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.
Michael (Robert DeNiro), Stevie (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three Pennsylvanian steelworkers about to fight for their country.
We discover their friendship before, during and after the taste of war has soured each of their individual psyches.
It is through Michael, 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 Michael’s 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.
The three friends are reunited under the cruellest of circumstances when Michael, Nick and Stevie are taken prisoner. 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.
Yet even after he reaches the safety of home the ties to his comrades are unyielding. Michael can barely bring himself to face Nick’s girl Linda (Meryl Streep), whom he has painfully adored from afar, let alone consider usurping his friend’s place in her bed.
Nick is his conscience and it is only after he has met his obligations to his friends that he can consider reclaiming his own life.
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) would die of cancer only weeks after shooting The Deer Hunter. He was engaged to co-star Meryl Streep at the time.
Robert De Niro