed tone poem – one of the high points of New Hollywood and, with Heaven’s Gate, of Cimino’s entire career.