Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Michael Cimino made a name for himself as a bright young thing working in New York advertising before turning to screenwriting in the early 1970s, joining the ranks of fresh and eager talents the “New Hollywood” was embracing in an effort to rejuvenate the industry. After working on the science fiction film Silent Running (1971) and the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1974), Cimino broke into directing with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a modest but beautifully made movie about a pair of buddy criminals on the road, straddling several of the early decade’s popular genres and thematic terrains. Cimino seemed like a perfectly evolved organism for New Hollywood, fresh, smart, driven, volatile, and a hopeless fabulist. In particular, he had that trait most prized by the age’s cinema scene: vision, that overwhelming sense of aesthetic aim that could conquer the cynical senses of an audience burned out by Old Hollywood’s tricks.
For his second film, Cimino aimed much higher, envisaging an epic film about the most controversial subject of his age: the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Funding for such a project was all-but-impossible to come by in the climate of mid-’70s Hollywood, so he braved the L.A. office of British record company EMI instead and spent two hours pitching executives his vision for the film. He must have done something right, because even with no script, actors, or production elements ready, he was still ordered to start shooting in five months. With the aid of Deric Washburn, who converted Cimino’s concept into a workable script, and Robert De Niro, a hot property after The Godfather Part II (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), Cimino’s unlikely project came to fruition.
The resulting film, The Deer Hunter, stoked hyperbolic responses from viewers. Greeted by some as the cinematic equivalent of Tolstoy and embraced by the industry and mainstream audiences alike to become a big hit, Cimino’s film went on to capture the 1978 Best Picture Oscar. The Deer Hunter bothered others with its viewpoint on the conflict, told entirely through American eyes, where Vietnam becomes an alien and stygian zone filled with sadists and wretches and random horrors. Seemingly uninterested in the political dimensions of the war, Cimino preferred to portray its young protagonists as people to whom war happens as a cruel and random imposition, rather than making them agents of a wider, conceptual approach to war, like the following year’s Apocalypse Now, or as radicalised avatars of shifting tides of social identity, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which was one of its big rivals at that year’s Oscars. Actually, The Deer Hunter does have a bleak and accusatory political side, portraying as it does the war as an event that invited the best from citizens who are then dumped back into the world variously mangled or bereft. Cimino had endeavoured to make a film purely about the experience of young men doing their bit according to their communal ideals, sense of patriotism, and personal ethics, and being deeply wounded in many forms and unable to make any sense of what they have experienced beyond the whirlpool of carnage. Some objected to Cimino’s signature flight of fancy, the central scene of forced Russian roulette-playing, as not just a symbolic invention and effective horror sequence, but as pernicious falsity; Cimino was awkwardly caught up in trying to defend its legitimacy. Yet, in the context of the late ’70s, the film represented a ballsy project all the same. Films of epic length were conspicuously out of favour. The situation of many Vietnam veterans socially and personally wasn’t good, and in spite of a small spate of Vietnam films released around this time, official catharsis wasn’t reached until around the time of Platoon (1986) and the opening of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project The Deer Hunter helped inspire.
Cimino’s ambitious scale belied to a certain extent the intimate and simple focus of his film, depicting the entwined fates of three pals, steel mill workers from the Pennsylvania town of Clairton drafted to fight in Vietnam sometime around 1970. Cimino employed a narrative approach here that he would revisit in his follow-up Heaven’s Gate, packing multiple strands of story set-up and asides that compile into a detailed portraiture of place as well as people. The film’s first third details how a trio of young heroes engage in a series of ritual events that comprise their farewell to the life they know. The trio, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Cevatolavic (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), along with their other pals and coworkers Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), complete their last shift at the steel mill, and emerge to a rare solar phenomenon, “sundogs”, which Mike, referring to Native-American folklore, declares a good omen for his favourite pursuit of deer hunting. They retreat for a farewell chill-out session in their local bar, run by pal John (George Dzundza). Steven is about to marry his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) over his mother’s (Shirley Stoller) objections, which she is glimpsed weepily confessing to her priest (Father Stephen Kopestonsky), before coming to drag Steven out of the bar to prepare for the wedding.
