I’m always going on about William Goldman’s quote about Hollywood, that “Nobody knows anything” because it’s probably the wisest, truest thing I’ve ever read.
It needs a little bit of context, I suppose: Hollywood is always totally out of touch with what normal people want – as it would be, what with everything that goes on there – yet it needs to appeal to ordinary people in order to keep going and be successful. Consequently, what happens is, someone takes a punt on something out of the ordinary and it takes off. The rest of Hollywood sees that, and decides – “That! That’s what people want“. Then Hollywood churns out thousands of slight variations on whatever it was that did well, and they all do slightly less well because everyone gets sick of having the same old shit rammed down their throats. And then some studio take a punt on something else, and that takes off, and then the rest of Hollywood just follow that. And that’s Hollywood.
So, I suppose, from the 1940s to the 60s, it was mainly Westerns and War films; in the 1950s and 60s it was the Biblical era epics, comedies, and musicals; in the 1970s it was disaster movies and science fiction; The 1980s and 90s was comedies and action films; the 2000s was all about animation and comic book superheroes.
It’s all a bit vague, and there were hits that didn’t conform to those categories. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, for example – big in the 1970s, but what was it? As far as I’m concerned, it’s a 1970s film, which was an era when Hollywood were prepared to make great films that didn’t necessarily fit in.
Still, to be a bit more specific, whereas the war films of the sixties were basically all about WWII, The Vietnam War was the big deal in the 1980s, when I was growing up (age 9-18).
The first I heard of it was on John Craven’s Newsround, a daily children’s television news bulletin that appeared in the pre-evening news slot devoted to kids’ programmes – Blue Peter, Grange Hill, Ulysses 31, that sort of thing. In fact, the only thing I have any recollection of watching on John Craven’s Newsround was centred around Vietnamese Boat People, who must have been a regular feature on it.
Vietnamese Boat People were people from Vietnam who were fleeing something or other – mainly war I assumed, following the USA’s withdrawal and the subsequent unification of Vietnam into a communist state. I don’t know, maybe they were fleeing something else, John Craven was avuncular, but I don’t recall him going into too many specifics as far as politics went. They were the refugees of the day, I suppose. Had Suella Braverman been in charge then, I expect she’d have been in the papers, spending millions failing to send them to, I don’t know, East Germany or wherever was the worst place in the world in about 1980. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard said it was Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, so maybe anywhere apart from that would have been alright. Mind you, I’d be surprised if Captain Willard had ever been to Whitehaven, so who knows?
Having just thought about Vietnamese Boat People for the first time in decades, I’ve remembered a film we were shown in Geography at school, which must have been made in the late 1970s or very early 80s, because I dropped Geography in the third year, so it must have been before 1985. Anyway, we were shown a film that may or may not have been called “South-East Asian Riverboy“.
All I remember about South East Asian Riverboy, or whatever it was called, was that the eponymous hero had a pretty shit time on the rivers of South East Asia. He had a boat that he had to paddle – or possibly punt – about forty miles to and from school every day. The narrator sounded portentous as he intoned variations on the line, “South-East-Asian Riverboy rises before dawn to check his boat,” and “South-East-Asian Riverboy must navigate precarious stretches of water on his journey to school,” or “South-East-Asian Riverboy submits his homework for his teacher’s approval.” Everything he said began, “South-East-Asian Riverboy…” does this, that or the other. It became a thing in the playground for a while. “South-East-Asian Riverboy shits himself and sells his trousers to Oggy for five hundred quid.” Adolescent crap like that. We were hilarious. Naturally, we weren’t.
I say that, but I can’t find any evidence that South East Asian Riverboy ever existed as a documentary on School’s programming. Mind you, I was convinced that I’d made up Marine Boy – a Japanese cartoon from the 1960s, and it turned out that was a real thing, so maybe one day I’ll find it. Perhaps I’m just fixated on aquatic South East Asian Television programmes of my childhood. Who knows anything anymore, eh? That’s right: not me.
My geography hasn’t improved since then. If anything, it might be even worse. I don’t have a sense of direction either. None at all. I can get lost on the way to the kitchen in our house, and we live in a three bedroomed semi, it’s not like it’s Castle Howard or anything.
