Bright Lights Film Journal

The <em>Deer Hunter</em> Debate: Artistic License and Vietnam War Remembrance

Robert De Niro

The response to The Deer Hunter amounted to a serious public debate over the Vietnam War that extended beyond film critics to engage a wide range of viewers. It wasn’t a debate that simply mirrored prior pro- and antiwar positions. It was a debate that the makers and marketers of The Deer Hunter made every effort to avoid by describing the film as apolitical, as a character study of the war’s effects. It was a debate that gained its focus and force by the terms in which it was primarily conducted: metaphor, realism, authenticity, artistic license, literalism, irony, point of view. In other words, it was a debate that, six years after the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam and four years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, addressed the morality of the American war in Vietnam through arguments about the aesthetics and ethics of making cultural memory.

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I saw Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter on a date in April 1979 – my first high school date, actually, and the fact that I asked a girl to see The Deer Hunter (on a Friday the 13th) might give some indication of why my first date didn’t happen until close to the end of my senior year. She sobbed through most of the second half of the movie, and even if I’d had the courage to put my arm around her, I was too preoccupied with trying to conceal my own snuffling to make such a bold move. Maybe I mumbled “It’s ok” a couple of times. We agreed afterward that The Deer Hunter was a great movie, a great antiwar movie. As suburban Clevelanders, we were taken with its local connections. The wedding scene was filmed at St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral on the near West Side, and Meryl Streep’s Linda worked at the Eagle market next door. Not only that, but during the wedding reception at the VFW hall, when Linda and Robert De Niro’s Michael slip away for a drink at the bar, there is Scott Phillips, from my high school, class of ’76, sipping a drink and chatting silently right between them (below).

Scott Phillips, with Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro

It didn’t occur to me to think about what kind of antiwar movie this was, let alone to question whether it really was an antiwar movie. Somehow I completely missed the controversy that it provoked – a controversy that had culminated four days before we saw The Deer Hunter when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The response to The Deer Hunter amounted to a serious public debate over the Vietnam War that extended beyond film critics to engage a wide range of viewers. It wasn’t a debate that simply mirrored prior pro- and antiwar positions. It was a debate that the makers and marketers of The Deer Hunter made every effort to avoid by describing the film as apolitical, as a character study of the war’s effects. It was a debate that gained its focus and force by the terms in which it was primarily conducted: metaphor, realism, authenticity, artistic license, literalism, irony, point of view. In other words, it was a debate that, six years after the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam and four years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, addressed the morality of the American war in Vietnam through arguments about the aesthetics and ethics of making cultural memory.

The Deer Hunter follows three steelworker friends, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), from their hometown of Clairton, Pennsylvania, to Vietnam and back. It begins on the morning of Steven’s wedding, two days before their departure for basic training. The first sixty-eight minutes of the three-hour film establish their friendships within Clairton’s traditional, patriotic Russian Orthodox community. (The characters’ ethnicity isn’t actually specified in the screenplay. Viewers have variously identified them as Russian, Slovak, Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, Polish, and Belarusian. Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol, who saw a preview of the film in New York in late November 1978, wrote in his diary that the movie’s setting was “where all my cousins are from” and “was really Czechoslovakian.”1) After Michael and Nick, along with some other buddies, take a deer hunting trip to the mountains, the film cuts abruptly to its only combat scene, where the three friends are reunited only to be captured by the Viet Cong. In The Deer Hunter’s most notorious sequence, they are forced by their captors to play Russian roulette, until Michael engineers their escape. The three are variously traumatized by the experience: Michael returns feeling estranged from the community; Steven has lost his legs and refuses to come home to his wife from a VA hospital; Nick disappears into a shady Saigon underworld of Russian roulette gambling games. When Michael learns that Steven has been receiving packages of cash from Vietnam, he realizes that Nick is alive and returns to rescue him. In a climactic game of Russian roulette, arranged by Michael to try to bring his friend out of his amnesiac state, Nick has a flash of recognition before shooting himself. The film concludes with Nick’s funeral and the friends reassembled to remember him.

Hollywood’s long-standing consensus that Vietnam War films were box office poison prompted the filmmakers to speak cautiously about The Deer Hunter before its release. “Vietnam is awkward,” journalist Michael Herr had written in 1977, “everybody knows how awkward, and if people don’t even want to hear about it, you know they’re not going to pay money to sit there in the dark and have it brought up.” Aside from John Wayne’s critically reviled The Green Berets (1968), the war had appeared almost exclusively in movies about unstable vigilante veterans: Billy Jack (1971), Taxi Driver (1976 – with De Niro as Travis Bickle), Rolling Thunder (1977), among others. (“The Green Berets doesn’t count. That wasn’t really about Vietnam,” Herr quipped, “it was about Santa Monica.”) Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, originally scheduled to come out before The Deer Hunter, had initially made studio executives less wary of Vietnam-themed films. The Boys in Company C, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, Go Tell the Spartans, and Who’ll Stop the Rain all preceded The Deer Hunter to screens in 1978, but they were more modest films, and only Coming Home did well at the box office. With its epic scale and big budget ($15 million, as opposed to Coming Home’s $3 million), The Deer Hunter tended to draw comparisons with the apparently jinxed Apocalypse Now, with its well-publicized production delays and cost overruns, driven by Coppola’s monomania. A United Artists executive involved with both Coming Home and The Deer Hunter could muster only faint optimism about the lot of the 1978-79 Vietnam films: “I hope people will see these movies if they are good movies. I don’t think the subject of Vietnam is a turn-on or a turn-off. But it’s still a question mark.” According to an industry observer, cautious “movie folks” remained unsold on the subject to the extent that it needed “to be veiled behind softer words – words like ‘love story’ . . . ‘epic adventure’. . . and ‘camaderie.’”2

In his first public comments about The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino denied that he was making a Vietnam War movie at all. “The war is really incidental to the development of the characters and their story,” he told a New York Times interviewer. “It’s a part of their lives and just that, nothing more.” Cimino’s evasiveness – his anticipatory defensiveness – set the tone for his responses to the controversy that attended the film on its release. He insisted that The Deer Hunter was “neutral as hell”:

I have no interest in making a “Vietnam” film, no interest in making a direct political statement. I really wanted to make a film about these kinds of people . . . . Like most ordinary people, they can be quite extraordinary in the face of crises. So the war is simply a means of testing their courage and willpower. But it could just as easily have been the Civil War, or any war.3

If the movie wasn’t really “about” the Vietnam War, if the war was an arbitrary incident in a character study of “ordinary people,” then maybe The Deer Hunter could be safely cordoned off from the divisive politics that had scared Hollywood away from the subject until now. But by trying to play it safe, by couching its epic pretensions in supposedly apolitical characters and incidents, the film invited the backlash it had sought to avoid.