Both a source of power and a difficulty for the film lay in Cimino’s blend of filmic techniques, coalescing into a style difficult to pin down, at once uniquely earthy, authentic, and realistic in a way anyone could grasp, and yet also floridly artistic and deeply stylised, even mythic in reach and resonance. What it definitely wasn’t, however, was documentary. How Cimino illustrated his stark, cumulatively gruelling tale was what made it so arresting. His technique, notably confident for a second film, represented a rich polyglot of influences that seemed for a moment to represent a new paradigm for popular art, equal to what Francis Coppola had managed with The Godfather a few years earlier. Cimino borrowed technique from classical Hollywood epics: the vistas of John Ford and David Lean enfold and lend background to the drama, dwarfing the humans and their concerns and yet offering elusive promises of transcendence and communion, too. The fascination for behavioural minutiae recalls the eccentric genre cinema of Howard Hawks and Phil Karlson, crossbred with the new wave filmmaking of guys like Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jerry Schatzberg, emphasising improvisation in his performances and careful attentiveness to the rhythms of actors. Cimino also added into the mix the dramatic approach of Italian post-neorealism, particularly the work of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and their spacious, allusive approach to narrative and characterisation, where characters seem to float through the landscapes they inhabit on a deceptively open and yet carefully choreographed fashion. Cimino’s credo was that films came alive because of their “shadows and spaces,” like classic Dutch art.
Another quality of The Deer Hunter that makes it relatively rare among major American films, even in the milieu of the 1970s, is the dignity it gives to working-class lives, the feel for the environs they live in: only a handful of Warner Bros. blue-collar melodramas from the 1930s and ’40s, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), had a similar acuity. One close relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless depicted the same milieu with similarly gamy insight. The Deer Hunter hit a vein Bruce Springsteen was starting to mine profitably in rock music, casting the denim-clad worker as the essence of Americana, providing the national backbone, but also acting as the canary in the coalmine for its economic, social, and political upheavals. The evocation of Clairton is one of the best portraits of a small industrial town ever, speaking as a person who grew up in one. Clairton is a town hunkered under mist and melting snow, subsisting beneath the gothic mass of the steel mill, blotches of light and colour hovering amidst drenching blues and greens. It’s inhabited by callow, energetic, shallowly naughty young men and thwarted elders, a place of deep amity and pockets of abuse. Clairton interestingly is also portrayed as a specific ethnic enclave, with the Russian Orthodox Church at the centre of the local culture. Several of Cimino’s recurring notions are immediately in evidence here; the immigrant’s place in American life, blue-collar heroes with chips on their shoulders, violence as plague and crucible, and rituals social and private that define individuals in relation to the whole.
The Deer Hunter‘s early scenes are defined by the ebb and flow of detail, offering oblique characterisation and context, often underscoring the tale’s evolving themes. Bridesmaids trying to keep their dresses from getting soiled whilst dashing to the wedding. The boys drinking beer, playing pool, and singing along to Frankie Valli. The special technique for opening the boot on Mike’s Chevy. Linda (Meryl Streep) trying to help her drunken father (Richard Kuss) into bed and getting a black eye for her pains. Steven and and Angela’s wedding scene is close to an ideal litmus test for the different ways people experience movies; pointless and rambling to some, enriching and endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of celebration that’s more than a mere party, but a communal rite. Nick’s life-of-the-party joie de vivre counterbalances Mike’s social awkwardness, as both make a play for Linda’s affections; Mike misses his chance downing too much liquid courage, and Nick gets in a marriage proposal that Linda accepts. The supermarket manager doubles as wedding singer, crooning ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and cuts in to dance with Stan’s girlfriend. Stan’s buffoonish antics are plied with a mix of obliviousness and try-hard desperation, apparent in his posturing as ladies man and pistol-packing tough guy, and he provides slapstick humour with an appalling edge as he gets angry, stamps into the cotillion, and throws a punch that knocks his girlfriend out. Amid the humour and working social observation thread hints of fate. The ominous presence of a returned Green Beret sergeant with the proverbial thousand-yard stare who threads his way through the wedding party to throw back shots with declarations of “Fuck it!” has the quality of fateful visitation, the Red Death arriving at the ball, eventually riling Mike with his reserve.
