Three quarters of the way through The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s iconic, and very long, film about three Pennsylvania steel workers in Vietnam, Mike Vronsky, Robert Deniro, returns home on leave, and meets Linda, the fiancée of his best friend Nick Chevotarevich. Chevotarevich, a young Christopher Walken, is still missing in action, but it’s clear Linda doesn’t care quite as much as Vronsky does. She loves Mike, not Nick, and isn’t shy about letting him know.
Surprisingly Meryl Streep, who would later become famous for the number of foreign accents she could mimic, plays Linda in a quiet, understated, and completely “American” manner. Even though the first hour of The Deer Hunter is centered around an elaborate Russian Orthodox wedding, Linda is more Fargo than The Godfather. There’s nothing remotely ethnic about her character. Streep, who was brought up in upper-class Bernardsville New Jersey, and graduated from Vasser and Yale, mangles words and drops her Gs like a folksy George W. Bush.
“Still workin at the market. I gotta go there right now.”
The Deer Hunter is probably the worst Vietnam film ever made. It’s a racist, degrading portrayal of the Vietnamese. It gets almost everything wrong about the war. Key plot points, the tiger cages, the Russian Roulette, the escape down the surging river floating on a tree trunk, are just absurd fabrications. Were Vronsky, Chevotarevich, and Pushkov drafted? Or did they enlist? Cimimo never tells us. Was the 35-year-old Deniro too old to be credible as an army private? Maybe not in Iraq where George W. Bush mobilized the National Guard, but in Vietnam, where the average recruit was probably much closer to 18, he would have been a senior citizen. Michael Cimino clearly has no interest at all in military history. We never even see a unit of the United States Army larger than a squad. Actually, we never even see a squad. Had Vronsky and Chevotarevich gone to Vietnam as drug dealers, civilian contractors, or independent photojournalists, it would have made no difference to the plot.
Yet if The Deer Hunter is a terrible film about the Vietnam War, it’s also a great film about the culture of United States during the Vietnam War.
Nobody in The Deer Hunter, not Robert Deniro, not Christopher Walken, not John Cazale not John Savage ever tries to be anything but a generic red state, Middle American. Mike Vronsky, Nick Chevotarevich, and Steven Pushkov have Slavic names, say a few Russian words before they take a drink, and pray under the ornate, onion domes of the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, but they’re also Baby Boomers, the children of men and women who had already been brought into the American mainstream by the New Deal and the Second World War. Their Eastern European ethnic identity is more nostalgia than reality, a formality they go through to honor their parents rather than any genuine connection to the old world.
Being an American is always as much a process as it is a stable identity. Before the New Deal, an American was an Anglo Saxon, not an Eastern or Southern European. Eastern and Southern Europeans were successfully assimilated into the American mainstream during the 1930s and 1940s, but it came with a price. Teddy Roosevelt had warned against “hyphenated Americans.” My German American grandmother wouldn’t allow my aunt to study German in high-school because she thought it was an unAmerican, Nazi language. But in the 1960s and 1970s something very strange happened. The same cultural elite who had cautioned against “hyphenated Americans” back in the 1920s now decided that “hyphenated Americans” were exactly what they wanted. It’s easy to see why. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, black nationalism, and the disaster in Vietnam,the American ruling class decided they wanted to counter the idea of Third World liberation with the more conservative ideology of white ethnic authenticity. The anti-busing protesters in South Boston weren’t white racists attacking blacks. They were Irish Americans defending their “neighborhood schools.” No “great white hope” could beat black nationalist Muhammad Ali in the ring. So Hollywood invented Rocky Balboa. Michael Cimino’s decision to view the American experience in Vietnam through the lens of the only partially assimilated Russian American community of Western Pennsylvania, therefore, met with spectacular success.
If The Deer Hunter eventually falls apart, the first hour is evidence of Cimino’s powerful visual imagination. The steel mills, now mostly gone, are poetic in spite of themselves. The Russian wedding is gorgeous. The big, powerful, American made cars evoke Detroit’s preeminence before the Japanese auto-industry made inroads into the United States in the 1980s. If the ruling class clubbed Eastern and Southern European immigrants into submission all through the late-19th and early-20th centuries, that history has been completely erased from the American collective unconscious in The Deer Hunter. Michael Cimino’s longing for a idyllic, white working-class world has transformed the gritty industrial industrial sprawl around Pittsburgh into dream of cultural authenticity no Pennsylvania steel town ever had in real life. Indeed, it is Clairton, Pennsylvania, not any village in Southeast Asia that the Vietnam War will destroy.