“Ordinary people”: Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken

Ambition and caution similarly combined in Universal Studio’s marketing strategy for the movie. Universal brought in a Hollywood operator named Allan Carr, best known for producing Grease and, according to the Los Angeles Times, for his “flamboyant” personality, “opulent entertaining, custom tailored dashikis, and . . .  flair for hype.” Carr was skeptical about the movie before he saw it. “I knew I wouldn’t like it,” he said later. “It’s about two things I don’t care about: Vietnam and poor people.” But he found himself “emotionally undone” by the screening and set about devising a strategy to make The Deer Hunter “an event movie” by creating industry buzz and getting it nominated for as many Oscars as possible. He arranged for short engagements in December 1978 at single theaters in Los Angeles (where even Rudolf Nureyev and Lauren Bacall begged in vain for seats) and New York (where Warhol had seen it at an even more exclusive VIP screening a few weeks earlier). “I knew it would be the Christmas cocktail party subject in New York,” Carr recalled. “Everybody would be asking if you saw it, were you one of the 500 people who saw one of the eight shows. They said I shouldn’t give a film to New York and take it away. I said that’s how you treat New Yorkers.” Carr and the studio withheld the movie from national audiences until February 1979.4

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The Deer Hunter pivots on the Russian roulette sequence, which immediately became the focal point of the debate and has served ever since as a synecdoche for the film. (Its migration into comedy – a gauge of its resonance – started on SCTV with the Canadian brothers Bob and Doug Mackenzie [Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas], who played a drinking game called “beer hunter” that involved shaking up one can in a six pack and opening the cans next to their heads. It has also made its way into two episodes of The Simpsons.) Word about the sequence got out from previews, so that long before the general release, many viewers were aware that Russian roulette was a fiction, that there were no reported cases of it being used as a form of torture by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. Cimino exacerbated the implication of dishonesty by lying about his service record in a New York Times interview, published on the eve of the limited release. His claim that The Deer Hunter was “a very personal film” because he had enlisted “about the time of the Tet offensive in 1968 – when things got bad” and had been “attached to a Green Beret medical unit” turned out to be false; he had served in the Army, mainly in the reserves, from 1962 to 1964. Liz Smith’s syndicated gossip column speculated that “Perhaps Cimino’s romanticizing the facts of his life is somehow related to his romanticizing the Viet Nam War in his film.” Tom Buckley, a former war correspondent who elaborated on Cimino’s autobiographical falsehoods, similarly connected them to the movie’s deceptions and lies: “If it were not for the way they are mirrored in The Deer Hunter, Cimino’s impostures would scarcely be worth noticing,” but “[t]o invent forms of cruelty – the Russian roulette game – where so much suffering actually occurred” was “perverse.”5

Michael Cimino on the set of The Deer Hunter

Did Cimino and the studio believe his pronouncements that the film was apolitical and should have been uncontroversial? How else to account for the decision to invite journalists who had covered the Vietnam War and had been among its most prominent critics to one of the previews in New York? Peter Arnett, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, recounted the experience in a critique of The Deer Hunter published on the eve of the Academy Awards. The Deer Hunter had “troubled” Arnett, but it had “stunned” him by its imagistic force “into mute acceptance of the divine right of the Hollywood dream-machine operators to drench us in fictional nightmares if they wish.” A colleague – not named by Arnett in his op-ed but subsequently identified as Seymour Hersh – wasn’t stunned into muteness and walked out during the Russian roulette scenes “muttering ‘fascist trash.’” Arnett now felt compelled to write about the film because audiences, rather than “viewing ‘The Deer Hunter’ as the spectacularly fevered product of an ambitious film director,” were “interpreting his film as a deep historical truth.”

I have found that enthusiasts are genuinely surprised and hurt when I tell them that while Vietnam had all manners of violence, including self-immolating Buddhist monks, fire bombings, rapes, deception and massacres like My Lai in its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, nor in my experience either. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie.6

I’ll return to Arnett’s characterization of Russian roulette as a metaphor, but first I want to elaborate on why he and others found the sequence so objectionable – that is, why it crossed the line, in their view, from “fictional nightmare” into “bloody lie.” To get at this, we have to see the sequence in relation to what immediately precedes it: the film’s only depiction of combat. The Deer Hunter’s combat sequence, as numerous critics pointed out, is an inversion of the common operations in which U.S. soldiers sought to “pacify” villages by burning them down, and more specifically of the March 1968 My Lai massacre in which U.S. soldiers slaughtered between four and five hundred Vietnamese civilians, mainly women and children. (Seymour Hersh had published the first newspaper reports of the My Lai massacre in November 1969.) Here it is the Viet Cong who are destroying the village and killing the inhabitants, while the heroic American avenges their deaths. Michael stands “alone with his flamethrower,” in the screenplay’s description of the scene, “like the angel with the flaming sword, surrounded by clouds of billowing black smoke”; in front of him, “the V.C. soldiers lie in charred heaps, motionless now, like roasted stones.” Just below this description in his marked-up version of the script, De Niro quoted Philip Caputo’s 1977 memoir A Rumor of War: “& men who do not expect mercy don’t have the inclination to grant it.” The quotation suggests that De Niro understood Michael’s mercilessness as a double act of vengeance – a response on behalf of the innocents he has seen murdered by the Viet Cong and a pre-emptive attack on his soon-to-be torturers.7

Had they read the screenplay, critics like Arnett would only have seen it as further confirmation that The Deer Hunter was fundamentally a racist film. Pauline Kael called Russian roulette “a metaphor for the General Westmoreland theory that Asians don’t value human life the way we do.” (William Westmoreland, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, had notoriously said this in an interview in Peter Davis’ Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds.) The novelist and former war correspondent Ward Just characterized Russian roulette in the movie as “an Oriental inspiration taken up by a drug-crazed American who was forced to ‘play’ it in a VC prison camp and now does it before Vietnamese audiences who wager on the results.” For Just, this was “a crisp update” of Kipling: “Here lies a fool who tried to hustle the East.” The film as a whole, he said, was “simply a racist muddle.” Despite decades of “movies with Nazi devils, Japanese devils and then communist devils,” the novelist and journalist Hans Koning couldn’t recall any “in which ‘the enemy’ is shown as quite so devilish” as in this one. Koning argued that while the movie didn’t quite “exult in the war,” neither did it “question the war’s good guys/bad guys purposefulness.” Vietnam veteran Brian Riffert observed that “All Vietnamese are treated in the same ‘yellow peril’ manner, as cruel and sadistic creatures” and argued that there was “another facet to the racism of The Deer Hunter”: its focus on “white” soldiers to the exclusion of African Americans and Latinos. “[B]lack folks are noticeably absent,” the Baltimore Afro-American pointed out, “contrary to what it was like in real life in the Nam.” The Deer Hunter undoubtedly participated in the white ethnic revival of the post-Civil Rights era and its celebration of those hardworking, patriotic people of Eastern and Southern European heritage who would soon come to be identified as “Reagan Democrats” and whose image as quintessential Americans would be deployed in opposition to the welfare state, affirmative action, and social liberalism.8