I say that because I’m not convinced that I was aware that South-East-Asia even meant Vietnam. If it did mean Vietnam, which I expect it probably did. There or thereabouts, I suppose. Like I say, I’m not very good at geography.
Anyway, Vietnam meant boats as far I my rudimentary education went, until not very long afterwards, which is when I realised that the Vietnam war had been a thing.
And the reason I realised it had been a thing was because of the enormous influence that it had on the media – films and television series, mainly, but also quite a few pop records of the time too. Paul Hardcastle’s 19, as referenced by the title of this, erm, thing was massive, to the extent that the stuttering 19, sampled from Vietnam Requiem – an American documentary from 1982 – that focused on the enormous numbers of American soldiers who’d come home from Vietnam with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD.
In itself, PTSD wasn’t really a new thing. It’s probably been around forever: in the First World War the British Officer class called it “cowardice” and shot their own soldiers who had it, because they were, as they remain, a set of cunts. To more enlightened members of society, at that time, it was known as “shellshock“, and one of the symptoms was the 10,000 yard stare – just gazing absently into the middle distance because you’re haunted.
However, the media’s focus on Vietnam in the 1980s meant that PTSD started to become much more widely known. The ubiquity of records like 19 was such that it was parodied far and wide, from adverts and comedy sketches on television, to The Commentators’ “19, not out“, about the England cricket team’s abject failure in their winter tour of the West Indies in 1984, with David Gower averaging a mere 19, coincidentally. It was everywhere, and references to the Vietnam war that had ended ten years previously were too.
I’ve mentioned previously that my old man had a laissez-faire attitude towards age-appropriate video and reading material. At least as far as I was concerned. We had a video recorder when I was pretty young – about 1981 – which was early for England. Anyway, he either recorded films off the telly, or rented them from the video rental shops and vans that began cropping up in the early 80s.
It’s not that he particularly encouraged me to watch any of them with him, but the living room door was always open, and he never turned anything off if I walked in. He’s not a film buff, especially. He’s got no interest in the arty-farty, namby-pamby foreign stuff that I like – which I wrote about here – but he liked action films. Not John Wayne though. My old man’s perspective was that John Wayne was too fat to realistically play hard men. My old man was more or less a Clint Eastwood man. I liked Clint Eastwood films too. We’d watched quite a lot of them by the time I was about 11: the Dirty Harry films – the first few at least, his Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Escape From Alcatraz, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Play Misty For Me, The Beguiled – that sort of thing. I liked all of them. Every Which Way films with Clyde the orangutan, too.
I say he wasn’t a film buff, and he still isn’t, but he has his own standards. He wasn’t interested in really brainless Hollywood films. I don’t know if he’s ever seen a Sly Stallone film, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger film even now. What that meant was that I didn’t get to see any of those either, until they came on telly – often censored and reduced to remove swearing and more outré depictions of violence. Repo Man was reduced to remove practically all the swearing on Alex Cox’s Moviedrome, which I enjoyed more than the original when I saw it. I didn’t realise it had been dubbed, I assumed that “Melon farmer” was some sort of surreal insult for cool Americans who watched strange films.
My dad didn’t ever mention any directors – I don’t think he’s interested in that sort of thing, he likes a good story with violent things happening, basically – but I saw a few Martin Scorsese films at that time too: Mean Streets and Raging Bull at least. My dad was into boxing too. We didn’t go and watch any, but it was on telly quite a lot – and this was before there were that many weight divisions and awarding bodies, so it was worth watching. The casual observer could keep up with whoever was World Champion, especially heavyweights. We quite liked Barry McGuigan and Alan Minter too.
- The Deer Hunter (1978)
Anyway, one Saturday night, we watched The Deer Hunter, and I was periodically transfixed by it. Not so much the wedding scene as the hunting the deer bits – which I can still see when I close my eyes and think about it: luscious greenery – in contrast to the Pennsylvania Mining town’s grey and blueness – and Cavatina playing, which struck a chord with me. Naturally, the Russian roulette and imprisonment scenes had a big effect. Come Monday morning, I had a captive audience in the playground as I told the story – with the boring (non-prisoner of war or Russian roulette) bits edited out.
