Top 100 Movies of All Time Deer Hunter. If this is your first visit to one of my Top 100 Movies of all time posts, basically, the long and short of it is… Here at THiNC. I don’t generally discuss “great” films. Let’s be honest. We discuss indie, low budget, mindjob movies mainly. But a while ago, I thought, hrmmm. Maybe we could learn a bit by walking through what Hollywood thinks to be are the best 100 films of all time. And today? Deer Hunter. Which, I’ll be honest, grew on me over the course of the run time. As it started, it seemed slow, and extraordinarily choppy from an editing stand point. But then the plight of these men from the industrial heart of America grew on me. And at the end, I couldn’t easily scrape off the residue of their despair… the psychosomatic craters are everywhere, and I was just struck by how a generation of men were lost because of the Vietnam War. I think I’m getting ahead of myself! hahaha. Anyway, here’s a trailer for the film if you haven’t seen it yet – then it’ll be spoilers throughout. (If you haven’t seen Deer Hunter yet, the film is like 43-years old at this point? Go check it out – it’s free on prime.)
Historical Setting of the Deer Hunter
Last week, we discussed the historical setting of Doctor Zhivago, and the Russian Revolution to get a better context for the oppression we saw featured throughout that particular film. And today, it is the Vietnam War that is the larger context for the Deer Hunter. If you are unfamiliar with the film – and refuse to watch it, it deals with a group of men that are sent to Vietnam. And then we watch as the trauma from their experiences there reverberate throughout their lives. Well, the Vietnam War was a conflict that percolated in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from 1955 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was a proxy war between the pro-democratic forces of the United States, South Korea, Philippines, and Australia. And the pro-communist allies of the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies. Not to spoil the results of the war for you – but, it didn’t go well for the pro-democratic forces, with Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam all becoming communist countries. Got it? All you really need to remember is that it’s a proxy war against communism – fought in a far away land. And it made about zero sense that we were there, at least for the men that fought and died there anyway.
Deer Hunter Walkthrough
Deer Hunter is a looong movie. Three hours worth of long. And that is mainly because the first hour is setting up the characters, the stories, and the lives of the men who are about to be cracked by their experiences in Vietnam. It’s all about three Pennsylvanian friends, who live, work, party, together. They work in a steel mill. Hunt together. Mike Vronsky (De Niro), Steven Pushkov (Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Walken) are getting ready to head to Vietnam, they have a wedding for their friends Steven and Angela (who is pregnant by another man.) During the wedding, Linda – who is going to be moving in with Mike and Nick because of her abusive father – agrees to marry Nick. And the night before the trio leave, they go hunting – and Mike kills a deer with a single shot. (I honestly never understood the magic of the single shot mythos… but okay. Whatever. Would love it if you could walk me through it in the comments.)
Cut to, Vietnam. 1969. In a pile of jump cuts, and horrible editing I couldn’t quite understand… the trio are reunited again after being captured by the Viet Cong. (I challenge you to explain exactly how it happened. I watched it three times, and I still don’t get it. A) The capture. B) The reunion. None of it makes any sense from an editing standpoint. And not in a jumbled cool sort of way either.) During their captivity, the three men are forced to join in on a terrible game of Russian roulette where the VC constantly bet on who is going to live and who is going to die. Eventually, Mike ups the ante, and says he wants to play with three bullets in the gun. (There are three guards, you do the math.) He plays, and survives… an 50/50 chance. Then Chevotarevich plays… and survives… but Mike uses the gun to shoot the three guards, and allow the friends to escape. The Film School Rejects do an interesting job talking about this scene.
When the movie first came out, the inclusion of the Russian roulette scene in Vietnam (because there are more of them later on) history buffs cried foul that there was never any documented occurrences like this during the war. That the film was being unfair to the Viet Cong. But Roger Ebert vociferously defended the scene on artistic grounds when he said that it was a symbol. “Anything you can believe about the game, about its deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply to the war as a whole. It is a brilliant symbol because, in the context of this story, it makes any ideological statement about the war superfluous.” It removed the democratic/communism conversation, and left the war raw, and solely concentrated on the insanity of the death, and the violence. Which, is a really amazing take on the film over all. The film wasn’t specifically anti-Vietnam, or pro-Vietnam… but rather it was focused on the fallout and the impact of the war. Funny enough, the original screenplay wasn’t about Vietnam at all. Rather it was about men in Las Vegas that began playing Russian roulette. But the war overlay sort of takes the conversation to totally different level.
I mean – not to derail this entire walk through… but. Russian roulette is a metaphor for this meat grinder called life. I could be diagnosed with cancer today. I could have a violent car accident and die immediately. A close loved one too. Life is a roulette wheel. Nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed. And it sort of feels like every single day, we spin the actuarial tables, and see what traumatic event will be happening today. And war? War takes those odds, gives them an IV of crack, and sends the combatants on their merry way. Oh. Hahaha. I get the deer hunting – one bullet thing now. Hahahah. As I was cranking out that long riff on life the universe and Russian roulette, I realized, Mike believes that you should give the deer its chance. If you can take it down with one shot, make your shot, you deserved it. But otherwise, the deer won that particular game of chance, and shooting again cheapens it. It’s as if you are cheating the deer out of his fate. Similarly, the movie is a constant set of chances. War. Life. Russian roulette. Aha! hahaha. Okay, anyway… let’s get back to the walk through. (Which I promised myself I’d do quickly… whatever.)