Reports of audiences applauding when Michael and Nick kill their captors suggested that the film’s racism was producing a corrupted “memory” of the war. Studs Terkel, the oral historian and radio interviewer, saw the movie two days before it won the Oscar and, “appalled by its shameless dishonesty,” immediately “dashed off a critique” for Chicago magazine. “Of course, the Vietcong were, on occasion, cruel in their behavior,” he conceded. “Cimino’s dishonesty was to project a sadistic psyche not only onto ‘Charlie’ but onto all the Vietnamese portrayed. There is not one who bears any resemblance to a human being who feels.” Terkel charged that the film’s racism not only made it “the perfect vehicle to assuage any feelings of guilt we may still suffer” for the war, but it “may actually justify to some audiences, especially the young, our adventure in Indochina. They may wonder, If these gooks and slopes are such bastards, why didn’t we bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age?” (This had been the infamous threat of General Curtis LeMay, architect of the massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam starting in 1965.) Arnett, too, feared for those who weren’t old enough to have actual memories of the war: “It is unnerving to sit in a movie theater in the United States in the last year of the 1970s and hear young audiences, for whom the war is an all but forgotten memory, roar their approval as De Niro kills his Vietnamese tormentors.” But the film, Arnett insisted, made this reaction inevitable. By presenting “every single Vietnamese as a cardboard caricature,” Cimino invited viewers to cheer at their deaths. For the British war correspondent John Pilger, “The Gook Hunter,” as he called it, was a cynical attempt by Hollywood to make money “with a movie that appealed directly to those racist instincts that cause wars and that allowed the Vietnam war to endure for so long.” Commonweal’s reviewer found the cheering at Michael’s vengeance “sickening” and saw it as an ominous sign of catastrophic military adventures to come: “If we have to see the Viet Cong riddled with bullets in order to salve our own wounds, we’re probably capable of opening them again in reality some place else in the world.”9 These revenge fantasies, this recapitulation of the racism that had fueled U.S. strategy and tactics in Vietnam, amounted to a dangerous revisionism, in these critics’ view, at a malleable moment when the war was passing from current event into memory and history.

The stakes were enormous for those who were outraged by the film. They perceived that the nation had failed to come to a moral reckoning with the war – that the U.S. defeat had been met with an impulse to dodge rather than to grapple with vexing questions of culpability. When Harold Visotsky, a Northwestern University psychologist, called Coming Home and The Deer Hunter “Hollywood’s version of our Nuremberg trials,” he was articulating the hope that the reckoning had now arrived; popular culture was performing the responsibility that politicians and military officials had shirked. Koning and others scoffed at Visotsky’s claim. The Deer Hunter either bracketed the crucial moral questions by asserting its neutrality as a character study or it deflected culpability onto the barbaric enemy. The outrage was an attempt to force the genuine reckoning that The Deer Hunter sought to evade.10

Accusations of racism reached a crescendo at the Academy Awards ceremony, where protestors calling themselves the “Hell No We Won’t Go Away Committee” handed out excerpts of negative reviews of The Deer Hunter to Oscar-goers and held up signs saying “No Oscars for Racism” and (borrowing from Arnett’s op-ed) “Deer Hunter a Bloody Lie.” A Vietnamese UCLA graduate student told a reporter that the movie “depicts us as barbarians and savages” and “endangers the understanding for Americans of our people.” The film sent the message, another protestor charged, “that war is hell for American white boys but not for yellow Asian boys.” Jane Fonda, who won the Best Actress award for Coming Home, hadn’t seen The Deer Hunter but agreed with the protestors that it “delivers a Pentagon view of the Vietnamese.” A journalist inside the ceremony said that the audience, buffeted by criticism of The Deer Hunter in recent weeks into rethinking their initial enthusiasm for the film, responded with palpable discomfort when the Best Picture award was announced: “When the picture’s name was read, it was as if you had proposed to a girl and were horrified she had accepted.” Police arrested thirteen protesters, among them members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for assault and inciting to riot.11

* * *

Like it or not, Cimino’s could-have-been-about-any-war film became a Vietnam War movie, and he had to explain and defend it as such. The Deer Hunter’s detractors, he said, were holding it to a standard of naïve literalism. He insisted that the film wasn’t meant to be “realistic”; it was “surrealistic” in that, for example, Clairton is a composite of several different real towns and “time is compressed” in the movie (which, according to the script, begins in 1968 and ends in 1975), with My Lai and the Fall of Saigon operating “as reference points rather than as fact.” Cimino defended what he called the film’s “non-literal” approach on the grounds that the war itself had produced all sorts of unlikely occurrences – that the surrealism of the real war gave him license for the inversion of My Lai: “I don’t dispute the accounts of My Lai 4, but I think that anyone who is a student of the war, or anyone who was there, would agree that anything you could imagine happening probably happened.” From surrealism, Cimino slipped into relativism, arguing that every war has its share of atrocities, and then into sentimentalism: “The specific details of the war are unimportant. Because this is not a film of the intellect, it’s a film of the heart – I hope.”12

Clairton: The friends leave the steel mill

The idea that Russian roulette was a metaphor didn’t originate with Cimino – I haven’t found any indication that he ever invoked it13 – but admirers of the film latched onto it. The Deer Hunter, wrote one viewer in a letter to the editor that echoed Cimino, “is a film with no political intentions and thus should not be treated politically.” As “the central metaphor of the film,” Russian roulette “is not attempting to be an example of the Vietnamese people but an example of the senseless suicide of war on both sides.” A Washington Post editorial explained that Russian roulette stood for the illusion “that control is in one’s hands when it is really in fate’s” and, by conveying the purposeless destruction of lives, served “as a bloody and relentless indictment of the Vietnam War.” Yet the Post’s editors also agreed that the film was apolitical: “It depoliticizes the war almost entirely, exchanging considerations of historical rightness for strictly human concerns.” Other viewers and reviewers described Russian roulette as a “metaphor for [the] cruel and random chance by which war picks it victims,” of “haphazard destiny.” Or it “communicate[d] with incredible force what America did to its youth in that war,” as another letter to the editor put it. Or it generally represented “the horror of Vietnam.”14