The Deer Hunter wasn’t the first Vietnam film to come out of Hollywood. That was probably The Green Berets, which was made during the war itself, but I never saw that due to it being a John Wayne film, I guess. My old man was interested in war, but he didn’t seem to differentiate between films that glorified war, or anti-war films. Or those that weren’t really either. He’s just interested in war. His favourite war is WWI. Is it odd to have a favourite war? I don’t know. I do. Mine’s the Korean War, with the Vietnam War coming a very close second. Mrs Middlerabbit’s favourite is WWII.
At the time, The Deer Hunter was held up as being practically all things to all people, all of the time. It was deep, and it was arty, and it was big and it was profound. Mainly though, it was important. People would talk about The Deer Hunter like they’d later talk about, I don’t know, Kramer Vs Kramer. Yeah, Hollywood, but not fluff Hollywood. Hollywood with something important to say in a vaguely portentous manner.
On IMDB, The Deer Hunter scores 8.1 out of 10, which is pretty good going. I like IMDB, but there’s a distinct element of received wisdom there. Which is just one more of the millions of things that I find disappointing about some people’s relationship with the arts. I’ve mentioned it before – a lot – how some people just parrot received wisdom because they want to be right, but they don’t really know what that is, so they say things like, “Oasis are just like The Beatles“, when there’s nothing about the music of Oasis that even remotely resembles The Beatles.
Still, I don’t know that I’d rate The Deer Hunter that highly. It’s alright. Bits of it are fantastic, but equally, there’s a lot of shit in there too.
I think of The Deer Hunter as a bit like one of those albums that’s been beautifully recorded, with tasteful playing all the way through it, but there are only three songs on it that are any good. Those three songs are amazing, and the rest of it still sounds great, and you can see what they’re getting at, but it’s basically three great songs and the rest of it’s boring, worthy, over earnest shit. If The Deer Hunter was a band, it’d be New Order. All their albums have a couple of great tracks on them, but most of it’s just shit. And they’re held up as being big and important and those who know, know, you know? But you stick Power, Corruption and Lies on, and everything about it seems like it’s been beautifully curated, but 80% of it’s just crap. Yet, you can’t move for people telling you how important and great it all is. That’s The Deer Hunter, as far as I’m concerned.
To try to get into specifics about it, what was so important about The Deer Hunter was that it even dealt with Vietnam at all. The Vietnam War had been an embarrassment to America in many ways. Mainly, they’d gotten themselves involved to save the world from communism, like they had in Korea, and they lost. Like they did in Korea. When I say they lost, I don’t mean they lost like the Nazi’s lost in WWII, but rather they just skulked off after getting fucking nowhere for an extended period of time. They didn’t say they’d lost, naturally. But not admitting that they didn’t win meant that the American administration also didn’t really learn from their mistakes, their hubris, because as far as they were concerned, they couldn’t have made any mistakes because they didn’t lose. Hence doing exactly the same thing in Vietnam later. The Vietnam War – or “conflict” as the American government called it, so it couldn’t count as being that big a deal – like the Falklands conflict that Britain got involved in in the early 80s – was a continuation of the spin that governments like to put on war. And that’s particularly important as far as The Deer Hunter goes because, as with everything that’s important in The Deer Hunter, it’s explicitly pointed out to you, usually by Robert De Niro.
Because, even though the American Government didn’t admit to having made a massive pigs’ ear of Vietnam, everybody pretty much knew they had. Like the sampled commentary in 19 would point out, “None of them received a hero’s welcome. None of them. None of them.” In The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro does, but he’s Robert De Niro, and he doesn’t want it anyway. Because he’s stoic. And because he’s Robert De Niro.
Vietnam was, to a certain extent, the first televised war. Not comprehensively, but to a greater extent than wars had been prior to that. And what that meant was seeing the American soldiers getting loaded into body bags and flown home. It meant seeing them in wheelchairs, or blinded. In short, it looked like a load of shit. Thousands of young American men, getting flown thousands of miles from home to get blown up, and for what? Like Muhammad Ali said, “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger’“. And fair dos.
What that meant was that America, and particularly Hollywood, didn’t really know what to do with Vietnam. WWII had been the source for hundreds of films about glorious heroes defeating the forces of evil. Yet, in the aftermath of Vietnam, the studios were just looking at their shoes and mumbling, pointing at Star Wars, and shuffling.
