The Deer Hunter (1978)

Written by Mike Lyon on March 10th, 2008

It’s not my intention to be throwing around high-star ratings willy-nilly so early in our endeavor, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize what I believe are the best movies out there simply because I have this nagging feeling that there is some kind of predetermined allowance of nigh-perfect films that I can’t exceed. And so we come to The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s otherwordly epic of the Vietnam War.

Early on in The Deer Hunter, Mike (Robert DeNiro) uses a bullet as part of an object lesson. “This is this,” he says. “This is not something else. This is this.” He’s setting up the major theme of the picture’s first act, the idea of immutability and America, about the steel mill and its community and its vision of the war as a microcosm of American thought. A is A – why question; why change?

Indeed, the film is so powerful precisely because it thoroughly demolishes this well-developed superstructure. Russian roulette may be a metaphor for the arbitrariness of war, but moreover it demolishes free will, it demolishes immutability. The certainties of blue-collar thought and immigrant struggle are revealed as defense mechanisms against a country that is openly hostile to both; God is erased from the sky, from the minds of the characters and hearts of the audience. The holy trinity of the departing soldiers is torn asunder by torture and glued together again by three tiny bullets, all symbols erased and replaced with the random and tangible. The soldiers are inexorably drawn to the game of roulette again and again, because any immutable judgements about character or religion or the nature of a bullet are dwarfed by this last true certainty, the inevitability of death.

In the final, heart-breaking tableau, the cast mourns the death of their America as much as their friend. Americans, here and now, may have lost the ability to create another film of this caliber without reaping scorn or apathy. We seem content to leave it to our forebearers (and our forebearers’ art) to answer our most difficult questions about patriotism.

[rating: 9]

1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Mackey says:

    How quickly we forget Shooter. Good point about apathy, though.
    In part questioning patriotism is now so inbuilt into the Hollywood system that the questioning is empty. It’s a posture meted out by war films (or maybe more appropriately skirmish films) that straddle the action genre or spy genres and so become reduced in continual hyperbole. I think the skirmish film in particular probably skews more people’s perceptions of what the CIA is and what it does than the actual CIA does. It’s fertile fiction since ostensible no one knows about the superhuman acts of the secret police. The only solid post Vietnam era war fiction film I can think of is Three Kings (can’t really count The Big Lebowski, even though the aggression will not stand, man)– Welcome to Sarajevo wasn’t bad. Part of the problem might just be locating the war- war seems to have skipped its original borders. Maybe if we include the war on drugs or the inner city gang wars we might get a few more films in there (Boys n the Hood, Menace II Society, Dark Blue- that list can go on forever).

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