March 24, 2008


The Politically Incorrect Deer Hunter, Thirty Years Later: excerpted from God, Man & Hollywood: Politically Incorrect Cinema from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ (Mark Royden Winchell, 03/24/08, First Principles)

When Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was released in 1978, critics didn’t know what to make of it. This was an undeniably powerful film by an aesthetically ambitious director. (His only previous directorial credit, for the Clint Eastwood vehicle Thunderbolt and Lightfoot four years earlier, had prepared no one for this emotionally overpowering movie.) Amid the praise—five Academy Awards, including the ones for best picture and best director—were reservations about certain narrative implausibilities and a suspicion that the film dissented from the view of the Vietnam War widely held in Hollywood. Some of the more discerning reviewers realized from the start that questions about the literal probability of the plot were beside the point because The Deer Hunter was not meant to be a conventionally realistic movie but should actually be viewed in symbolic terms.

The more virulent attacks on the film’s political orthodoxy stemmed from its failure to depict the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as morally superior to America’s fighting men. (Jane Fonda denounced the picture as racist, even though she admitted to not having seen it.) Accepting the Academy Award for his blatantly procommunist documentary Hearts and Minds in 1974, the producer Bert Schneider had said, “It is ironic that we’re here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated,” and then proceeded to read a statement by the Viet Cong. Cimino’s position seemed to be considerably more nuanced.

It may well be that The Deer Hunter is not staking out a position on the Vietnam War so much as using the war as a means for developing an older and broader theme in American culture.Like so many Westerns, Cimino’s film is about the conflict between the heroism of the individual and the demands of the community. With the frontier effectively settled by the end of the nineteenth century, this conflict has had to manifest itself in places other than the cow towns and prairies of a bygone era. In a sense, Vietnam can be seen as a new Wild West, where men test their courage. The real home for an American, however, is not over there but right here. For many Vietnam veterans, coming home involved a particularly difficult reintegration into society. Thus, Cimino has found a contemporary way of telling an old story.

It's a mark of how degraded the Hollywood culture had become in the 70s that we weren't sure at first that the characters were supposed to mean it when they sang God Bless America at the end.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 24, 2008 8:33 PM
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