The Green Berets had attempted to glorify it while it was ongoing, and it did well, but that was 1966. By 1975, when America finally withdrew, following nearly ten years of protests about the futility of the whole thing, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with it.
And that’s where The Deer Hunter came in. It couldn’t glorify it, because nobody would accept it. It couldn’t put out a film about what an unmitigated disaster the whole thing had been because, you know, God Bless America, and America loves a winner and all that.
So, what Michael Cimino, who’d previously found a bit of fame as a screenwriter on Magnum Force – the sequel to Dirty Harry – did, was to try to present the humanity of the plucky American soldiers who went and came back shadows of their former selves.
It does deserve a bit of credit, because you hadn’t really seen that sort of thing before in Hollywood. To an extent, during New Hollywood – the early 1970s movement that saw the groovy people take over for a bit – you had. Dr Strangelove (1964) – and pre New Hollywood – was anti-war, MASH (1970) was anti war, Catch-22 was anti war, but they were also funny. They were about the ridiculousness of war, and while the humour was dry, there were moments of stark suffering, at least in the latter two. However, the characters who were suffering – at least physically – in MASH and Catch-22, tended not to be the main characters. They were people who were brought in bleeding. We hadn’t been introduced to them really. They were there to bleed and die in the script. The main characters were there to comfort them.
The Deer Hunter is a lot of things, but funny isn’t one of them. Partly because the characters who suffer and die are the main characters, and that’s not really funny, even in the bleak sort of way that the previous films I mentioned were.
In short, The Deer Hunter was a first, tentative step into how Hollywood was going to deal with Vietnam, and some of it, it got right, and some of it, it didn’t really.
The main thing it got right was introducing PTSD as a big thing. The lasting effects of witnessing the horrors of war, not only on the people who it directly affected, but also in terms of their friends, families and communities.
However, it simultaneously retained an awful lot from previous films that had glorified war. The noble, stoic heroism of the lead character; the inherent and inhumane cruelty of whoever the enemy was; the lack of interest in the politics behind war; large elements of the Buddy movie, a sad sort of love story that works out alright in the end, albeit a bit sadly.
The Deer Hunter, for all the plaudits it was showered with, was more or less traditional Hollywood fare for the majority of its three hour running time, with added PTSD and moments of bleakness that we could mainly blame on East Asian foreigners. Again.
The Japanese had been stereotyped as a cruel race in the post WWII world, and Vietnamese people looked a bit like that, so it wasn’t a great stretch to just tar them with the same brush. The cinema audiences had been primed for that since at least Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957), and the reports of Allied POWs in Japanese camps were widely known. My Granddad wouldn’t have anything Japanese in his house due to his mates’ suffering in WWII at the hands of the Japanese, and he wasn’t unusual in that regard.
So, even though The Deer Hunter was New Hollywood – a bit arty, a different perspective on the old themes, influenced by Italian and French New Wave, deeper, intellectual, more important – it also wasn’t really.
I mean, it looked nice. Some of it was beautiful, like the picture above. Some of it was iconic – Robert De Niro laughing and screaming at his captors before he shoots them, playing Russian roulette. It sounded terrific too. Dolby stereo was a new thing, and for the fight scene in the village, Cimino spent weeks mixing the sound for a section that lasted about five minutes.
And that’s the other thing. For a film about Vietnam, in a lot of ways, it wasn’t really about Vietnam at all – apart from the cruel Vietnamese antagonists’ location of course. Because it was about ordinary people and how they deal with pressure.
Robert De Niro was the lead, and he was basically playing your traditional Hollywood hero. Strong, largely silent, loyal, brave, monogamously in love with his best friend’s girl who he doesn’t tell anyone about – because he’s strong, silent and stoic, isn’t he? Resourceful, kind, you know? He was The Deer Hunter, even though he stopped hunting deer by the end. Robert De Niro, eh? I don’t dislike him. I like him, really. I mean, he’s always Robert De Niro, isn’t he? He always has Robert De Niro’s mannerisms in every film he’s ever made, and his speech patterns. He’s always strong, silent, brooding and intense. Is he a great actor? He’s great at being Robert De Niro, isn’t he? Fair dos.
