Hollywood has made a lot of films about the Vietnam War. There’s the stuff set directly in the war, like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket or Good Morning, Vietnam, and there’s stuff in which the Vietnam War is a persistent background detail that somehow defines life back in America, whether that be in Travis Buckles’ fucked-up psyche in Taxi Driver, the gut-punch epilogue to American Graffiti, or the senseless slaughter of youths in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Films that aren’t about the Vietnam War at all still seem to be, because it is always there. Vanity Fair says that in Midnight Cowboy, “the Vietnam War lurks at the edges of the frame, all the more insistent for being virtually absent.” You can even read the Vietnam War into Grease, if you wanted to: maybe the reason it lapses into complete fantasy at the very end, as Danny and Sandy fly off in a flying car, is because an ending grounded in the real world would be the one where Danny goes halfway around the world to die. Basically every movie from the 1970s is about the Vietnam War to some degree, and plenty more since.
They are, in aggregate, terrible. I don’t mean that they are bad films – all the ones I’ve mentioned would comfortably make it onto my list of my favourite films ever, except for Good Morning, Vietnam, which sucks – but, taken as a whole, the Hollywood-Vietnam-War-movie genre distorts our understanding of the war itself. “The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in the war, while multiple millions of Vietnamese lives were lost, possibly nearly 4 million. This is 20 to 60 times as many deaths, almost half of whom may have been civilians,” Nathan Robinson writes for Current Affairs, “Yet… the story of the Vietnam War is almost always told from the perspective of American soldiers. The Vietnamese are nameless fungible extras.”
Films aren’t history lessons, nor do I think they should be, but when we’re shown something the same way and from the same perspective over and over, it helps to mould how we understand that thing in real life. The Vietnam War has been depicted so often on screen that it’s easy to feel like we know all about it, when in reality, there has still been very little reckoning all these decades later with the sheer devastation the war caused. More than three times as many tons of bombs were dropped in south-east Asia during the Vietnam War as in all of World War II, and yet almost all films about the conflict – including strident anti-war polemics – place American experiences, and particularly American suffering, front and centre.
The Deer Hunter is the patron saint of this critique.
Robinson calls The Deer Hunter “a trashy melodrama in which the Vietnamese exist as sadistic racists who are there to be shot”. Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “disgusting account of what the evil Vietnamese did to poor, innocent Americans”. In a contemporary review, John Simon for New York wrote, “For all its pretensions to something newer and better, this film is only an extension of the old Hollywood war-movie lie. The enemy is still bestial and stupid, and no match for our purity and heroism”. Mark Kermode thinks it’s one of the worst films ever made. The Deer Hunter is the zenith of Frankie Boyle’s bit about how “not only will America go to your country and kill all your people, but they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.”
But I love The Deer Hunter. It’s not that I think any of those criticisms are wrong, exactly – except for Kermode calling it one of the worst films ever made, which is crazy – because it is very much a film about sad American soldiers. The portrayal of the Vietnamese is really not great: none of them resemble human beings so much as sadistic monsters, forcing the American prisoners of war to play Russian roulette as they gamble on the outcome. Aggregated into American portrayals of the Vietnamese in general, this is an image that still defines the Vietnam War in western imagination, allows the myth of Vietnam as America’s noble mistake to stay standing. But I’m not sure that any one film has the responsibility to be about every part of the war – films, like I said, aren’t history lessons – and I think that goes double for when a film is about something so specific and under-seen. In aggregate, portraying the Vietnam War through the lens of American suffering distorts both our knowledge of history and our empathy for the victims of America’s crimes in south-east Asia. But if we disaggregate The Deer Hunter from those other portrayals, and take it instead on its own terms, I find it a beautiful and moving film, one that’s not really a war movie at all.
It sounds strange to say about a three-hour epic, but The Deer Hunter is a small film. Its length functions less to take a broad, sweeping look than to pay rapt attention to the most minute details. Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are steelworkers in a small working-class town in Pennsylvania. The film opens on Steven’s wedding night, shortly before the three men are due to ship out to Vietnam. This section of the film – before they leave for Vietnam – is basically a hangout movie, as Mike, Nick and Steven, as well as their friends Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), Axel (Chuck Aspegren), and Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) try to soak up all the joy they can before everything changes forever. It feels almost the way movies about graduating high school do; like everything the characters do is defined in part by the knowledge that this is all about to end. This section has such a sharp eye for the specifies of being Russian-American, folding rarely filmed Russian Orthodox traditions, like wedding crowns and the couple drinking from conjoined goblets, into classically mid-to-late-twentieth-century working-class imagery, like steelworks and hunting and alcohol-centred homosocial bonding. This section would be a sincerely great film all on its own, ending with them arriving at the bar, happy and drunk and singing, spraying beers on one another – until John goes to the piano and starts playing Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 Op. 15-3. The rambunctiousness drains out of them, and with the camera still trained on their faces, we hear the helicopters.