Underlying the frivolity of the wedding is the intensity of fear: the young men are being feted for their honourable commitment to duty and because maybe they won’t come back. The blown-up pictures of them festooned on the wall of the reception hall have turned them into icons as sacrificial venerated. Mike performs a hysterical nude run through the streets of Clairton. His subsequent bleary chat with Nick resolves with Nick’s confession of a love for the primal grandeur of the trees during the hunt: where Mike sees the unifying crux of the single shot, Nick sees the enveloping glory of nature, “the colours in the trees,” something to sink into and fade among. Leaving Steven to his honeymoon, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John go on a last hunting expedition: Cimino sarcastically plays off a grand David Lean landscape with the humour and bickering of the young men, as John finds himself abandoned by the roadside and clueless Stan gazes about him at mountains that haven’t changed in millennia and swears that somehow they have. Mike declares the shift from one phase of life to another has begun when he refuses to furnish Stan with his spare pair of boots, and berates Stan for his complete lack of preparation, and his habit of constantly carrying a pistol “like John Wayne,” the archetypal macho posturer without the expertise or concision of habit to back it up. Nick intervenes as the confrontation becomes heated, and Mike heads off into the hills to track in a moment staged like a holy rite, complete with Russian church chorus chanting on the soundtrack. There he bring downs a monarch of the glen with single-minded precision, a sense of craft and purity of intent that prove to have prepared him, semi-consciously, for war.
Cimino executes a smash cut from the victorious, elated, exhausted hunters listening to John play his barroom piano with startling art to napalm blasts erupting in the jungle, swinging from the edge of the sublime to the infernal precincts—it’s one of the great scene changes of cinema history. Mike is depicted awakening on the battlefield, the drowsy reverie of the previous scene giving way to the immediacy of the first hour as though it is only remembered dreaming, a state of grace before damning. Mike is quickly stirred to action as a stray NVA solider kills civilians, and righteously roasts his enemy with a flame-thrower. Helicopters spirit in reinforcements, including Nick and Steven, who are amazed to encounter their pal in the grip of berserker fixation, only for a sudden VC attack to lead to their capture and imprisonment in a remote and makeshift lock-up. The guards apparently can’t hold their captives long in such a place and so have hit upon the novel idea of letting chance kill them off slowly by forcing them to play Russian roulette until they’re all dead. Steven narrowly survives and is tossed into a cage in the river where he’ll quickly lose strength and drown. Forced to take a great chance for even the slightest hope of escape, Mike, under the guise of trying to belittle their captors, cajoles them into putting three bullets into the gun for the game. He and Nick pass the gun between them for two agonising plays to make the VC lower their guard before Mike sparks a stunningly fast and successful insurrection.
This scene was surely the reason for The Deer Hunter’s success at the time and its continuing reputation as a classic of violent intensity. Mike’s heroic retention of nerve holds the situation together, and the scene builds with incredible force to the moment of punitive exactness when Mike gives the Vietnamese ringleader (Somsak Sengvilai) a third eye. This is thriller stuff as much as it is representation of war’s randomness, but this sequence undoubtedly conveys a powerful extra dimension, the spectacle of ordinary men passing through the outer limits of human trial in some septic circle of hell, where gnawing rats and other men’s life blood dripping on you are the least unpleasant aspects, and the confrontation with mortality becomes a state without past or future, only perfect being and non-being. The superlative acting, particularly from De Niro, captures the spectacle of men being stripped down to their rawest nerve, with wild swings from bowel-emptying fear to hysterical jollity and howls of vengeful abuse. Importantly, apart from the flash cuts depicting the climactic crucible of violence, Cimino generally films in the same way he shot the same men dancing and carousing—in long, intent sequences where behaviour unfolds frantic, flailing, relentless, until the viewer is all but wrapped in their clammy terror and fight-for-life imperative.