The trio escape in the river – and they eventually make it to a rickety suspension bridge where all manner of high jinks happen. And eventually they are rescued by a helicopter. But Steven, weak from the chaos, falls back into the water. Steven’s legs a broken in the fall and Mike has to carry him until they are met by a group of Southern Vietnamese soldiers. After Steven convalesces, he gets mixed up in a betting den in Saigon where the participants are betting on contestants playing Russian roulette. (See? A leitmotif even!) Mike happens to see Nick there, but he can’t catch up to him as he leaves with Julien Grinda.
Cut to 1970 – Mike is discharged, and heads back home. But he can’t figure out how to transition back into ordinary life. (Which was the story of many PTSD afflicted discharged military personnel after Vietnam.) He refuses to attend a welcome home party. But turns up to visit Linda later where he learns that Nick has deserted. Because yeah, it’s surprising the guy is still alive actually now that you mention it. Worse, when Mike visits Angela, he learns that she has slipped into a catatonic state after Steven returned and Steven is now an invalid. The rest of Mike’s friends did not have their number called, and they stayed stateside. They find they don’t understand their old friend anymore – as they will never understand the horrors Mike witnessed there in Vietnam.
Later, Mike visits Steven and he sees that both of Steven’s legs have been amputated, and he’s lost the use of one of his arms as well. Steven does tell Mike that he has been getting anonymous payments from Vietnam… large sums of cash. And Mike guesses that it is Nick who has been sending Steven the cash. Regardless, he tells Steven he has to return to Angela. Mike, tormented by the loss of his friend, returns to Vietnam in order to search for his lost friend. Mike, lost in a chaotic lower ring of Dante’s Inferno, is chaotically bouncing around Saigon, unsure of what to do or how to proceed in finding his friend. But that is when he stumbles upon Julien and he persuades him to take him to the nearby gambling parlors. And that is where Mike faces Nick… now a heroin addict who doesn’t recognize Mike. Mike tries to persuade Nick to come home, but Nick is uninterested. Mike bets all his money in an attempt to get Nick to stop. To stop and come home with him. Mike even raises the pistol to his head, tells Nick he loves him, and pulls the trigger. Excited at surviving, he begs Nick to stop playing. Nick seems to recognize Mike, says the words, “one shot” which is a reference to Mike’s one shot hunting technique, but also seems to say he’ll play one last round, and then they will go home together. He pulls the trigger and shoots himself in the head.
Back stateside, Mike and all of Nick’s old friends go to Nick’s funeral. And the atmosphere at the local bar is quiet. And as the movie ends, the bartender and friend, begins singing “God Bless America” and everyone joins in.
Thoughts on The Deer Hunter
Personally, I am struck with the fact that America, determine to staunch the flow of Communism around the world, chose to send blue-collar men and women to Vietnam. There is no discussion of how the rich evaded the draft. Or how at one point in the war, black casualties eclipsed 20%, even though they only made up 11% of the demographics of America at the time. I have to sort of reflect personally, because as a teen, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours reading book after book about the conflict, and the politics of the arena. I reveled in the autobiographies of helicopter pilots (Guts and Gunships, and To the Limit stand out in my memory of the countless books I read in this space.), tunnel rats (Tunnel Rats, and A Sapper’s War stand out in this space.) and all manner of other books heralding the heroics of the men there. But having just watched The Deer Hunter for the first time, it really brings me up short on the real impact of these stories of glory and conquest. The real trauma was in their attempted return to normalcy. It was in the way America didn’t accept our soldiers back with pride. Instead they shunned the men who bled and died because their country asked them to.
But I am not even 100% certain this movie is about Vietnam specifically. It might actually be about a group of friends attempting to survive the trauma of life. To navigate the chaos that life throws at you, and try to make sense of it all. Russian roulette seems to just be a metaphor for the chaos of life, and we watch as they deal with the repercussions of the wins and losses in life. No one comes out of this film unscathed. It feels as though Mike has turned the corner at the end, and his reaching for Linda’s hand seems to indicate he is forging ahead with her help. But I’m not 100% certain this is where they are headed. Who knows?
Recently, I watched Taxi Driver with another Patreon member, and we were struck by just how amazing that movie was. (That movie is 55th on the top 100 list I am working my through). Similarly, The Deer Hunter also grew on me as I went further and further down the rabbit hole. I began to understand that these men were shattered by life and they, each one, spiraled in their own directions and went their own ways as a result. And I ultimately found the film quite profound as it rolled to a close. Do you remember it? What were your thoughts on it? Personally thought it could do with some cleaner editing at times, but the screenplay is fantastic. And the overall experience was really quite something.
Want to see the other movies I’ve already covered in the top 100 list… check them out right here.
Edited by: CY