The Deer Hunter

My wife and I watched The Deer Hunter last night. Neither of us had seen it, though it’s been on my to-see list for a long, long time. There were several things that struck me as I watched this 1978 Academy Award-winner for best picture. Your comments on the following are welcome.

Religion played a significant part in the lives of these characters. How many times did we see the spires of their Greek Orthodox church? I don’t know, but they appeared often. Today, that isn’t so common in movies, but in the 1970s more people attended church, I guess, and religion was an integral part in their lives. What has brought about that change?

The steel plant was depressing. It reminded me of my days in a machine shop, when there was nothing much to look forward to other than the day-after-day repetition of an unskilled manual labor job. Don’t get me wrong, looking back, there was something to be said for clocking out and leaving work at work, a feat I’m no longer able to do, but the thought of a lifetime of that kind of work used to crush my spirit. Also, the depiction of the mill seemed very 1970s to me, with the unbridled pollution. Maybe that wasn’t the case, but for some reason I always associate the ‘70s with smog and dirty rivers and industrial waste. It seems we are cleaner now.

Speaking of which, there is just a certain feel to movies from the ‘70s. Whether it be The Exorcist, Rocky, Taxi Driver, Deliverance, this one, or Dawn of the Dead, the movies just have a certain feel. On the one hand, I want to say it’s just their decade, but it’s not that they’re dated or don’t hold up to modern movies. It’s the colors, maybe the film quality, maybe something else. On the other hand, I think it’s that movies were made for adults in the ‘70s. Filmmakers weren’t afraid of an R rating, they weren’t aiming for that PG-13 demographic that provides most of the movie revenue today. They were allowed to make longer movies. They were allowed to create art. A lot of times that art was somber, but that was acceptable, and I do think that comes from the Vietnam influence. America lost its innocence in the 1970s and we had to face that.

As to the story of The Deer Hunter, it started pretty slow. Then we got something like 30 minutes of wedding and reception and after that BANG the three main characters were through basic training and landing in Vietnam. A few minutes later they were POWs. I understand the wedding scene went on so long to show us the intimate connections between these men and their town and friends. But I would have thought boot camp would have done something to their characters. Hardened them. Broken them. And what were they thinking and feeling when they were put on the ground? I felt slighted there. As to the rest of the movie, it was touching in a sad way.

My wife read on Wikipedia (I know, I know, not reliable!) that this was the first movie to deal with Vietnam. Of course, many, many movies dealt with that conflict between this one and Desert Storm in 1991, several of them winning major awards. In so many of the others, though, America and American soldiers were depicted as the bad guys. I think that thought, along with the final scene of the friends singing “God Bless America” at the end, as real Independence Day fireworks were sounding all over town, is what will make this movie stick with me.

One response to “The Deer Hunter”

  1. The Deer Hunter is my favorite movie. I did have some problems with it, some you mentioned and some you didn’t, but in the end I loved it probably for the performances more than anything. I read where Christopher Walken spitting in DeNiro’s face was unscripted, and that there was sometimes a live round in the gun to add tension to the roulette scenes (they always made sure it wasn’t in the firing chamber; assuming it’s true at all).

    I agree about the feel. This, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver… There might just be something about the vibe of those movies that makes me really like them all.

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