These admirers of the metaphor and of the film agreed that they bore an antiwar message. They joined Cimino in confronting critics for being literal-minded to the point of philistinism. “Ever since Plato expelled them from his Republic, creators of fictions have had to deal with the kind of criticisms made by Peter Arnett,” complained an irritated reader of Arnett’s op-ed. In response to Hans Koning’s objections to the combat and Russian roulette scenes, the chair of the English Department at Long Island University accused him of censuring The Deer Hunter and other fictional works about the war “for what is probably the unique quality of art” – “[t]he artist’s freedom to abstract, to rearrange and revision the world’s past” in the service of “a truth that does not need to be bound (or tied) to historical reference.” Kenneth Turan reminded those whose “hackles” were raised by the film’s xenophobia that the movie “is primarily an artist’s and not a historian’s or a Marxist theoretician’s vision of the hell of Vietnam.” The president of Universal responded to the Academy Awards protests with an exasperated defense of the Russian roulette sequence and the movie’s fictionality. “Of course, that specific incident didn’t happen. It’s a film, and films use metaphors.” At the post-Oscars press conference, Cimino professed to being “puzzled” by the protests against what he now said was “an antiwar film.” The Academy Awards ceremony, of all occasions, should have reminded literalist critics that “we’re movie makers and not trying to re-create newsreels.”15

Defending the film on these grounds of imaginative freedom against philistinism took a populist turn when it came to challenging the notion that audiences were somehow being duped or corrupted. Gene Siskel, still a few years from joining Roger Ebert on television, rejected the claim that “because the Viet Cong are portrayed as bloodthirsty . . . and De Niro and his buddies are able to outwit them, ‘The Deer Hunter’ is a typically gung-ho Hollywood war movie.” He couldn’t imagine “how anyone can walk away from the film thinking that war is anything but hell and that the Viet Nam War was particularly hellish”; those who saw the film as pro-war were “underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” which his “gut instinct” told him was “now reconciled to the fact that the Viet Nam War was morally wrong and stupidly fought.” Answering Koning’s charge that a putative viewer of the Russian roulette sequence might “be justified in feeling he is being stirred up once more to go hunt for Reds,” an actual viewer suggested that she and Koning must have seen different movies. Not only was her “emotional response” to the film “the exact opposite” of Koning’s, but he had gotten the combat scenes completely wrong on “the bare facts.” From her perspective, the sequence clearly showed South Vietnamese troops murdering innocent civilians in their efforts to ferret out Viet Cong sympathizers; this, she said, was “[t]he only possible interpretation.” De Niro’s Michael is so outraged by this “barbaric act” that he roasts the perpetrators in an act of humanitarian vengeance. Another viewer explained that Arnett, confusing “art” with “history,” had it wrong when he read the cheering of audiences at the prison guards’ deaths as evidence of “racist hatred”; the applause signified “incredible emotional release” – catharsis – an aesthetic rather than a political response.16

“The emotional traumas are representative” (Jim Webb): John Savage

The defense against literalism didn’t preclude praise for the film’s authenticity, which was most often framed in reference to the characters and the Clairton setting but also on occasion to the Vietnam episodes. James Webb, the Vietnam veteran-turned-novelist who would go on to become Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy and a Democratic Senator from Virginia, attested that “[t]he combat scenes are realistic,” “[t]he emotional traumas are representative,” and the depiction of “[t]he enemy” – mischaracterized by the antiwar movement “either as nonexistent or as 3 million helpless kittens” – “is credible in its harshness and brutality.” The “numbing authenticity” of the combat sequence, as the Los Angeles Times’ reviewer described it, somehow rendered its inversion of My Lai moot. By giving viewers “a brief but horrifying taste of the merciless and indiscriminate village warfare,” the sequence actually made “My Lai comprehensible and therefore all the more dismaying.” An Esquire editor whose brother had lost both of his legs in Vietnam had despaired of all of the novels and movies about the war he had read and seen: “I became convinced that nobody understood. Nobody was ever going to get it right. And then I saw The Deer Hunter. Michael Cimino got it right.” The film’s honesty, he said, had finally allowed him – and would allow the nation – to “grieve.” For Webb, The Deer Hunter came the closest of the 1970s’ Vietnam movies to triggering the kind of “catharsis” and “artistic resolution” that could then be “allegorized into societal resolution” precisely because of its realism; the other films, especially Apocalypse Now with its “depiction of the Vietnam War as crazed fantasy,” felt to him like “bludgeons to the spirit.”17

Nobody bought into Cimino’s claim that he’d made a surrealistic movie. A Vietnam vet from Queens named Michael Morris remembered The Deer Hunter as “[a] movie that I related to enormously.” Even though he found it “very confusing” – “so much imagery and so much metaphor going on,” as he put it – “the scenes of Vietnam were chillingly realistic.” Veterans who described the film as “a joke,” as “stupid,” “absolutely ridiculous,” “really screwy,” or “wacky” thought that it had failed the test of realism, either on narrow grounds of inaccurately representing combat or more broadly for perpetuating stereotypes. Tim O’Brien, awarded the 1979 National Book Award for his first novel Going After Cacciato (itself a work that brilliantly straddled realism and surrealism), challenged The Deer Hunter and other recent Hollywood versions of the war for adding only a dash of subtlety to the “sorry stereotype” of the “shell-shocked, frazzle-brained, doped-out psycho” Vietnam vet. “In The Deer Hunter,” O’Brien wrote, “John Savage weeps and trembles in his wheelchair, Robert De Niro quietly seethes, and Christopher Walken blows his brains out in a dingy Saigon gaming hall.” Despite its aspirations to greater “psychological insight and understanding” than the earlier crazed veteran movies, Cimino’s film still conveyed the message that “[v]ictim or villain, the Vietnam vet is a basket case.”18

The success rather than the failure of realism troubled critics who saw the film’s first hour as an attempt to buy credibility for the combat and Russian roulette sequences. Loren Shumway of the Anti-Imperialist Cultural Union argued that “the painstaking ‘realism’ of the hometown scenes is supposed to make us sympathize with the three working class heroes and accept as ‘real’ what later happens to them in Vietnam.” The Scottish writer Gilbert Adair wrote that “it would be churlish not to admit that Cimino has recreated the textures of a small, tightly knit industrial community with an almost novelistic wealth of detail,” but the effect was to heighten the impact of the Vietnam scenes and manipulate viewers into suspending their “critical faculties.” This was an insidious realism, realism in the service of lies. Peter Arnett saw it operating at the end of the movie, where Cimino interspersed actual news footage of the Fall of Saigon to provide “a gloss of historical accuracy to the entire film.” Taken to task by Cimino and others for wanting The Deer Hunter to be a news report rather than a work of fiction, Arnett charged that Cimino was “bending aesthetic license to its limit” in his manipulative appropriation of the documentary record.19

The wedding

* * *

De Niro believed that by the end of the film his character has undergone a significant transformation. Michael is traumatized, of course, but he has also come to some sort of new awareness about his relationship to violence. “Note about horror of war, & what I’m capable of doing, scares me & turns me around,” De Niro wrote on the script, apparently imagining a series of acts that Michael could have committed in Vietnam even though they weren’t shown in the film. What we do see is that on a hunting trip after his return he is so enraged by friend Stanley’s flippant wielding of a pistol that he almost kills him in a re-enactment of Russian roulette, and that he won’t kill a deer this time when he has it in his rifle sight. “When I came back I realized I (we) didn’t know what we were doing there,” De Niro observed of Michael. “I strongly realize this.” He also has a realization about his masculinity: “I find out after going there that doesn’t make me a man. That isn’t the answer.”20