Mike’s plan works against the odds, or rather according to the fifty-fifty odds his three-bullet plan entails. He, Nick, and Steven, though battered and bloodied and near-unhinged, make their escape down river. But Steven falls from a helicopter during the rescue and shatters his legs, forcing Mike to fall after him and carry him across country. In the midst of a convoy of refugees, he’s able to get a South Vietnamese officer to drive Steven to help. In Saigon, traumatised Nick heads off into the Saigon night to dedicate his life to reliving his moment of existential crisis under the gun when a remnant French colonial, Julien (Pierre Segui), introduces him to the underground craze for betting on Russian roulette. South Vietnam is a corrupt fleshpot where everyone has essentially become an organism, living and dying without moral limits: Nick has a sleazy encounter with a prostitute with a kid in her room, but he’s enticed away by a street vendor selling statues of elephants. Mike returns home alone and haunted.
The third part of the film depicts Mike’s return and his efforts to take up his life, but finding that impossible not only because of his physical and mental injuries, but also because the social contract between him and his friends is still standing. Here, The Deer Hunter shifts into another storytelling mode, perhaps the more familiar, as its evident structural debt is to generations of panoramic, off-to-war-and-back tales like The Big Parade (1926) and Wings (1927), and more specific dramas about damaged veterans like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). But Cimino is exacting in specific details as he contemplates the odd lot of the modern soldier, hooked out of the midst of turmoil and dumped back into the mundane world. Particularly good and real-feeling is Mike’s initial return, his squirming discomfort when, ferried by a taxi toward his old home, he sees a banner of welcome. Rather than face the party waiting for him, Mike instead heads to a motel where he crouches against the wall, wrapped in tension and pain. The next morning, as the last of the party flitters away, leaving only Linda, Mike spies upon friends and the unchanged signifiers of his own life, outside of them and touched with inescapable longing to both run away and reach out.
Mike, escorted by Linda through town, is hailed as the returned hero, and Linda’s hapless idea of succor is to offer to go to bed with Mike, only for him to fall asleep for the first time since returning. The gentle, toey romance of Mike and Linda is haunted by the awareness that Mike has stepped into Nick’s shoes, and Mike is privileged to learn quickly that the women waiting for the men have been through their own ordeal. He happens upon Linda quietly weeping whilst marking prices on supermarket items, and Angela, reduced to an almost catatonic wreck by Steven’s injury and refusal to come home, can only communicate through hand-written notes. Mike’s attempts to reconnect with his remaining pals eventually sees his anger boil over at Stan, who threatens Axel with his pistol: Mike gives him a coarse lesson in the sort of truth he accosted Stan with earlier by taking his gun, emptying out all but one bullet, and then pressing it to his forehead: lucky for Stan, this time he gets an empty chamber.
One notable influence hiding within The Deer Hunter is the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who similarly dealt in virtually mythic stories told through accumulations of realist detail, and many of whose themes and images percolate through the film, and also Hemingway’s influences, James Fenimore Cooper and A.E.W. Mason. But Cimino reconfigures some of their essential notions. Whereas Hemingway often depicted survivors of conflict who found themselves recreating the tragedy of life and death on the small and controllable scale of man versus animal and finding existential surety there, Cimino depicts Nick as doomed to keep experiencing the moment of his own death/life—the click of the firing pin in Russian roulette—enacted on his own self. Nick descends into anti-personhood, his past erased with drugs and only able to survive like a goldfish between contests.
