Culture Shock: American Culture, The Vietnam War, and THE DEER HUNTER
25 & 26 May 2014 (Happy Memorial Day)
When first watching The Deer Hunter (1978), and perhaps not knowing how long the film actually is, the first part of the film, which leads up to Mike, Steve, and Nick’s duty in Vietnam, seems a rather labored and drawn out exposition. Instead of rushing though the introduction, The Deer Hunter captures an extensive amount of Mike (Robert De Niro), Steve (John Savage), and Nick’s (Christopher Walken) final days before departure. The three: work their final shift at the plant, (along with other friends) they go out for beers and pool, Steve marries and all attend a jovial wedding reception, and the men take off on one last hunting trip. One thing is for certain, this extended introduction clearly characterizes the men, their small-town, working-class lives, and the historical moment the film is set in.
But, what is the value in such a lengthy opening? For The Deer Hunter the answer may be simple. Using these characters, their lives, and this setting, director Michael Cimino spends time capturing American culture in the sixties, a culture that was forever marked by the Vietnam War, but not shattered despite the war’s tragedy and trauma. Put another way, with the support of this detailed and elaborate opening, The Deer Hunter argues the spirit of America and its cultural values will endure through conflict.
The characters Mike, Steve, and Nick in The Deer Hunter, as well as their friends and loved ones, represent the spirit of America and working-class, all-American culture during Vietnam. This culture believes in faith, pride, loyalty, and freedom. The film’s prolonged opening allows the audience to discover how important the American spirit and culture are to these characters and, through them, the American people during this pivotal moment in history. The rituals of Steve’s wedding, and subsequent reception, demonstrate the adherence to faith. The American-pride represented in the reception’s décor, as well as the deer’s heads hung in Mike and Nick’s trailer, should how prideful Americans are. Also, through these characters, the value of friends sticking together: through the wedding, hunting, and even midnight streaking, demonstrates loyalty. And, when the men escape their industrial town in Pennsylvania for the refuge of the mountains where they will hunt, communicates a desire for freedom. Freedom is also communicated in the opening of the film when the men express their excitement to fight for their country in Vietnam, a country built on freedom.
Yet, the Vietnam War tests the spirit of America and its cultural values.
Through the first shot in Vietnam, which juxtaposes Mike, Steve, and Nick’s pre-war life with their Vietnam experience, the film communicates how fast America culture is tested in this war. After over an hour of build up, the audience finally arrives in Vietnam; the first shot of Vietnam is an entire village blowing up. Unbeknownst to the audience, Mike is there. Once the explosion occurs, the audience sees Mike amid bloody bodies, injured by the bombs. Mike lays unconscious as a Vietnamese soldier opens an underground bomb shelter full of innocent Vietnamese men, women, and children who are trying to escape the attack. The soldier (who prominently wears a wedding ring, but is a compete foil of the American groom the audience knows, Steve) drops a grenade in the shelter, blowing up these terrified people. At this point, Mike comes to. He sees a Vietnamese mother, who is screaming and badly injured, carrying a bloody baby. The Vietnamese soldier shoots the woman and baby several times. Mike grabs a fire hose and consumes the soldier in flames, setting him on fire before grabbing his own gun and shoots the burning soldier to death. Shortly after, Nick and Steve arrive in Vietnam, and, almost immediately, the three friends are taken as POW by the Vietnamese. During their imprisonment, the men are forced to play Russian roulette as Vietnamese soldiers bet on the prisoners’ lives. Fortunately, all three men escape their captures and are rescued by American troops.
Undeniably, the men’s time in Vietnam alters them forever, some more traumatized and less functional than others; however, their cultural values serve them in duty as well as post-duty. For example, when the men are imprisoned and forced to play Russian roulette, they survive because of their deeply rooted sense of pride; Mike is the character that demonstrates this best. As the Vietnamese scream in the prisoners’ faces, barking at them to pull the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at their own heads, Mike talks his friends through the ordeal, encouraging them to, “pull an empty chamber.” Mike’s pride shines through, motivating his friends and fellow prisoners, offering strength and support for those enduring torture and trauma.
Also, Mike demonstrates an inherent allegiance to loyalty in Vietnam. While fleeing capture, Mike and Nick stop and help a badly injured Steve. After escaping, Mike ensures Nick is rescued by the American troops via helicopter. Mike and Steve try hanging on to the moving chopper, but a wounded Steve does not have enough strength. Instead of saving himself, Mike drops from the helicopter to protect Steve. Eventually both he and Steve are rescued, but Nick and Steve would not have escaped and survived without Mike. Reading into the film, one can see the argument that Mike demonstrated his loyalty during combat because of ingrained cultural values which were tested but not defeated during his ordeal in Vietnam.
Post war, when the film follows Mike and Steve’s return to America, as well as Nick’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, The Deer Hunter subtly emphasizes that, although altered, American cultural ideals have survived the war. For example, after returning safely from war, Mike dares to venture back into Vietnam when he learns Nick, who Mike presumed dead, may still be alive. Mike’s willingness to face the place that once tormented him demonstrates his loyalty to a friend. Additionally, when Nick, tragically, ends his own life, and returns to America for burial, Mike and his close friends and loved ones all gather for a funeral. The funeral, a textual echo of the wedding that opened the film, shows the faith these characters still have; their ritualistic celebration of life, much like the wedding, is not lost as a result of the tragic circumstances that caused Nick to end his life.
The film’s soberest scene, the final scene, when all the characters, post-funeral and dressed in black and sit around a table singing “God Bless America,” is, perhaps, its strongest claim about the spirit of America. Sorrowful and stunned, the characters loyally sit together, pridefully and faithfully singing a ballad which blesses their land, America, a country which stands for freedom. Initially, this scene may be misread as an anti-war statement, but, in consideration of how elaborately the film opens, and realizing this film is not actually a movie about war, the final scene clearly highlights that, although shaken, the spirit of America and the culture of the country will carry on.
The elongated opening of The Deer Hunter lays the foundation for what the film is actually about. Again, this is not another movie about the atrocity of Vietnam—although the film does not shield itself from the traumas of a brutal war. The Deer Hunter is a film about the unshakable, undying spirit of America, arguing the American culture is so strong is cannot be defeated.