His buddies were Christopher Walken – who similarly always plays Christopher Walken, which is sort of Burger King to Robert De Niro’s McDonald’s. The same sort of thing, except a bit more obviously awkward and kooky than De Niro. I don’t mind Christopher Walken either. What he does well is that sort of being removed from the scene he’s in. Staring off and not being able to connect with whoever he’s talking to, and not being able to really deal with that except silently and bravely trying and failing to pretend he’s not upset.
John Cazale – Fredo from The Godfather parts one and two – is here being Fredo again, one of the friends who doesn’t go to Vietnam because he doesn’t value anything, unlike Robert De Niro who does value things. The right things. In the right way. Because he’s being an American in the right way. Like a cowboy, really. Alan Ladd in Shane. Or Gary Cooper in High Noon. Pretty much the same thing, really.
There’s also Steve, played by John Savage, as the younger one who gets married towards the start of the film, before ending up having both legs and an arm amputated.
What The Deer Hunter does well, it does really well, even though it also tends to overdo them, too. The first hour in Pennsylvania, showing the buddies working at a steel plant, drinking at the bar, and going to a wedding is great. It sets up the small town where everybody knows everybody, everybody’s poor, things aren’t great but they struggle by. It’s great because it looks great and Meryl Streep’s economical, and Robert De Niro’s stoic and in charge, and Christopher Walken’s a bit of an oddball wag, John Cazale’s Fredo and Steve’s not really anything except young.
I say it’s great, but it doesn’t half go on. The wedding’s tedious. We get the picture, but it goes on for about an hour. Cimino sacked the editor on the film, who eventually won the Oscar for it, because he was cutting the wedding scenes down. In a way, Cimino was sort of right to let it run on because it made it more important, but at a great cost – like Vietnam itself, I suppose.
There are a couple of moments where you look at it and you realise – because it’s so fucking slow – the director is making an Important Film here, and he’s taking our hands and pointing at things, thinking he’s being clever. The wedding band play Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, and Cimino is as unsubtle as ever as he keeps showing De Niro looking longingly at Meryl Streep, and hiding behind walls if she looks back at him. You know, he can’t take his eyes off of her. Clever, you dig? But clever for morons. Like those Knives Out films are. They’re alright, they’re entertaining enough, but they’re only really impersonations of what cleverness is for people who aren’t clever. Fair dos, I suppose.
Then the bride and groom take a drink of red wine from this dual cup thing and the priest chap explicitly tells us that if they can simultaneously drink the contents of the cups without spilling a drop, they’ll have good luck forever, and the camera does a close up on a couple of drops of red wine spilling on the bride’s white dress that nobody notices or comments on.
The Deer Hunter is, in short, heavy handed and really impressed with itself.
They go hunting and Fredo hasn’t brought his boots and De Niro won’t lend him his spare pair because if he does, Fredo won’t ever learn, and that’s important because Fredo starts saying De Niro’s a “faggot” because he never gets off with any women, even those who are dead keen on him, and De Niro could say, “Well, that’s because I’m in love with Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken’s bird and I don’t want anyone else because I believe in true love, the sanctity of the Hollywood buddy relationship dynamic, and stoicism, don’t I?“, but he doesn’t because he believes in true love, the sanctity of the Hollywood buddy relationship dynamic, and stoicism.
Everybody else is stupid and clumsy, but Robert De Niro isn’t and he shoots the deer with “one shot” which is important, apparently. Well, it is important because it’s going to crop up later when he goes back to Vietnam to rescue Christopher Walden from his Russian roulette addiction. Later on, Fredo shoots a deer about twenty times before it drowns in a lake because Fredo’s doing American manly man things wrong, like he does in The Godfather parts one and two.
Suddenly, we’re not in Pennsylvania anymore, we’re in Vietnam, and everything’s exploding. Robert De Niro’s laying, bleeding, on the ground – stoically, natch- and some cruel faced, pinko Vietnamese soldier’s going around throwing hand grenades into bunkers with less cruel faced, probably capitalist women and children in it and they all get killed, and then another kind faced, probably secretly capitalistic, Vietnamese woman holding a baby is crying, staggering through this burning village, and the cruel pinko shoots her and her baby, and that stirs Robert De Niro into action because his heart is pure, and he picks up a flame thrower and burns the stereotypically cruel, pinko East Asian soldier and then he shoots him.