The morning after the famous Russian wedding is The Deer Hunter’s most startling and poetic image, one that, for all the film’s acclaim, has not been examined as closely as it should. Mike Vronsky, Nick Chevotarevich, and Steven Pushkov, along with their friends Stan and Axel have loaded themselves up into classic, 1950s “tail fin” Cadillac. They’re driving out of town to go deer hunting. Behind the car is Clairton, its dark, industrial Gothic skyline fading into the distance. The hills are green, rolling, gentle. There are some power lines and a bridge, a familiar sight anywhere in Pennsylvania, or the Northeast in general.
Then the car takes a right turn.
Off in the distance is a towering, snow-capped mountain, well over 10,000 feet high, a glorious, vision that it would take a Percy Shelley to adequately describe. What are those mountains? They’re certainly not the Alleghenys, or any mountain range in the Northeast. Not even northern New Hampshire has mountains like that. Anybody who is familiar with the Pacific Northwest and the North Cascades will immediately recognize Mount Baker. Vronsky and his friends have a hunting cabin. It’s filmed from above, surrounded by dramatic, Alpine scenery, deep snowy valleys, and sheer, rocky cliffs, the romantic and the sublime, not the pastoral, a landscape worthy of Ansel Adams. The deer hunt that follows is filmed as a mythic confrontation with nature, not as a weekend outing in the hills around Pittsburgh. I’ve never been deer hunting but I do know deer. My neighborhood in suburban New Jersey is lousy with them. I’ve run into packs of deer on my bicycle. Mike Vronsky’s hunting deer with a high powered bolt action rifle and a scope is, in reality, slightly ridiculous, but Cimino imagines him as a great white hunter on the frontier, not as just another suburban douchebag who drove up into the hills in a tail fin caddie with a couple of six packs.
Suddenly it’s clear exactly why Vronsky, Chevotarevich and Pushkov enlisted in the army, and what Vietnam means to Michael Cimino. Vietnam is not a nation in the 1960s struggling to be free from American and French imperialism. It’s the American frontier. Vronsky is not an enlisted man in a lumbering bureaucratic, industrial army. He’s Natty Bumpo or Jeremiah Johnson. Vietnam, for Cimino’s Russian Americans, is the chance to go back to the 19th Century and “go west,” to roll back the clock and rewrite history, to become, not the children of recent immigrants, but “real Americans.” But Cimino, reactionary though he is, could not film The Deer Hunter in a vacuum. By 1978, anybody smart enough to get funding for a major Hollywood film was smart enough to know that the American invasion of Vietnam had been a disaster. Vronsky and his friends go to the frontier, but the frontier isn’t liberating. On the contrary, they find only confinement, imprisonment in a tiger cage. They find the destruction of their bodies. Pleshkov loses his legs. Finally, they find death, destruction, and the addiction to death and destruction, the famous Russian Roulette sequence where Vronsky’s friend Nick goes missing in action, unable to stop playing the game his North Vietnamese captors made him play when they briefly held him prisoner. Vronsky is no longer Natty Bumpo or Jeremiah Johnson but John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers. He survives the war but can’t leave the war behind him, so obsessed is he with finding his best friend, who he knows, deep down in his gut, is still alive. Yet Vronsky, unlike Ethan Edwards, won’t bring anybody back from the jungle. When he finally manages to find Nick, Nick has lost his mind. Vronsky tries to bring him back by telling him about the trees in the mountains outside Clairton, but it’s futile. Nick snatches the gun and blows his own brains out.
The Deer Hunter ends with Vronsky, Linda, and their friends singing God Bless America. The ending is hollow. If Michael Vronsky fails to save Nick from himself, it’s partly because Nick can see the future in a way Michael doesn’t. Michael, in his own tired way, still believes in the American Dream. Even after he goes into the mountains and finds he can no longer hunt, he never questions the ideal of “one shot.” But the first generation Russian Americans in The Deer Hunter can’t go into the mountains and become genuinely American. America got lost in Vietnam and blew its brains out. What’s more, the steel mills of Clairton would be gone in less ten ten years. Why pay Russian American steel workers 20 dollars an hour when you can do all that work in China? The more Michael Vronsky, and Michael Cimino, cling to the ideal of white ethnic authenticity, the purity of the hunt, “one shot,” the more they think they can go home to a Clairton Pennsylvania that never existed, the more they become tools of ruling class propaganda. Indeed, the images of the MIA would become a mainstay of the far right. From George W. Bush to Rolling Thunder, from the Silent Majority to the Tea Party, conservatives still think they can bring Nick Chevotarevich back from the jungle. The Deer Hunter, while a poetic, beautifully imagined work of cinematic art, is also as much a seminal work of the American right as The Boys in Company C is of the American left. One might even call it “fascist.”