Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Deer Hunter -- Friendships and War

The Deer Hunter
is one of my all-time favorite films. A classic, it won 5 Oscars in 1978, including best picture, best director (Michael Cimino), and best supporting actor (Christopher Walken). Set in the Vietnam War, still a sour memory in the late 70s, it is a strong, if violent, story of a group of friends and how the war impacts them and their friendship.

Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are three steel-workers in a small Pennsylvania town who are going to Nam. On the eve of their deployment, Steven gets married to pregnant Angela. The opening act is this marriage. It plays long, even overlong, and in today's cinema would be edited significantly to get to the "action." But this long sequence sets the scene by introducing the characters and showing us them in their natural habitat. Without this we would not know them or care for them as much. the wedding, the three and two other buddies, including Stan (John Cazale), go into the mountains to hunt deer. This is where we see Michael as the leader of this group. These are regular guys, who joke, swear, and do stupid guy things.

The Deer Hunter benefits from a strong cast and a strong story. Along with Walken, both De Niro and Meryl Streep are Oscar-winners. De Niro is in his prime here, having won his first Oscar for Godfather 2 in 1975 with another win to come in his next film, Raging Bull. Streep, too, shows the talent that garnered her two statuettes in 80 and 83 for Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie's Choice respectively. Further, Cazales, the weaselly brother in The Godfather trilogy, acts here in his last movie. He was dying of cancer even as he shot The Deer Hunter and died shortly after filming was completed.

With severe editing, the plot jumps from Pennsylvania to Vietnam with no explanation of what has happened. This minimalist method of segueing into new acts, leaves some plot development unanswered but allows Cimino to move the characters without explanation.

When the three find themselves captured, they are in the hands of renegade enemy who use them and other captives for illegal gambling via Russian roulette. Though some have argued that Russian roulette was not employed by the Viet Cong, this is somewhat irrelevant to the movie's point, which is to display the effects of war on warriors and to show the depths of friendship.

After the three escape, Nick eventually goes AWOL, and Steve and Michael return home. But Michael is unsettled. He feels a distance from his former steel-worker friends. He is changed. War has emotionally scarred him. And he cannot forget a promise he made to Nick to never leave him behind. Returning to Nam on the eve of the evacuation of Saigon, he searches for and finds Nick. But this is not the Nick he knew. This is Nick at night, a Nick who is a lost soul, sallow and withdrawn. He is spending his time gambling his life in big money games of Russian roulette. Even as Michael tries to get through to Nick, the flickers of recognition fade and are extinguished.
The scenes of Russian roulette are brutal and disturbing, but depict a mental torture that POWs often had to endure. Some handled them and came through tougher, though changed. Some broke down and were dehumanized. Others withdrew to find internal solace leaving an empty shell externally. As American Civil War General Sherman said, "War is hell." It cannot help but to change, even ruin, lives of those in its vice-like grip. Whether the war is just or unjust, it takes a toll on the warrior-soldiers. The Deer Hunter we see three different effects. On Michael, he becomes stronger and tougher on the outside, yet is distanced from those he knows and loves. His change is not apparent at first, but is there nonetheless. Steven is changed physically and emotionally. He cannot bear to be seen as he is now, and withdraws physically to protect his fragile ego. Nick, on the other hand, withdraws mentally and emotionally. He is a shell, who no longer cares for his own physical life. Together, these three provide a spectrum of the effects of war.

Yet, as much as this film portrays the brutal and negative impact of war, it also shows the depths of human friendship. When Michael returns to Saigon to find Nick, he pays a price. Not only does it cost him money, much of it, and time, it costs him emotionally as he puts himself back into the position of his captivity. But his love for Nick, a masculine (not gay) love between two friends, compels him to go to the edge of the abyss for Nick. Just as Jonathan, Saul's son, loved soon-to-be King David with a masculine-friendship kind of love (see 1 Samuel 18-20), and would do anything for him, so Michael demonstrated the same love. How far will we go for a friend? Are we prepared to spend all our money to rescue a friend imprisoned in some form of "captivity"? Are we willing to sacrifice all for the love of a friend? Jesus did. For you and me.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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