The sense that Michael is not just traumatized but transformed by the war struck several critics as a key component of The Deer Hunter’s antiwar message. Maryl Jo Fox, a teacher and aspiring novelist, argued that the film calls into question “our archetypal expectations of heroism and manhood.” Michael’s “reason and self-control” enable the escape from the Viet Cong prison, but “the murderous canvas of Vietnam is too large, too random in its violence for such heroics to control its course.” When Michael spares the deer’s life, Fox declared, “[a] new vision of manhood flashes on the screen.” His decision not to kill “signifies his membership in the living world, his entry into the world of human bonds.” Joy Gould Boyum, the Wall Street Journal’s movie critic, located Michael in a tradition of frontier manhood extending from Cooper (she was hardly alone in noting the connection between The Deerslayer and The Deer Hunter) to Hemingway, and claimed that The Deer Hunter rendered this tradition “dangerous and irrelevant.” “Cimino’s film,” she wrote, “seems to be saying that even America’s greatest proponent of ritualized violence – the deerslayer, the Hemingway hero – must now lay down his arms.” Boyum felt “an overwhelming sense of despair” in this painful but necessary realization about what she called “our toleration of – no! – our attraction to violence.” Fox placed the film in the context of troubling recent events – the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana, the disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg – and found in the last scene of The Deer Hunter a reawakening of “almost moribund expectations of human decency and honor.” The mourning friends, gathering around a breakfast table after Nick’s funeral, sing “God Bless America,” quietly and self-consciously at first, but with growing force and conviction.21

For critics like Arnett and Koning, this was the film’s final abomination. What made Russian roulette a “bloody lie” was that the association of the war with a game of chance (if a game forced by the Viet Cong on American prisoners could even be called a game of chance) evaded any sense of responsibility. “God Bless America,” which had become a pro-war anthem of sorts during the Nixon administration, brought this evasion to a sentimental crescendo. Koning saw nothing to suggest that Michael or any of the other surviving characters has come to any genuine understanding about the war. The three friends “go off to do their duty to God and country,” and Michael and Steven “return without any cynicism or disillusionment, let alone any feelings of guilt.” They are victims of the savage Vietnamese enemy, not of misguided and immoral U.S. policy. They, and by implication the nation, have suffered much but perpetrated nothing. A University of Wisconsin political scientist noted the similarity between The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter, even though they were “[s]upposedly poles apart in outlook”; both films, he wrote, “told many of us what we wanted to hear: that the war wasn’t our fault.” The former war correspondent Gloria Emerson observed that in all of the recent films, but especially in The Deer Hunter, “Vietnam is becoming the label for an American zone of suffering and innocence and redemption.”22

Understood as a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism, the singing of “God Bless America” signified a renewed patriotic righteousness that would lead the United States into more catastrophic international interventions. Emerson confessed that she laughed at the last scene of the film but imagined audiences leaving theaters with the conviction that “our intentions were fine, our motives right, the only problem being that too many Vietnamese did not agree.” Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran was, for Emerson, the latest in a series of delusions “that a military exercise would bring a happy ending,” and the reinstatement of draft registration in response to the hostage crisis was an ominous sign that Vietnam War revisionism had taken hold. Time magazine’s Lance Morrow agreed, though he welcomed the revisionism. Morrow called the singing of “God Bless America” a kind of “absolution, a subtle exoneration of the American role in Vietnam”; recent events in Southeast Asia – the fleeing of Vietnamese “boat people,” re-education camps, the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia – had, in Morrow’s view, the salutary effect of lifting “a lot of the moral burden” from America’s war by making it “less tenable to hold that the U.S. was guilty of the uniquely satanic imperialism that anti-war critics often saw – and still frequently see – behind American policy.”23

Almost everyone who weighed in on the “God Bless America” scene, whatever their position on the film, raised the possibility that it was meant to be ironic, only to conclude that it wasn’t. In reply to an interviewer who had suggested to him that the scene might be “a satire,” a veteran and military historian named Keith Nolan said, “I don’t think it’s a satire, I think it’s very serious. . . . I think it shows that most veterans are not ashamed of what they, that they’re proud of what they did for this country, even though politically it got messed up, they’re proud of what they did.” An early booster of the film, in what would become a typical formulation, described the singing of “God Bless America” as “rousing and wholly unironic.” Tom Buckley, one of The Deer Hunter’s sharpest critics, was equally emphatic: “It would be a remarkable conclusion if there were ironic intent, but there isn’t.” Gilbert Adair proposed that “[t]he naïve patriotism of the hymn’s lyrics would seem to rule out the possibility of its being used without irony,” yet the scene compelled even skeptical viewers to “yield to” the song’s “dubious but affecting sentiments.” The characters, according to this consensus, may be reticent at first, but they undoubtedly sing with sincerity, and the film sympathizes with their earnest rendering of the song.24

What might account for all the discussion of irony if nobody was willing to assert that the scene was ironic? When Keith Nolan’s interviewer conflated irony with satire, he was inviting Nolan to reject the notion that The Deer Hunter somehow mocked the characters’ reassertion of national faith in light of what had happened to them. But without calling it irony, many of the film’s admirers saw the last scene as confirmation of Cimino’s claims that The Deer Hunter represented the war and its effects from its working-class characters’ point of view. Even its “often objectionable depiction of Vietnamese characters is not, I think, propaganda,” wrote a defender of the film’s “fictional truth.” “It is an accurate portrait of that war seen through the eyes of its central characters.” A viewer from Bakersfield, California responded to Jane Fonda’s criticisms by avowing that The Deer Hunter is “not a racist or a political film. It is a collection of impressions as seen through the eyes of three young men who were anything but political.” These observations about the limited perspective of the characters implied an ironic distance from that perspective, however sympathetically the film conveyed it. “Is Cimino serious?” Vincent Canby asked about the singing of “God Bless America.” “How does he intend us to take this? As irony on his part?” Canby thought not, though “ironic” strikes me as an appropriate term for his characterization of the scene. Cimino, Canby explained, “doesn’t condescend to his characters’ feelings. He respects them, and if they can express those feelings only in second-rate sentiment, that is the rub.” Because The Deer Hunter was true to its characters’ perspectives, it met what Canby called “its obligations of both art and history.” But the film also allowed viewers to stand outside of the characters’ “second-rate sentiment,” and even, as Canby put it, to feel a sense of “horror” at the characters’ “passivity.” “Not once,” he wrote, “does anyone question the war or his participation in it . . . . What are these veterans left with? Feelings of contained befuddlement, a desire to make do and, perhaps, a more profound appreciation for love, friendship and community. The big answers elude them, as do the big questions.”25

“Honoring Vietnam veterans”: Streep and De Niro

By representing the war and its aftermath from its characters’ point of view, The Deer Hunter staked a claim to honoring Vietnam veterans. Where Tim O’Brien saw the film as a more sophisticated, bigger-budget rehashing of the old stereotypes, Cimino saw himself as giving voice to those whose views had been excluded or marginalized:

The people that the film is about are the people who fight wars, produce the materiel for them, and who suffer the consequences of them. For so long, this war – the Vietnam war – belonged to the press and to a certain segment of the American people who commented on it from a certain vantage point. People like our characters couldn’t comment on it directly and nobody ever really spoke for them.