Then Christopher Walken and Steve turn up in a helicopter and they all get captured and put into this cage with water up to their waists, where they get dragged out and forced to play Russian roulette for even crueler, probably even more fanatically commie Vietnamese soldiers who shout at them and slap them while they’re doing it, and if they don’t participate, they get put into a cage that’s practically entirely underwater.
And that’s what I mean. We’ve had an hour of pootling about, seeing homely American poverty in a small town, seeing the far end of a fart of Steve’s mother disapproving of his bride because she’s not religious enough or something, and she’s pregnant – and the suggestion is that it’s Christopher Walken’s baby anyway, even though he’s with Meryl Streep, and Steve’s a sensitive, nice kid and all that – and there’s nothing about joining the army, or training, or getting split into different units, or any of that. For a three hour film, a lot of it still feels rushed, which is some going. But it’s important, you see.
Anyway, the most famous part’s probably the first Russian roulette bit, in which Robert De Niro first comforts and calms sensitive Steve – who’s lost the plot – down, then Steve gets put in the underwater cage and De Niro the resourceful, stoic and silent solider has a plan and he explains it to Christopher Walken, who’s not convinced about it, but it works and they get out, rescuing Steve on the way.
And, basically, that’s what De Niro does in The Deer Hunter: he resourcefully rescues people. Or he tries to.
They escape, but Steve gets injured.
Back in Saigon, Christopher Walken’s got PTSD and can’t remember his parents’ dates of birth, so he gets into playing Russian roulette for money because that’s all he can deal with or something, and Robert De Niro can’t find him, so he goes home and avoids his hero’s homecoming at his and Christopher Walken’s house where Meryl Streep now lives because her dad beats her up.
He waits for everyone to leave, hiding behind walls again, and then goes and talks to Meryl Streep, who’s into him too, but he can’t shag her in that house so they go to a Motel and do it, which makes him feel better so he can meet up with everyone now.
He goes hunting again, and could shoot this deer but doesn’t because shooting for sport’s bad now, because that’s what cruel pinko races do. And it looks beautiful, too. The place and the deer.
Then they all go bowling but De Niro and Meryl Streep are keeping quiet about getting together, except the soundtrack’s playing George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s Tattletale Eyes, about how they’re keeping quiet about their love for each other, except their eyes give them away. Like Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, it’s about as subtle as a brick in the face. Then Robert De Niro rescues their halfwit mate from the bowling machine because he’s got stuck in it because if Robert De Niro goes more than twenty minutes without rescuing someone, well it doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?
De Niro can’t find Christopher Walken or Steve, and he’s loyal as hell – apart from shagging Meryl Streep, but that doesn’t count because Christopher Walken had cheated on her by shagging Steve’s wife before they were married anyway.
He finds Steve at a Veterans’ hospital, where he wants to stay because he’s had both legs and an arm amputated, and also has a pile of money in a drawer that “someone” is sending him daily from Saigon. De Niro realises it’s Christopher Walken, and he rescues Steve from the hospital even though he doesn’t want to go home, and then De Niro goes back to Vietnam to rescue Christopher Walken, but Christopher Walken doesn’t want rescuing either, so they play Russian roulette and Christopher Walken shoots himself in the head, but not before reminding Robert De Niro about “One shot” from their deer hunting days, which is just bollocks, because how many times are you going to successfully shoot yourself in the head, eh?
De Niro goes home and everyone sings God Bless America, and it’s sort of a bit bitterly ironic because this community’s been wrecked by America’s involvement in Vietnam, even though Americans are obviously a lot better than everybody else, and capitalism’s still great, but Christopher Walken’s dead, and Steve’s a torso with a head and an arm. Mind you, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep have got together, so that’s nice.
In a way, The Deer Hunter is a bit like the anti-Four Weddings And A Funeral. One wedding, three amputated limbs, PTSD and a funeral.
There’s no mention of politics at all. There’s no suggestion of anti-soldier attitudes on their homecoming – which there certainly would be in the Rambo films and Born On The Fourth of July in the mid-80s.
As I said, at the time, The Deer Hunter was held up as being a magnificent work of art. It won Oscars, it was lauded. Since then, though, maybe not quite so much.
