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Seeing Michael Cimino‘s The Deer Hunter 30 plus years after it made such an impression in 1978 as one of the first post-Vietnam War films is an education in how we change.  The memories of the war were still raw then, and discussions still heated. I don’t recall specifics of how I felt when I first saw it but I do recall being impressed by the violence Cimino was so good at, thinking that although some were calling it an anti-war film, to me it was just a chance for many to enjoy brutality under cover of pretending it was awful.  I went back to it recently after mentions around Oscar time that it was the first film Meryl Streep had been unfairly denied an Oscar for — huh?  Meryl Streep was in it!?– and because I’ve been attentive to real war movies — not jubilation war movies– for the past year or so.

As you may recall, the story is about three buddies from the same Pennsylvania steel town who go to war and don’t come back as they went.  One is legless.  One is distant and uncommunicative.  One never comes back, involved in back-alley drugs and dangerous games as Saigon falls.

The first impression on re-seeing it, is the care Cimino took to set up the daily lives of the men whose lives we will watch unfolding.  There are terrific shots, close up and long in the mill, with belching fire and dark shadows moving close to the danger.  Of course these scenes foreshadow the war scenes that will come later, but standing on their own the shots and the production effort to get them are remarkable.

Morning street scenes in town and wonderful vistas as a gang of the young men go hunting are detailed and evocative. [The mountains look a bit rugged for Pennsylvania and in fact the hunting and filming was done around Mt Baker, Washington — a sign, perhaps of Cimino’s unedited over-statement. What on earth is wrong with the Alleghenies themselves?]

The wedding scene, in which Steven [ John Savage] marries his girlfriend, although pregnant by another man, starts off as such scenes do: the bride primping with female relatives around, guys acting goofy, and fueled by liquor.  Linda [Meryl Streep], loved by both Michael [Robert De Niro  ] and Nick [Christopher Walken  ] is wonderful in her almost wordless appearance.   The slowly dawning surprise is that it goes on for so long –fully one-third of a three hour movie.  Every story has a budget of sorts — how much time spent in the telling having something to do with its importance to the whole tale.   The wedding party, which is also the goodby party for the three, is very well done, catching the boisterous, not very decorous, goings-on of a tough working class group of friends.  There is boozy dancing, and slinging the bride over a shoulder, tough talking wanna-be fighters rebuffed at the bar by one who has actually seen the war.  “Fuck it” he tells them.  “Fuck it,” which of course they are far from understanding.  But 50 minutes? Of drunken fun?

The film shifts abruptly from the party to the war.  Michael [Robert De Niro] is engaged with a flame thrower as terrified Vietnamese scramble for cover in hiding holes.  A uniformed arm lifts up the trap door and drops a grenade in as children’s faces stare out.  Even thirty years after seeing such footage in the news, this is not entertaining screen violence.  It is gut-wrenching and fills us with shame.

Then begins the much remarked upon horrific scene of forced Russian roulette in a jungle camp.  The prisoners are kept in sunken bamboo cages.  Swimming rats completely un-nerve Steven.  Michael, the calm, nervy guy from the beginning, talks Nicky into playing and then in Sylvester Stallone bravado they overpower the guards and take to the river. The maniacal screaming of the Vietnamese guards, and the nature of the game itself, is about as terrible a caricature of Asians as ever appeared in WW II propaganda posters.

And what I hadn’t remembered was this “game” of betting your life appears not just once but four times in the movie.  It is not simply a cruelty perpetrated on prisoners of war, but seemingly, part of Vietnamese culture: Vietnamese playing against Vietnamese.  Cimino no doubt intends it to be a metaphor for US foreign policy — loading up guns that have the potential to injure the country– but since the screen images are of strange little Asian men throwing money and cheering as at a cock fight, the emotional take-away is unlikely to be about crazy Americans.

All three make their way back to a U.S. base but are soon separated.  Michael makes his way back home, avoids a welcome home party, and finds Linda in his arms, for all his churning emotions.  Steven is revealed in rehab, having lost both his legs, probably as a result of the river escape they made together.  The reunion scene in the ward is a terrific piece of acting.  De Niro has called it one of the most wrenching scenes he has ever done.

It turns out that Steven has been getting envelopes of cash from someone unknown.  Michael deduces it is from Nicky who must be still in Vietnam.  In a series of improbable scenes, Michael arrives, in uniform, on the day of the fall of Saigon and the terrified flight by helicopter from the embassy roof.  As improbably he tracks Nick down in flame-lit canals and alleys straight from Breughel’s visions of hell. Nicky is doped beyond recognizing Michael and has been playing the roulette game for money.  Michael tries to snap him out of his trance, first by saying “I love you,” and then by challenging him to a game.  Nick loses.

The film ends with a sad, dark scene in the bar back home with the old gang remembering Nick and singing “America the Beautiful.”  The none too subtle irony ruffled not a few feathers in the still patriotic viewers of 1978.  It didn’t bring me much satisfaction in 2012 either.  It was a horrible and unnecessary war and was so because of the orders, plans and stratagems  carried on by Presidents, Cabinet members and Generals, with nearly full support of several Congresses and the American people, at least in the early years.  Painting the horror as the acts of fanatical enemies and a drug addled soldier who feels responsible for the loss of his friends is a picture of distraction.

In case you’ve forgotten Cimino’s next film was the widely panned, and pulled from distribution, Heaven’s Gate, the length of which and excesses some critics claim to have seen forecast in The Deer Hunter.

Christoper Walken fully deserved his Oscar for Supporting Role.  Streep was robbed.  De Niro was fine, though as often, entirely recognizable as De Niro.  Best Picture of 1978?  Not for me, and contrary to some of the reviews at IMDB I won’t be returning again soon.

For terrific movies that take a look at war and their cost, see  Fires on the Plainand The Burmese Harp by Kon Ichikawa, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. There are plenty more but these are at the top of my list.