Meanwhile Mike’s reawakening sees him resist killing a deer when he returns to the mountains: his scream of “Okay!” to the mountains smacks of a mysterious and personal surrender that also brings relief. Although the hunt gave him the skills to survive the battle, Mike can no longer rely on such gifts and ethics to keep him sustained: in such a fashion, Cimino evokes a classical ideal of heroism only to undercut it and show up its greatest weakness. The American frontier hero has failed to survive Vietnam. Mike instead begins to turn into a different man, coupling with Linda and taking charge, at first half-madly when he subjects Stan to the ordeal, and then with more focus as he locates Steven, who’s hiding away in a veteran’s hospital, and drags him back to Angela, before heading back to Vietnam to find Nick. The climactic rite of the wedding sees Steven and Angela drinking from a twinned cup, invoking corny superstition: “If you don’t spill a drop, it means good luck for the rest of your life”—except that two red drops fall fatefully on the white lace of Angela’s dress. Such vignettes of mythopoeic flavour hint that for all its surface realism, The Deer Hunter is actually a form of myth-making. Indeed, under the surface, it has more in common with classical tragedy and myth than the precepts of Victorian realist writing. Cimino and Washburn offer a Sophoclean tragedy where earthly, communal lessons and the invocation of fate repeatedly enfold the young heroes. The pure trio of youth, Mike, Nick, and Steven could readily have stumbled out of any point in history for an anthem of doomed youth and gone off to fight in any war.
Mike’s odd, Zenlike sense as the hunter puts him readily into a legendary mould, whilst Nick gains mastery over death, one of the most hallowed mythic themes, at the cost of his humanity. Mike’s private trip—his obsession with the perfect hunt and the ethic of the “one shot” kill—echoes heroes from Siegfried to Natty Bumppo, right down to his implied celibacy: professional sleaze Stan rebukes Mike over his gruff and strict attitude toward him by bringing up his apparent sexual failures. Mike’s mastery of the hunt gives him a worldly power, as his focus and determination help him keep his head during a scene of Dante-worthy torment. But perhaps more important is the ethereal power it gives him. “This is this!” Mike rants at Stan, holding up a bullet, utterly bemusing Stan but revealing his own sensibility, at once atavistic and materialistic, perceiving the concrete nature of the bullet as the singular essence of reality, the separator of living and dead. Yet when faced with the bullet and the Russian roulette wheel, he tells Nick to put an empty chamber in the gun with the force of his will. Nick emerges from this with a magic power: when Mike returns and locates him, he has become “the famous American” who has survived innumerable tussles with death.
I’ve often felt that Cimino’s chief misstep with The Deer Hunter was his insistence on giving it a semblance of a plot. Mike’s mission to find Nick in the midst of a collapsing Saigon and the end of the war strains to fulfil the old-fashioned epic credentials of the story, contrary to the “shit happens” art of the movie’s bulk. Nonetheless, the furor of the illicit dens Mike finds Nick in evokes the visions of Bosch, as do the sideways glimpses of a pocket of existence crumbling, a place where small gestures like the pathetic stab by Julien at regaining a gasp of honour by eventually refusing Mike’s money, and Mike’s appeals to Nick’s drug-sodden memory, are doomed, yet ennobled. Notably, Mike only succeeds in breaking the spell that has kept Nick alive: Nick ambiguously seeming to finally recognise Mike, but then puts gun to head and shoots himself, the magic protection gone, perhaps deliberately willed away. Nick is sacrificed innocence, and his funeral marks the end of the film. Cimino’s fascination with ritual as communal conducer comes full circle as Nick is buried and his friends gather for a wake where a ragged, plaintive, rendition of “God Bless America” sets the seal: the duty is done, the cost great, the flow of life about to begin again. Cimino played his cards right. He had proven that a film on a painful subject with an angry streak could be made in a way that communicated to more than ideologues of either side. Cimino was lauded, famous, at the height of his powers as an artist and a force in the American film industry. What could possibly go wrong?