When it was first released, The Deer Hunter was widely praised as the first American film to concern itself with the aftermath, social and psychological, of the Vietnam War. Because of this film, in fact, Hollywood discovered that audiences were eager for cinematic treatments of the subject and a number of films dealing with Vietnam were produced in the early 1980s.
The Deer Hunter, however, is not a war film in the ordinary sense: although central episodes treat developments in the late stages of the Vietnam conflict, the main emphasis is on the experiences shared by a group of young men growing up in a small Pennsylvania industrial town. Like many of the so-called "buddy films" of the 1970s, The Deer Hunter is a male melodrama that treats the difficulties, discontents, and triumphs of the growth into manhood, including but not dominated by going to war. It also connects directly to the "artistic" trendiness of the loosely coordinated movement on the part of certain directors in the late 1960s and early 1970s (including Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese) to create a "new wave" American film and to redefine the creative/commercial position of the director (who was to become more of an auteur in the continental sense). Like Coppola with The Godfather or Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange, Cimino dominated the production of The Deer Hunter, stamping it with his own developing style and thematic obsessions: it was intended to be an intensely "personal" film, and both commercial and artistic at the same time.
The Deer Hunter opens with a long and richly detailed examination of the young men whose lives are dominated by dangerous and grueling manual labor in the steel mills and the release of drinking and carousing. Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stevie (John Savage) are just about to depart for military training, having volunteered to go to Vietnam together. Stevie, before he leaves, is to get married to Angela, a local girl pregnant by another man, and Mike and Nick are planning to leave that same night for their annual hunting trip in the nearby mountains with three others. This slice of life is dominated by a concern with masculine styles and attitudes. Mike is cool, laconic, self-contained yet capable of self-destructive wildness. Nick is less sure of himself, competent with others and well-liked, but obviously a follower, not a leader. Stevie is the weakest of the trio, a man satisfied with a marriage of convenience to a woman considered to be a tramp and an opportunist, a man unsure of what he wants from life and who seems content to shape his life after Mike's and Nick's. In the New Hollywood style, the narrative is made to appear undirected, a random and "realistic" examination of working-class ethnic life, although it is in fact a careful character study. Classic Hollywood expository modes are often subverted here (withheld establishing shots or no introductions for new characters, for example), while the acting is archly naturalist in the method tradition (broken sentences, overlapping dialogue, an emphasis on inner, unspoken struggle and, inevitably, male emotion).
An excessive, "realistic" representation marks the difference between The Deer Hunter and the classic Hollywood film. But the masculine values advanced, tested, and endorsed in the film's opening sequences are thoroughly traditional. Vietnam is viewed by the trio of friends as yet another test, yet another opportunity to do the right thing and be a man. The film takes no political stand on the issue of the war. In fact, like the more recent Platoon, it depoliticizes the war, turning it into a morality play where positive and negative qualities of the American character act out a deadly, self-destructive drama. In both films, the real enemy is forgotten: the war becomes a struggle between different masculine styles and philosophies. Mike learns the dangers of the code he had lived by; he survives. Nick lives out the logical and psychological consequences of that code; he dies, in effect, a suicide. The treatment of maleness, however, is hopelessly compromised. Stevie lacks courage and competence; he becomes a pitiful paraplegic, married to a woman who doesn't love him. While the hero may renounce his "right" to assert himself, he remains a hero, at least in large part, because of his willingness to risk life and limb, to be fearless and graceful under pressure. This contradiction, at the same time, is likely what made the film's narrative so attractive to a mass audience, one willing to accept a "softened" maleness only as a renunciation of power, not as an alternative to it.
Historically, The Deer Hunter is important as the last successful realist epic produced by the artistically minded directors of the Hollywood Renaissance. Cimino's subsequent efforts in this form have met with little success. The Deer Hunter, however, was able to achieve an outstanding and surprising success because of its carefully calculated combination of traditional Hollywood melodrama with a style and themes borrowed, to a large degree, from the art cinema.
Essay by R. Barton Palmer
Release Date: 1978
Starring: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, and Pierre Segui
Director: Michael Cimino
Writers: Deric Washburn, story by Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker
Source Citation: Palmer, R. Barton. "The Deer Hunter." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 301-303.