The Deer Hunter

Growing up, you hear all about movies from the previous generation that, for one reason or another, you never actually get to see. The Deer Hunter, released the year I turned three, is one such movie. It’s been talked about in reverent tones by various people all my life, but I’d never seen it. Indeed, until recently I didn’t even know it was – ostensibly – a Vietnam war film. That all changed last night.

Popping the DVD on around 8pm, I referred to the back of the box and realised it would be after 11pm by the time it finished. Yes, this is a long film. I also noted it features Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. Star power! So, with credits rolling, I let myself immerse into the film.

Three hours later, I didn’t know what to make of what I’d just seen. I’m fully aware it’s a multiple Academy Award winner (including the double of Best Picture and Best Director), and people compare it to The Godfather in terms of being a big American epic, but I’m not sure it deserves all that. Maybe at the time it was something new and shocking, but with my 2021 eyes, I didn’t see the big deal.

First, the length of the movie is ridiculous. For a storyline that’s pretty straightforward – basically, three guys go to Vietnam and have a horrible shared experience which affects them all differently – the run time is extreme. There’s a wedding at the start of the film before the guys head off to Vietnam that lasts the better part of an hour. No lie. There is no reason the wedding needs to be this long. All the things I could deduce about the main characters before they even got to the wedding (as we first see them at work, then at a bar after work), weren’t enhanced at all from watching nearly an hour of singing and dancing. One new piece of information comes¬†after the wedding, that the groom – Steven – knows that although his new wife is pregnant, it’s not his child. It’s hardly earth shattering.

Second, the film feels really disjointed. Like it’s a bunch of scenes that someone cooked up and just mashed them together, whether it left gaps in the storyline or not. For example, we’re told that the three guys are off to Vietnam after the wedding. OK, cool. Aside from a quick hunting trip the morning after the wedding where the main dialogue is the DeNiro character – Michael – telling another guy he can’t have a loan of his spare boots, we’re suddenly in Vietnam. Michael’s wearing ‘tigerstripe’ camo, like he’s special forces, and acting like a complete nutcase, unleashing a flame thrower on one poor combatant, and firing randomly into the bodies of others. How did he become special forces? After all, he was in a steel mill not long ago. Was there training? When? And has he gone nuts? Is this the point of the movie? Apparently not, as after these scenes Michael is the most stable of the three guys who went to the war. So why the scene plays like this, like he is nuts, who knows? Maybe if we didn’t spend nearly an hour at the wedding, we could have had some proper storyline around all of this stuff?

His two mates – Nick and Steven – show up with some air cavalry during this one-man attack being perpetrated by Michael, but they are in regular army greens. Are they not in Michael’s unit? Did they decide to go to Vietnam together, but joined different units? Why? And if so, how are they meeting up now? Anyway, no time to consider that as, despite having destroyed the village they were attacking, and having reinforcements and air support, they’re all suddenly captured by the Vietnamese and made to play Russian Roulette, with their captors betting on who will, or won’t, blow their brains out.

This is really the turning point of the movie as the escape from captivity injures Steven physically and damages Nick mentally, splits them all up from each other and, while Michael just gets that DeNiro set to his jaw and goes home with seemingly no worries, you just know there’ll be some unfinished business. It’s the second half of the movie that I think shines the most. After the ridiculously long introduction of the steel mill, the bar, the wedding, and a quick hunting trip prior to Vietnam, all the stuff that happens afterwards such as Steven’s injury, Nick being AWOL, and Michael wanting to sort it all out moves at a faster clip and the narrative seems to flow more, and not skip over key moments.

All of that said, the timeline of the film still feels confusing and quite drawn out. The piece is supposed to open in 1968, but it looks like the late 70s; the period they’re actually filming in. The guys go off to war (and training before that we assume; again, see my earlier comments), before Michael comes home, perhaps in 1970 or so? Yet his return to Vietnam to find Nick – who has gone AWOL and become addicted to playing Russian Roulette, sending his winnings to Steven in a veteran’s hospital – doesn’t happen until 1975. None of this is really spelled out very well in the film; perhaps to not draw attention to the fact that it would seen very unlikely for a near-catatonic Nick – who is also addicted to heroin now – being able to survive five years of trying to kill himself night after night. I realise it’s all very dramatic and probably quite new in the 1970s to show a character with track marks, or doing something as wild as playing Russian Roulette (which is presumably some sort of metaphor for going to war), but it didn’t sit well with me at all. It just felt like an extremely unbelievable plot point.

Back in the US with the crippled Steven back with his wife and Nick buried in their home town (earlier in the film Nick asks Michael to not abandon him in Vietnam, so tick that box), there’s a scene where the cast sit around and sing,¬†God Bless America. I wasn’t sure if this was meant in earnest (as the characters seem to be taking it very seriously), or whether it was some sort of pisstake, after showing how the war ruined some guys’ lives, and those of their friends back home. An odd ending for sure.

So… yeah. The movie’s way too long; the narrative doesn’t really flow together from scene to scene; it hinges on the Vietnamese being super-cruel and Russian Roulette being this huge thing during Vietnam (when I’ve never heard of such a thing); and some scenes seem super melodramatic for no other reason than to be melodramatic. I’m glad I’ve seen it – primarily so I can now comment on it – but I don’t think it was a particularly good film at all when viewed with today’s eyes. Back in 1978, however, it obviously struck a very different chord with the public and so that’s noted here, too.

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