The Vietnam scenes are comparatively brief next to the Pennsylvania scenes which frame them. They’re collectively maybe half an hour out of the three-hour runtime. Mike, Nick and Steven are forced to play Russian roulette – pointing a revolver with one loaded bullet at their own temple and pulling the trigger, hoping not to land on the loaded chamber, before passing it to their “opponent” to do the same – in a POW camp for the guards’ entertainment. It’s the organising metaphor of the film (along with the deer hunting in Pennsylvania): Russian roulette represents the senseless, pointless violence of war, inflicted arbitrarily, disfiguring both body and mind. To wish that you will not pull the trigger on the loaded chamber is to wish that your friend will, and all under orders, for reasons you don’t understand and are not at liberty to question.
Nothing like this really happened in the Vietnam War, which was a point of controversy both on the film’s release and since. “In its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette,” Peter Arnett wrote for the LA Times, “.…The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.” The problem with this, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is that to claim a metaphor is a lie is to operate on a pretty weird definition of metaphor. To take the Vietnam sequences completely literally misses the point. They’re stylistically distinct from the Pennsylvania sequences: both Mark Kermode and Andrew Sarris use the word “hysterical”, and, sure, I guess, although I’d go for “nerve-wracking” or “incredibly tense”, and I think that’s a pretty appropriate tone for the subject matter. The Pennsylvania sections, in contrast, are grounded and naturalistic, even – to use Kermode’s word – “somnambulist”. The Vietnam sequences are more stylised, even entirely allegorical, because they are more interested in the emotional subjectivity of being at war than the historical specifics. Russian roulette serves as an excellent metaphor; I don’t need it to be a fact as well.
The Deer Hunter is less in Vietnam than haunted by it. It is more than anything a film about being working-class, that is interested in paying close attention to small, working-class lives, and it is from there that it arrives at the war. Mike, Nick and Steven are young men for whom military service is both expected and celebrated, in a way it just isn’t for rich kids scrambling for draft deferments. At Steven’s wedding, they meet a Green Beret, and Mike asks him what Vietnam is like. The soldier ignores him, until Mike explains that they’re shipping out soon. He raises his glass and says, “Fuck it!” Mike’s angry, but ultimately, he’ll end up just like that Green Beret. Over the course of the film that wide-eyed curiosity will be torn away, replaced with trauma and grief and pain and isolation. Mike will come back unable to bear the welcome he receives, renting a hotel room to cry so he doesn’t have to go home. Steven will come back with both legs amputated. Nick won’t come home at all.
Ultimately, Mike and Nick and Steven are the kind of men whose lives are – at least subconsciously – considered disposable. They give everything they’ve got for their country and earn nothing in return.
“Chevotarevich, is that a Russian name?” an army doctor asks Nick.
“No,” he says, “It’s an American name.”
I don’t think there is anything nationalistic or pro-war in this; quite the opposite. The Deer Hunter tries to make aggressors – Americans – into victims, but it does so very precisely. In The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Leo Tolstoy describes the military as a form of slavery, because you are forced to surrender your will to your superiors and act in opposition to your conscience on their orders. The Deer Hunter sees working-class American soldiers as victims: young men sent halfway around the world to fight a war that has nothing to do with them and have their lives forever altered. And for what? The film ends with the gang at the bar after Nick’s funeral, and they start singing ‘God Bless America’. I have no idea how anyone thinks this is ambiguous or even straightforwardly patriotic, as if they can’t see John Savage’s face. There is unspeakable, unbearable sadness, and tragedy, and some defiant hope. The characters, I think, have sacrificed so much that they want it to have been for something; the viewer, having watched everything they’ve gone through, hears the irony the characters don’t.
“Every good war film,” director Michael Cimino once said, “…is an anti-war movie.”
Every film that makes you stare into the belly of war, into everything it has wrought, is an anti-war film. War is evil. It is such an unambiguous evil that the only way to stand it is to keep it at a distance in our minds and hearts. To imagine that our purity or heroism or good intentions matter, to ask a Green Beret what Vietnam is like, wide-eyed. Every great war film is an anti-war film, because there’s no way to look at war without agony.
“War isn’t hell. War is war and hell is hell, and of the two, war is a lot worse,” Hawkeye says in an episode of M*A*S*H*, “…There are no innocent bystanders in hell. War is chock-full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
It’s not because they’re American that The Deer Hunter portrays working-class soldiers as victims. It’s because you have to have power to be a warmonger.