One of America’s first attempts to deal with the Vietnam War on film, Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is long and richly rewarding.
It seemed America was finally ready for a film about the horrors of the Vietnam War, aimed squarely at the heart of blue-collar middle-American values.
Everyone remembers the iconic shot of Robert De Niro, pistol to head, playing Russian Roulette for the pleasure of his cruel Viet Cong captors, but charges of racism, such as those levelled at the film by Jane Fonda, miss the point: This is a powerful metaphor for the madness of war – and an edge-of-the-seat cinematic experience to boot.
It’s 1967. Mike (Robert DeNiro), Stevie (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three Russian-American steelworkers in Clairton, Pennsylvania, who are about to fight for their country.
Before the trio leaves for basic training, Steven and a pregnant Angela (Rutanya Alda) have a Russian Orthodox wedding. All the while, Mike tries to cover up the fact that he is in love with Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Linda and Nick get engaged after she catches the bride’s bouquet.
Nick later makes Mike promise not to leave him in the combat zone if anything should happen.
The friends go hunting the next day, and Mike gets frustrated with Stan (John Cazale), who is unprepared and shows no respect for what Mike considers a sacred ritual – killing a deer with a single, well-aimed riﬂe shot.
The film jumps to Vietnam, where American soldiers attack an enemy village with napalm. Mike, now a staff sergeant, watches a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) operative kill a woman with a baby and then kills the operative.
Simultaneously, a group of Huey helicopters deliver a number of infantry troops to the combat zone, including Nick and Steven. Mike, Steven and Nick reunite but are soon taken prisoner by enemy combatants and sent to a POW camp.
The sadistic guards have the POWs play Russian roulette, gambling on the outcome. Mike, Steven and Nick all play, but Steven is unable to play against Mike and fires in the air instead. As a result, the guards’ cage Steven underwater with rats.
The physical and psychological horror endured by the trio is made all the more shattering by Michael’s strength and his barely controlled determination to will his friends out of the nightmare.
Mike and Nick plot an escape, convincing the guards to let them play with extra bullets and then turning on their enemies.
Nick and Mike kill the guards and rescue Steven, and the trio ﬂoats down the river in search of rescue. Although an American chopper spots them, Nick is the only one who can make it aboard. Steven, weak from his torture, slides back into the water, and Mike goes in after him.
Mike manages to get Steven to the riverbank and then carries him through the jungle to the American lines. Meanwhile, Nick convalesces in a ﬁeld hospital in Saigon, battling against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and worrying about the fate of his friends.
After his wounds heal, Nick leaves the hospital and goes AWOL. He walks through Saigon’s red-light district and into a gambling den where he finds Mike, watching a game of Russian roulette but not participating.
Nick joins the game but ﬁres the gun at another player before turning it on himself. He survives but is driven away by Julien Grinda (Pierre Segui) before Mike can catch up with him.
Act III finds Mike arriving back home in the US, but he is unable to embrace the friends who wait for him with a ‘welcome home’ banner outside the house.
He and Linda spend time together the next day, thinking that they’ve lost Nick forever. Mike also visits Angela, but she is cold and clearly depressed, telling Mike that Steven is at a VA hospital.
Visiting the hospital, Mike discovers that Steven has had both legs amputated and is paralysed. Steven tells Mike that an anonymous source in Saigon has been mailing him money and he suspects it’s Nick.
Mike delivers Steven to Angela, then goes back to Saigon in search of Nick. He discovers him gambling, but Nick doesn’t recognise Mike. Nick tries to jog his friend’s memory using a game of Russian roulette, but Nick is too far gone. He raises the gun to his head – revealing scars on his arms that are obviously heroin tracks marks – and pulls the trigger.
To Mike’s horror, there’s a live round in the chamber and Nick shoots himself through the head.
Mike takes Nick’s body home, making good on his promise.
It is through Mike, the unequivocal leader of the group, that the film plumbs the depths of friendship and the sacrifices people will make. Through day-to-day pettiness and watershed events, we see his devotion to two things – his comrades and his approach to deer hunting – and his struggle to be as faithful and true to the former as he is to his ‘one-shot’ hunting coda.
De Niro spent six weeks before filming began absorbing the atmosphere of American steel towns. On location in Thailand, he did his own war scene stunts – even plunging from a helicopter into a river.
Walken’s tortured performance of a man giving up on his own soul won him a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. The film also picked up Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, yet it’s the haunting title theme by John Williamson that clinches the whole deal.
The movie had its detractors who complained it was self-indulgent, too long, and as subtle as a brick, but many found its exploration of the effects of the war a cathartic experience.
It’s only when you have sat through the leisurely-paced wedding and elegiac hunting sequences that the final third – and the true impact of the war on small communities – hits home. God Bless America indeed . . .
John Cazale (Stan) was dying of cancer during production and passed away only weeks after shooting finished on The Deer Hunter. He was engaged to co-star Meryl Streep at the time.
Michael (Mike) Vronsky
Robert De Niro
Steven (Stevie) Pushkov
Nikanor (Nick) Chevotarevich
Peter ‘Axel’ Axelrod