At the most basic level The Deer Hunter is a story of three friends who volunteer for service in Vietnam, but the diegesis is composed of many artfully woven and nuanced threads. It explores the range of emotions experienced by each of these friends, the role of the civilians in their lives, and the interactions between those two distinct groups. The film skillfully uses suspense to fill the average viewer with a sense of apprehension that conveys the feelings a combat soldier might have had in Vietnam.
As the material for the Vietnam war was forged in midwestern steel mills, so were the rugged characters in the film. The three main characters came from an Orthodox Russian background. The assumption could be made that their families immigrated from the Soviet Union and that their parents bestowed upon them both a sense of patriotism and disdain for communism that would motivate them to volunteer for the war. They knew that they were physically tough enough to volunteer for military service, but it may have not occurred to them that more than physical durability would be required of them.
Before the comrades left for Vietnam there was a large going away party that doubled as a reception for Steven, one of the main characters. Towards the end of the party an enlightened looking sergeant came to the bar. The main character, Michael, asked the soldier what it was like in Vietnam. The only phrase that the soldier would utter was “fuck it.” What Michael could not have know at the time is that no answer could have informed him any better than “fuck it,” there was no amount of conversation that could have conveyed the experiences that the GI had seen. Combatants are barbarized in such a way as to make the experience inexplicable to those who are civilized. Michael would later discover this and the disconnect it cause with the civilized world.
The recruits’ naivete towards war appeared again after the reception. Nick said to Michael, “Don’t leave me, you gotta promise.” The implication was that if he were to be killed or captured then Michael should make sure to bring him home. If only war produced outcomes that were black and white like like life and death.
After the reception the story went straight to Vietnam where the trio was captured. As prisoners the men were held in a sadistic floating cage where rats could still easily get to them. The captors forced the captives to, ironically, play Russian roulette. This apocryphal story line was most likely invented in an attempt to bring the viewer into the world of a soldier in Vietnam. Russian roulette provides a good analogy to the life of a combatant. When the men pull the trigger they have no way of knowing if their own actions will result in their death; a soldier on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam would have this experience with each step he takes. Being under this sort of situation for an extended period of time can result in at least three conditions, and we see three reactions in The Deer Hunter.
The primary character, Michael, managed the stress of combat well. He was a model soldier. He was not emotionless, but he accepted destiny and acknowledged his inability to control it. He freed his mind of the burden of worrying about death and was able to survive. On one side of Michael was Steven, who exhibited a completely different reaction. Steven was unable to yield to fate and was tormented with the fear of death. His affliction was so bad that Michael almost left him behind. On the other side was Nick who ended up completely yielding to death. He went past accepting fate and simply died; he emotionally died.
In a very suspenseful scene the men escaped from the prison, but were split up during their escape. Nick stayed in Vietnam and found his way into an underground Russian roulette gambling scene. Steven lost his legs as a result of the escape and he was mentally paralyzed during his imprisonment. Michael was the only one mentally stable enough to go back home.
Michael’s friends and family were waiting for him when he arrived back at the steel town in Pennsylvania, but he was not ready to be thrown back into civilization. His return was more difficult for him since he had left his buddies behind. When Michael finally visited with his friends again he found them to still be immature. Nothing had appreciably changed for them and they somehow expected to get the old Mike back. Mike did not have a problem fitting in, but he was definitely different in ways his friends could not appreciate. When they went on their usual hinting trip in Appalachia Michael, the master hunter, missed his one shot at a prize buck. It was if the will to kill had left him.
Michael went to bring Steve, who seemed to be mentally troubled, home from a VA hospital. Steven did not want to go home because he felt that he did not fit, but Michael made him. Michael also intended to fulfilled his promise to Nick and bring him home from Saigon. Unfortunately he found that Nick was an emotionally dead Russian roulette champion. He tried to save him, but in the end he had to watch him die physically.
Michael brought Nick’s body home and there was a wake after the funeral. The occasion was solemn and to raise the mood, or at least to cover the sadness, one person began to sing “God Bless America.” People dealing with an unexpected loss tend to search for meaning, and the singing of a patriotic song implied that they were consoled by the fact that their buddy had did in service to the great good. It is an appropriate way to close out the movie, Michael had fulfilled his promise and brought Nick back to his “home sweet home.”
Originally written August 10, 2010