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I Believe in Ammunition?

By Drew Morton | | June 8, 2010 |

By Drew Morton | | June 8, 2010 |

I was drawn to the idea of watching Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) after watching HBO’s documentary I Knew it Was You. The awfully brief but touching documentary covers the tragically short career of actor John Cazale. Cazale, who appeared in only five films (the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter), all of which were nominated for best picture, was diagnosed with bone cancer leading up to the production of The Deer Hunter. The studio, reluctant to cast Cazale in the film, was pushed into a corner when Cazale’s fiancée, Meryl Streep, threatened to walk off the project if he was replaced while Robert De Niro allegedly paid the insurance to ensure his friend’s participation in the film. Cazale’s scenes were shot first and the actor passed before the film premiered.

I begin my review with an account somewhat tangentially by referencing the production history of Cimino’s film as based around the actors for two reasons: one personal and subjective, one professional and less subjective. First, I stand in admiration of Cazale’s work, specifically as Fredo in the Godfather films (1972, 1974) and Sal in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), so I’m always willing to find an excuse to sing his praises. Secondly, because after reading about Cimino, his follow up debacle of Heaven’s Gate (1980), and pruning through all the other baggage that came along with watching The Deer Hunter for the first time, all I was left with was awe of the performances. This probably isn’t exactly a surprise considering the cast Cimino was able to rope in, yet I felt incredibly conflicted and ultimately disappointed by the film. I admired the goals Cimino set for the endeavor, but it never quite nailed the landing for me.

The Deer Hunter follows the classic pattern of a three-act cycle of order, disorder, order, devoting an hour of screen time to each act of the epic. The film begins in a small town in the late 1960s with a group of friends and co-workers at a local steel mill including Michael (De Niro), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), Stanley (Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) as Steven prepares for his marriage to his girlfriend on the eve of being shipped for a tour of duty in Vietnam along with Michael and Nick. The narrative set up, particularly when executed with the participation of De Niro and Cazale, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s structuring of the Godfather films: start with a big family event (wedding, first communion, a charity celebration) that plants the seeds for coming events (for instance, the first Godfather puts so many little events in motion, such as the “requests” of both Johnny Fontane and Bonasera that pay off much deeper into the film). Cimino tries to do something similar by setting up the potential of a love-triangle between Michael, Nick, and Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Streep) and foreshadowing the tragic consequences of the war (the wine on the wedding dress, the Green Beret toasting “fuck it”) but, for the time spent on the wedding and the hunting trip, the narrative return is incredibly diminished.

I particularly found myself checking the time during the hunting trip sequences, as the friends decide to play a prank on Stanley that lasts for minutes. I understand the purpose of the sequence and Cimino’s use of temporal duration to get us into the mindset and rhythm of small town life, I’m just not sure if we needed more than forty to fifty minutes of it, particularly when the payoff is small and the execution is not incredibly subtle (the wine on the dress, Stanley Myers’s musical score). Following the deer hunt, there is a temporal ellipsis into the midst of the Vietnam War. Michael witnesses the atrocities of the conflict as a North Vietnamese soldier grenades civilians and guns down a woman carrying a baby, inspiring him to seek revenge with a flame thrower. The sequence has a surreal quality, as Michael awakens to see these events happening and by the time they conclude, he finds himself in the company of Nick and Steven again before the three of them are captured and held in a riverside prison.

It is in this camp that the three captives are forced to play Russian Roulette as a form of entertainment for the sadistic guards, providing the film with a, pardon the pun, loaded representation of the Vietnamese that seemingly wishes away our own sadism as exemplified by the My Lai Massacre. Yet, given the fact that the film was released just three years after the war, I’m not terribly surprised at the depiction as it is awfully difficult for a film (perhaps any piece of art) to be critical of a national trauma in such temporal proximity. For instance, just look at the relatively stacked representational deck that Catherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009) provides towards Iraqis. In both films, I think there is a wasted opportunity to interrogate the necessity of the us vs. them mentality inherent in warfare, an aspect I admired about David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999). In any case, the trauma of the Russian Roulette sequences, the consequential escape from the prison, and its tragic aftermath change the lives of Michael, Nick, and Steven forever, providing the disorder of the narrative that bleeds into the film’s final act as Michael and Steven return home, nursing their personal scars (some emotional, some physical) while constantly keeping the fate of Nick in their minds.

This brings me full circle to the performances of the film. While the film benefits from the ensemble of talent (although Cazale, perhaps due to health concerns, does not have a huge role here), all the emotion and the best the film had to offer with regard to acting came in the final scene between De Niro and Walken, particularly in their eyes. While Walken is given little to say and De Niro is given a passionate plea, the tears, pain, and fear in their eyes helped dull Cimino’s earlier directorial missteps. When the film and Nick reach their foregone conclusion, bringing us back to order, there is a feeling of shock and sadness that keeps you from fully grasping what has happened. It is not until John weeps as he begins to make eggs for Michael, Steven, Linda, Stanley, and Axel on the bittersweet day that Nick has finally come home that the numbness of the entire experience starts to diminish and we are left to feel again. In the end, The Deer Hunter, like Apocalypse Now (1979) released one year later, is a flawed Vietnam film with admirable traits, memorable but for both better and worse.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.

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