Michael Cimino’s 1978 film “The Deer Hunter” tells the story of the Vietnam war experience from the perspective of a close-knit group of Eastern European ethnic-American steelworkers. Major scenes in the movie were filmed on location in Clairton Pennsylvania, a small working class town on the Monongahela River southeast of Pittsburgh. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. Opening scenes are filled with imagery from the steel mill that dominates the bleak landscape of the town (it still does).
The story begins with a wedding at a local American Legion, a classic right of passage. At the end of the night, the friends gather together for one last deer hunting trip, where we follow the film’s major character, Robert DeNiro, through a “one deer/one shot” close-out sequence. After this, the narrative quickly transitions to war and the men’s experience on the battlefields of Vietnam – yet another right of passage.
Central to the development of the film is a gripping visceral scene, where Christopher Walken engages in a game of Russian roulette. The game is symbolic in the sense that it epitomizes the brutality of war- its deliberate and random violence – and how it ultimately consumes the life and sanity of the men recruited/drafted to play. The allegorical power of the game here is noteworthy, even masterful, in the sense that eliminates the need to make overt ideological statements about war. In this respect, the film is neither “pro-war” nor is it “anti–war.” Rather, viewers are presented a series of contradictions and conflicts that, much like the war, are never fully resolved.
The film engages a number of narrative tropes familiar to audiences, male bonding, escape from life in a small town, moral dilemmas, senseless violence. But it goes far beyond these plot devices. The subtext of a movie that appears superficially to inspire thinking about what it means to shoot a deer is that it also promts reflection about what it means to shoot a person. One cannot escape thinking about to what extent violence and life-taking – all violence and all life-taking – is inescapably dehumanizing. More than this, we find the causes of violence are rendered less distinct, as they become submerged in effects in much the same manner as the individuals in the story are subsumed and become casualties of social forces beyond their control.
At the same time, the film engages with another familiar trope – the concept of the American Dream – in this case its failure to be achieved — and a similar failure of rituals and interpersonal relationships to sustain people who are trying to find meaning in a difficult and clearly violent world. The crumbling steel mill looms like cemetery monument over the town, standing watch over a human graveyard of bones picked clean by deindustrialization. One is left to consider how incipient structural violence is potentially no less lethal than violence meted out by the hands of individuals.
Equally important is what is left unsaid in the film. Not one of the major characters gives any indication that they question their participation and role in the war. Their passive acceptance of their fate as draftees and economic refugees – demonstrates the reciprocating dynamic of “power” and “powerlessness” of men that exhibit mastery with the weapons of war, but lose their bodies, minds, and sense of self in the process – is one of the more terrifying aspects of the film. Strong men rendered passive and ineffectual that are not unlike the female characters in the story, who are similarly captives of their own life choices, as they only ever achieve definition through their relationship to marriage and men. In the end, the film leaves us with more questions than answers, but we might nonetheless think about it in a sociological way.
How are race, class, and gender implicated in how the characters see themselves (and how we see them)?
Why do you think the people who benefit the least economically from war stand at the forefront of advancing war’s agenda? What do they get out of it if not money?
Do you think that war and military service appeal to people with limited work and career prospects more than others with more favorable life circumstances?
How does violence function in a world where social and economic bonds come under stress? Is it the cause or the effect?
What is the function of juxtaposing “guns” and violence with religion? It is never overtly discussed by any of the major characters, but is central to the film and how they try to create meaning in their lives.