By this account, Hans Koning and other critics who complained that the film evaded crucial issues of responsibility missed its more rounded portrayal of the war’s effects on veterans and their communities. A New Jersey viewer explained that the singing of “God Bless America” “is not a celebration of that banal slogan ‘My Country, Right or Wrong,’ which Mr. Koning infers”; it suggested instead the characters’ struggle “to cope with their feelings of cynicism, disillusionment and, yes, guilt.” A Wall Street Journal editorial welcomed the film’s rejection of the assumption that “guilt is the only emotion worth ascribing to the men who fought in Vietnam,” and it castigated what it called “the career anti-Vietnam war movement” (including the Oscar ceremony protesters) for its “eagerness to withhold from these veterans the least measure of self-respect.” The Deer Hunter, these admirers concluded, did not engage in jingoistic flag-waving. “God Bless America” represented its characters’ efforts to salvage some hope – “a sense of community, friendship and love,” as Newsweek’s Jack Kroll put it – from their terrible losses.26

In aspiring to speak for or give voice and visibility to veterans – specifically working-class veterans – The Deer Hunter anticipated a broad movement of cultural rehabilitation over the next decade. The Wall Street Journal’s praise for the film’s challenge to the guilt-ridden vet stereotype echoed in public discourse in the 1980s. As early as March 1979, the Carter administration announced the first Vietnam Veterans Week. At the ceremony to mark the occasion at the end of May, Carter addressed the neglect that veterans had suffered: “[T]o offer one’s life in the most horrible possible circumstances, the most dangerous circumstances, with the realization that people back home do not give you that support, their prayers, their deep appreciation, and a sense of sharing, requires an extra measure of patriotism and sacrifice.” Carter acknowledged the “right” to protest the war, but said that its “unfortunate” effect had been to stigmatize vets. Reagan, of course, went further; on the campaign trail in August 1980, he declared that the war had been “a noble cause” – defending a “small country” and its quest for “self-rule” against “a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest” – and said that “[w]e dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt.” As Fred Turner has argued, the focus on guilt shifted in this period from what soldiers had done and witnessed in Vietnam to how badly they were treated when they came home. Culpability increasingly came to refer to the trauma produced by this undeserved stigmatization and neglect – to veterans as victims of a divided and ungrateful nation. The Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81 extended the trope of America-as-victim; “the media cast [the Tehran embassy hostages] as surrogates for the whole nation, suffering for us all,” Christian Appy observes. The triumphant return of the hostages after Reagan’s inauguration served as a reminder of how Vietnam veterans, by contrast, had been ignored or abused when they came home. Critics of The Deer Hunter had sought to stave off this narrative of victimization and to defer a process of national “healing” that failed to come to grips with the conduct and the effects of the American war in Vietnam.27

Jan C. Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, standing at the apex of the Wall. ..Credit: Dane A. Penland (Smithsonian Institution). Used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An ex-infantryman’s insomnia after seeing The Deer Hunter one night in March 1979 became the most important instance of the film’s role in promoting the cultural rehabilitation of Vietnam veterans and in providing a public space for enduring struggles over the war’s meanings and memories. Jan Scruggs sat up drinking whiskey alone at his kitchen table in a Maryland suburb of Washington, scenes from the movie and from his own war experiences running through his head. “Scruggs became upset,” he wrote in a dramatic third-person autobiographical account, “not by the combat scenes, but because of the scenes showing blue-collar youth in a Pennsylvania coal town. They were the people who had believed in their country, which then abandoned them when the war went sour – the people he’d seen suffer and die in Vietnam.” He saw them again that night, in a flashback, twelve of his friends blown up while unloading an ammunition truck. “The flashbacks ended,” he recalled, “but the faces continued to pile up in front of him. The names, he thought. The names. No one remembers their names.” The next morning he announced to his wife his plan for a memorial that would list all the names of Americans killed in the war. Whether or not the idea came to Scruggs in quite such an epiphany, there’s no reason to doubt that The Deer Hunter inspired him to initiate the effort that would lead, three years later, to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington – a memorial that, in the process of being commissioned and built, aspired to be apolitical only to produce its own vehement debates over the aesthetics and ethics of Vietnam War remembrance.28

* * *

A short postscript on Russian roulette:

Alarming stories began surfacing as early as April 1979 about young men shooting themselves in re-enactments of the already notorious sequence. At least fifteen deaths were reported after The Deer Hunter appeared on HBO and on a few broadcast stations in the fall of 1980. (The broadcasts on election night in New York and Los Angeles beat out the coverage of the Reagan-Carter returns in the ratings.) The victims ranged in age from eight to thirty-two and in location from Pennsylvania to California, Minnesota to Texas. Their literalizations of the metaphor produced a unique moment in the ongoing discussions of TV violence, according to The Christian Science Monitor, because here it was possible to “pinpoint” the connection between a specific scene and its re-enactment: “What is extraordinary about the continuing tragedy of the ‘Deer Hunter’ case is that the violent scene is so bizarre and therefore so traceable.”29

Another attempt to literalize the metaphor took place at the same time in a court martial at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where PFC Robert Garwood, the last actual U.S. prisoner to return from Vietnam (Rambo didn’t pull off his fictional POW rescue until 1985), stood charged with collaborating with the enemy. A defense psychiatrist testified that Garwood had been “driven insane” by watching his captors force South Vietnamese prisoners to play Russian roulette. “In my assessment,” Dr. Robert Rollins concluded, “the result of that was to destroy his free and independent judgment.” The marine jury wasn’t persuaded that Garwood, who had arrived back in the United States in March 1979 after fourteen years in Vietnam, shared Michael, Nick, and Steven’s onscreen trauma. He was found guilty and, facing the possibility of a life sentence, received a dishonorable discharge. Garwood continued to insist that he really had witnessed Russian roulette in a Viet Cong prison camp. His sympathetic biographer describes Garwood as being “riveted by the scene.”30

* * *

With many thanks to Amanda Claybaugh, Jeanne Follansbee, Jona Hansen, Joe Rezek, Seth Rockman, Dan Sharfstein, Nina Silber, Conevery Valencius, and Michael Willrich.

