Michael Cimino's searing Vietnam War epic stands its ground
In these post-cold War days, it’s easy to forget just how contentious The Deer Hunter once seemed. The film caused a huge outcry at the Berlin Festival, where the Soviet delegates complained, “The heroic people of Vietnam are insulted, something which is particularly impermissible now at a time when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is being subjected to barbaric aggression from China and is fighting a just battle for its freedom and its independence.” When the festival refused to withdraw the film from its programme, most of the Eastern bloc countries walked out. Back in Britain, the film was pilloried by John Pilger in the New Statesman. He accused Cimino of “sifting the ashes of one of history’s most documented atrocities in order to repackage it and resell it as a Hollywood smash that will make them fortunes”.
Politics, though, were never uppermost in Cimino’s mind. He wanted to show the effect the war had on his protagonists?three small-town, Pennsylvanian steel workers who had the misfortune to be thrust into it. From their perspective, it was a hellish experience. Even so, Michael (De Niro), Steven (Savage) and Nick (Walken) don’t question why they’ve been sent to Vietnam. Late in the film, when the old friends sing “God Bless America”, there’s no sense of sarcasm or anger.
Certain sequences are macho and simple-minded. Whether seen on the hilltops hunting deer or jumping off a helicopter, De Niro’s character sometimes behaves like a blue-collar answer to Nietzsche’s Superman. The moment midway through a game of Russian roulette when he turns the gun on his sadistic captors and frees his two friends wouldn’t look out of place in a Rambo movie. “A hunter… a friend… a leader… a soldier… a hero… a man,” was how the studio publicity described Michael. But De Niro is far too thoughtful an actor to lapse into clich