Even so, it was, as this blog thing is called – neither muckling nor mickling. The traditional, non-ironic singers of God Bless America: the John Waynes of the world hated it because it was a bit anti-war and heroism, even though it isn’t really, and the non-traditional, ironic singers of God Bless America, such as Jane Fonda, hated it because it wasn’t really anti-war or heroism, and because it portrayed the Vietnamese as, basically, the new Red Indians – two dimensionally cruel, commie stereotypes whose main character traits consisted entirely of thinking up brutally imaginative ways of torturing pure hearted American men, and then losing to heroically stoic Americans like Robert De Niro.
It was neither one thing nor the other, in short. And fair enough, really. America couldn’t have coped with anything too radical about Vietnam and this was testing the waters.
The Deer Hunter was, with hindsight, Hollywood’s first, tentative baby steps in terms of dealing with Vietnam. And like all parents who witness their offspring’s first steps, they went a bit overboard in praising it. Baby steps are important, but The Deer Hunter was held up in the same sort of way that Neil Armstrong walking on the moon was – a pinnacle of American achievement which, with hindsight, needed to happen, but it was pretty far from the finished article.
Ironically, that’s America’s most consistent problem, really. Going overboard at things that are a good start, and mistaking them for being a sign that America really is the best thing in the world. It happened in Korea, it happened in Vietnam, and it happened in a lot of 1970s and 1980s American films about Vietnam. Hubris, I suppose. The American disease, if ever there was one. Certainly Cimino was riddled with it.
Later Vietnam films certainly learned from The Deer Hunter, or specifically, made a point of incorporating helicopters, PTSD, pop music of the era, and torture as being practically synonymous with the Vietnam war. However, they also learned from (some) of the mistakes it made too. Drugs, jungles, guerrilla traps and pitfalls would also feature commonly in later films about it.
That Cimino’s next film, Heaven’s Gate, would more or less single-handedly kill off New Hollywood was also important. People even started to question whether or not The Deer Hunter could actually have been as good as they thought it had been, bearing in mind how shit Heaven’s Gate was.
I suspect that what happened was, The Deer Hunter was a collective effort. Cimino held the reins, basically, but he didn’t edit it, and the script wasn’t written by him, even though he said he did everything. The camera work’s beautiful, and it benefits from being filmed on location. The Theme from The Deer Hunter, Cavatina, was a really big deal in the late 70s, too – as well it might be as it’s beautiful and sad. But even that wasn’t original. Cavatina had been in The Walking Stick, a film about David Hemmings pretending to be interested in Samantha Eggar so he could rob her.
The Deer Hunter wasn’t Cimino being an auteur. It was a collaborative effort, and he decided he’d done everything and he was great. Then, when he did do everything – on Heaven’s Gate – it was crap.
Which, in itself, is ironic, isn’t it? Because that’s America after WWII, isn’t it? Having decided they saved the world single handedly, they then went single handedly into Korea, Vietnam and wherever else, and everything went to shit.
That’s the irony of The Deer Hunter to me. It’s supposed to be holding a mirror up to America in a way, it’s simultaneously saying that Americans are the best, while pointing out that poor American boys were suffering at the hands of cruel, commie foreigners in a cruel, commie foreign land, and it doesn’t really work, except for about half an hour of its three hour running time.
Because, like America, it’s big, bloated, full of its own self-importance, under the impression it’s being clever, and the director thought he did everything, when actually, he needed other people to help – and their help was probably the best bits of it.
Funny how it goes, isn’t it?
Still, I’ve seen The Deer Hunter three times now – and I’ve always stuck with it, so it must be doing some things right – and it does, even though it’s nowhere near the momentous classic it’s generally held up as.
Its portentous approach harms it as much as it helps it. The fact that it fails to recognise American hubris at all, and makes exactly the same mistakes that the American administration made – in spirit, if not literally – is possibly the most important thing about it.
Robert De Niro tells Fredo that if he lends him his spare boots on their hunting trip, he’ll “never learn“, and that’s the biggest irony of the whole film, really. Cimino thinks he’s teaching us a valuable lesson about how people deal with pressure, but he’s not really. What he’s actually teaching us is about perspective. It’s easier to point out what other people are doing wrong than to recognise it in yourself. Cimino’s actually teaching us that hubris is the American disease, and it’s not going away anytime soon.