  1. Andy Warhol, “Wednesday, November 29, 1978,” in The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 185. See the discussion of the characters’ ethnicity in the Rusyns Yahoo group: []
  2. Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Vintage, 1991 [1977]), 188; Mike Medavoy, quoted in Stephen Farber, “Vietnam Redux,” New West, January 30, 1978, 20, VATTU, 13380124123; “Hollywood Refighting Vietnam War,” Japan Times, September 30, 1977, VATTU, 13380124127; Randy Sue Coburn, [no title], Washington Star, January 13, 1978, E-1, VATTU, 2193406014. Ellipses in original. []
  3. Michael Cimino, quoted in Roger Copeland, “A Vietnam Movie That Does Not Knock America,” New York Times (NYT), August 7, 1977, D11. The phrase “neutral as hell” is quoted in Coburn, cited above. []
  4. How “‘The Deer Hunter’ Stalked the Wild Oscar,” Los Angeles Times (LAT), April 8, 1979, N5. []
  5. Cimino, quoted in Leticia Kent, “Ready for Vietnam? A Talk with Michael Cimino,” NYT, December 10, 1978, D15; Harry Haun, “‘Deer Hunter’ Creator ‘Shot Down,’” Chicago Tribune (CT), January 14, 1979, K2; Tom Buckley, “Hollywood’s War,” Harper’s, April 1979, 84, 88. Haun was filling in for Liz Smith. []
  6. Peter Arnett, “‘The Deer Hunter’: Vietnam’s Final Atrocity,” LAT, April 8, 1979, E1; Gloria Emerson, “Oscars for Our Sins,” The Nation, May 12, 1979, 541. Peter Davis, whose 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds won an Academy Award, attended the same preview and remembers Hersh and Gloria Emerson both walking out, though Emerson wrote in The Nation that she only wished that she had done so. Peter Davis, emails to author, September 14, 2011 and September 26, 2013. Arnett’s op-ed was reprinted in The Veteran, the newsletter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in the Spring 1979 issue. []
  7. Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter: An Original Screenplay, Third Draft, March 1, 1977, Box 183, Robert De Niro Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin (RDN). In the film itself, Deric Washburn was credited for the screenplay, and Cimino was co-credited for the story. De Niro marked the passage in his copy of Caputo’s book and slightly misquoted it in his note on the script. The actual line, which refers to U.S. marines’ expectations of what would happen if they were taken prisoner, is “And men who do not expect to receive mercy eventually lose their inclination to grant it.” Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), xvii, RDN. []
  8. Pauline Kael, “Current Cinema: The God-Bless-America Symphony,” The New Yorker, December 18, 1978, 72; Ward Just, “Vietnam: The Camera Lies,” Atlantic, December 1979, 65; Hans Koning, letter to the editor, “On ‘The Deer Hunter,” NYT, March 25, 1979, D6; Hans Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam Treat Everything but the War,” NYT, May 27, 1979, D23; Brian Riffert, “In Review: ‘The Deer Hunter,’” The Militant, June 1, 1979, n.p., Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VATTU), 2193501011; “‘The Deer Hunter,’” Afro-American, April 21, 1979, 11. On the white ethnic revival, see Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). []
  9. Studs Terkel, “On Seeing The Deer Hunter” (1979), in The Spectator: Talks About Movies and Plays with the People Who Make Them (New York: New Press, 1999), 122; Arnett, “Vietnam’s Final Atrocity,” E1; John Pilger, “The Gook-Hunter,” NYT, April 26, 1979, A23; Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., “Peace with Honor: Cowboys and Viet Cong,” Commonweal, March 2, 1979, 116. Terkel compared The Birth of a Nation to The Deer Hunter and D.W. Griffith to Cimino: “One was a genius who was also a racist. The other is simply a cheap-shot artist.” Terkel’s phrase “bomb the bastards back to the Stone Age” referred to an infamous 1965 remark by General Curtis Le May, the Air Force Chief of Staff who became George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 presidential election. []
  10. Harold Visotsky, quoted in Lance Morrow, “Viet Nam Comes Home,” Time, April 23, 1979, 28; Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam,” D1. []
  11. Lee Grant, “War and Peace at the Awards,” LAT, April 11, 1979, G1; Aljean Harmetz, “Oscar-Winning ‘Deer Hunter’ Is Under Attack as ‘Racist’ Film,” NYT, April 26, 1979, C15; John Kendall, “A Bitter Sequel to Oscar Night,” LAT, April 11, 1979, A1. []
  12. Cimino, quoted in Kent, “Ready for Vietnam?” D15, D23. []
  13. Years later, a producer of The Deer Hunter told the film historian Peter Biskind that the Russian roulette sequence originated in a script about Las Vegas gamblers and that Cimino had said, “Russian roulette is a metaphor for what America was doing with its young people, sending them to a war in a foreign place, when there was no justification for it.” In light of what Cimino said on record about the movie at the time, I’m dubious about the accuracy of the producer’s recollection. Peter Biskind, “The Vietnam Oscars,” Vanity Fair, March 2008, 271. []
  14. Phil M. Joanou, letter to the editor, “Viet Movies – Who Won War? LAT, April 22, 1979, U56; “Locating the War,” Washington Post (WP), April 11, 1979, A26; Charles Champlin, “‘Deer Hunter’ – A Palship Goes to War,” LAT, December 3, 1978, 47; Jeffrey M. Burbank, letter to the editor, “Vietnam War’s ‘Final Atrocity,’” LAT, April 14, 1979, C4; George Mariscal, letter to the editor, Vietnam War’s ‘Final Atrocity,’” LAT, April 14, 1979, C4; Devon Scott, letter to the editor, “Vietnam and Artistic Integrity,” NYT, June 17, 1979, D30. When a journalist proposed that Russian roulette represented “nations committing suicide in war,” Cimino replied, “That’s too easy.” Jean Vallely, “Michael Cimino’s Battle to Make a Great Movie,” Esquire, January 2, 1979, 92. []
  15. Mariscal letter, C4; Martin Tucker, letter to the editor, “Vietnam and Artistic Integrity,” D3; Kenneth Turan, “The Deer Hunter,” The Progressive, March 1979, 53; Ned Tanen, quoted in “‘Deer Hunter’ Under Attack as ‘Racist’ Film,” C15; Cimino, quoted in “War and Peace at the Awards,” 11. []
  16. Gene Siskel, “Hollywood Escalates Viet Nam War and the Conflict Is Booming,” CT, June 3, 1979, G3, G2; Linda C. Black, letter to the editor, “Vietnam and Artistic Integrity,” D30; Mariscal letter, C4. []
  17. James Webb, “The Screening of Vietnam,” WP, August 19, 1979, L1; Champlin, “‘Deer Hunter’ – A Palship Goes to War,” 1; Vallely, “Michael Cimino’s Battle,” 89. Before the controversy erupted, Cimino wrote an article describing his efforts to make sure that “all of the details would be accurate” – from having local extras rather than prop professionals provide the wrapped gifts in the wedding scene to buying a hut in a Vietnamese settlement in Thailand, dismantling it, and reassembling it on location for the Russian roulette sequence, “all in the interest of absolute authenticity.” Michael Cimino, “Ordeal by Fire and Ice,” American Cinematographer, October 1978, 964, 1026.
    In a recent psychoanalytic reading of The Deer Hunter, Sylvia Shin Huey Chong challenges critiques of the film’s racism by arguing that such critiques wrongly “assume that American viewers will naturally identify with the American characters and thus absorb the racism implied in that positioning.” Because the Russian roulette sequence recalls Eddie Adams’ famous 1968 photo of South Vietnam’s national police chief executing a Viet Cong suspect, Chong contends, it “destabilizes the racial positions within this fantasy of violence.” Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 135. It is hard to see how the film encourages any other mode of identification than with the American characters, though some viewers, as we have seen, did take the violence inflicted by Viet Cong in the film to represent the war’s violence more generally. []
  18. Interview with Michael Morris, conducted by Steve Maxner, January 31, 2003, Oral History Project, VATTU, 7-8; Interview with Bill McCollum, conducted by Richard Verrone, December 11, 2002, Oral History Project, VATTU, 54; Interview with Stephen W. Dant, conducted by Richard Verrone, May 18, 2005, Oral History Project, VATTU, 121; Interview with Jim Shannon, conducted by Richard Verrone, November 20, 2002, Oral History Project, VATTU, 70; Interview with Robert Turk, conducted by Richard Verrone, February 10, 2003, Oral History Project, VATTU, 38; Interview with Martin Brady, conducted by Richard Verrone, August 20, 2003, Oral History Project, VATTU, 114; Tim O’Brien, “The Violent Vet,” Esquire, December 1979, 96. The interviews cited from the Texas Tech project are available online at []
  19. Loren Shumway, “The Deer Hunter,” Main Trend, November 1, 1979, 33; Gilbert Adair, Hollywood’s Vietnam: From The Green Berets to Apocalypse Now (New York: Proteus, 1981), 134, 137; Arnett, “Vietnam’s Final Atrocity,” E1. Studs Terkel was the exception in criticizing the wedding scene for its lack of realism. Having attended many such events himself, Terkel said he had never experienced “a wedding as dull, one-dimensional, and interminable as this one.” Terkel, The Spectator, 123. []
  20. De Niro notes on Cimino, The Deer Hunter: An Original Screenplay, RDN; De Niro spiral notebook, Box 44, Folder 4, RDN. []
  21. Maryl Jo Fox, “Lessons of ‘Deer Hunter,’” LAT, May 13, 1979, N39, N44; Joy Gould Boyum “On Film: The Deer Hunter,” Wall Street Journal (WSJ), December 15, 1978, 19. One of the first scholarly articles about the film argued that it was a critique of Richard Slotkin’s concept of regeneration through violence – that Michael has redirected “the personal code of the western hero” toward “the preservation of the community.” John Hellman, “Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology” in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now,” American Quarterly 34 (Fall 1982), 418-39, reprinted in Michael Anderegg, ed., Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 67. []
  22. Koning, “Films and Plays About Vietnam,” D23; Donald Emmerson, “Fantasizing the Vietnam War,” The Southeast Asia Record, October 19-25, 1979, 10, VATTU, 2193501004; Gloria Emerson, “Lessons of Vietnam: America Is Still Divided,” LAT, April 27, 1980, F1. On “God Bless America” being sung in support of the war, see Sheryl Kaskowitz, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 80. Kaskowitz does not mention the song’s prominent role in The Deer Hunter. []
  23. Emerson, “Lessons of Vietnam,” F1; Emerson, “Oscars for Our Sins,” 541; Morrow, “Viet Nam Comes Home,” 24, 27. []
  24. Interview with Keith Nolan, n.d., Douglas Pike Collection, VATTU, Part 3, 3; Copeland, “A Vietnam Movie That Does Not Knock America,” D11; Buckley, “Hollywood’s War,” 88; Adair, Hollywood’s Vietnam, 141. []
  25. Nelson George, “‘The Deer Hunter’: Fine, Fictional Truth,” New York Amsterdam News, May 5, 1979, 41; Michael W. Kovacevich, letter to the editor, “Viet Movies – Who Won War?” LAT, April 22, 1979, U56; Vincent Canby, “How True to Fact Must Fiction Be?” NYT, December 17, 1978, D23; Vincent Canby, “Screen: ‘The Deer Hunter,’” NYT, December 15, 1978, C5. []
  26. Cimino, interviewed in Donald Chase and Joseph Coencas, “Stalking The Deer Hunter,” Take One, May 1979, 38; Robert Seelenfreund, letter to the editor, “Vietnam and Artistic Integrity,” D23; “Art and Guilt,” WSJ, April 30, 1979, 16; Jack Kroll, “Simple Truths,” Newsweek, December 25, 1978, 57. []
  27. Jimmy Carter, “Vietnam Veterans Week, 1979: Remarks at a White House Reception,” May 30, 1979, American Presidency Project,; Ronald Reagan, “Peace: Restoring the Margin of Safety,” Address to Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, August 18, 1980,; Fred Turner, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 63; Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking, 2015), 234, 237. []
  28. Jan C. Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow, To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 7; Mary Vespa and Pat Gallagher, “His Dream Was to Heal a Nation with the Vietnam Memorial, but Jan Scruggs’s Healing Isn’t Over Yet,” People, May 30, 1988, 85; Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 10 and passim. Scruggs launched the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in April 1979 with the pledge that “[t]he memorial will make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct.” As Marita Sturken has shown, it proved impossible “to separate the memorial . . . from the contested narratives of the war.” Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 50, 58. []
  29. Louise Sweeney, “Is This Movie Killing People?” Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1981, B6. See also, for example, Howard Rosenberg, “‘Deer Hunter’ on TV: Life-Death Issue,” LAT, October 24, 1980, G1, and Daniel Machalaba, “‘The Deer Hunter’ Slays Networks in 2 Big Markets Election Night,” WSJ, November 6, 1980, 35. []
  30. Elissa McCrary, “Garwood Tormented Watching Russian Roulette, Court Told,” Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), January 6, 1981, 5; “Doctor Says Marine Was Driven Insane,” NYT, January 6, 1981, A17; Art Harris, “Post-Vietnam Trial Tests a Marine, a Code,” WP, December 4, 1980, A1; Winston Groom and Duncan Spencer, Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983), 55. []