The death of film director Michael Cimino in July of this year stimulated a great deal of commentary on the concept of the flawed genius. His obituaries typically focused on his film Heaven’s Gate, which has become a byword for bloated, self-indulgent, glacially paced, but visually arresting movies. The fact that its huge budget and negligible box office sank a major studio guaranteed Cimino an eternal place in a kind of reverse hall of fame while ensuring that his future output in Hollywood would be severely limited.
But even with that paltry body of work, Cimino remains one of the more significant directors in cinematic history. His earlier film, The Deer Hunter, won five Academy Awards and is preserved by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” I believe the film richly illustrates — whether the director fully intended it or not — the American delusion of lost innocence and outraged virtue, a national pathology that has steadily grown throughout the war on terror and has achieved a culmination in the campaign of Donald Trump.
After its initial release, film critics were in no doubt, usually showering it with accolades. Roger Ebert called it “a heartbreakingly effective fictional machine that evokes the agony of the Vietnam time,” while giving it four stars. Leonard Maltin also awarded The Deer Hunter four stars, calling it a “sensitive, painful, evocative work.” Ebert summed up the end of the film this way:
If it is not overtly “anti-war,” why should it be? Hell, we’re all against the war… now. What The Deer Hunter insists is that we not forget the war. It ends on a curious note: The singing of “God Bless America.” I won’t tell you how it arrives at that particular moment (the unfolding of the final passages should occur to you as events in life) but I do want to observe that the lyrics of “God Bless America” have never before seemed to me to contain such an infinity of possible meanings, some tragic, some unspeakably sad, some few still defiantly hopeful.
Ebert’s defense of the film’s implicit viewpoint, along with his high praise of the film’s ending, are important both because of his prestige as a reviewer and because of subsequent critical commentary of the movie. After the disastrous reception of Heaven’s Gate, a large number of critics revised their earlier praise for The Deer Hunter, seeing it in retrospect as an ominous precursor of the later film’s defects. This revisionism is itself significant, less for its truth content, than for its illustration of how film critics, like all of the chattering classes, have a tendency to act in herds to confirm the conventional wisdom of the moment.
But what about Ebert’s point that a film, like all “art,” is not some kind of political tract, and that it should stand or fall on its own esthetic or dramatic qualities rather than whether it appeals to the viewer’s ideological sensibilities? To a certain extent, this is true. Salvador Dalí’s painting may be judged by criteria other than the fact that he was rabidly fascistic. For all the critical scorn heaped on Albert Speer’s architecture, it was solidly within the neoclassical vernacular of the time, and even seems, in one of history’s stranger ironies, to have inspired the World War II Memorial on Washington’s Mall. In any case, the Nuremberg Tribunal sentenced Speer to 20 years for using slave labor as minister of armaments, not because it found that his Reich chancellery was a tastelessly executed design.
But works of art can also take on a life of their own within their social matrix. Goya’s famous depiction of Napoleonic troops executing Spanish civilians is unquestionably art, but it is also straightforward propaganda, regardless of the intention of the artist, simply because of the subject matter. And we can think of another highly influential American film, Birth of a Nation. Did it merely reflect the racial attitudes of the day? Or did it actually lend credence and prestige to them? It is my contention that in its own cheesy and faux-artsy way, The Deer Hunter has been similarly influential.
There is no need to summarize the plot of the movie, as it is well known and has been adequately done elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it consists of hokey scenes of young working-class male bonding in a southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, deer hunting as a transcendent symbol of something or other, an interminable ethnic wedding scene, horrific rivers of blood in Vietnam, and a final reckoning stateside. That’s pretty much it. Now let us dissect it.
Virtually none of the main characters’ actions are impelled by the internal logic of any discernible human motivation. Overtly political movies, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet epics, or (to slip down a few notches) 2015’s American Sniper, are often criticized for using their characters as stick figures, or as human megaphones, to put across an ideological point. But Cimino, who always protested that The Deer Hunter was not a politically motivated movie “about” Vietnam, but rather a drama with Vietnam as a backdrop (I take him mostly at his word), treats his characters as automatons lurching blindly towards their unhappy fate. This is exactly the way an ideologically motivated director would have done, but without even the saving grace of a larger point (as in, say, Stanley Kubrick’s harrowing Paths of Glory) to make the story comprehensible.
This does not mean that films or novels must be infused with ideological preaching, but at least indirectly acknowledging the larger context in which a story takes place is something that cannot be avoided, especially when you are dealing with a controversial war. As Trotsky supposedly said, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. And Vietnam was possibly the most political war in our history — certainly since the Civil War. It would have been impossible for a recruit to pass the Army Qualification Test without some dawning consciousness of what was going on, and a viewpoint one way or another.
Instead, what we get from The Deer Hunter is this: Vietnam is methodically decontextualized and depoliticized; Americans are portrayed as the innocent victims of treacherous, bestial “Orientals.” It was almost as if we hadn’t killed two million Vietnamese, pulverized their infrastructure, and poisoned the country for generations with 50,000 tons of Agent Orange. Even some American movie critics, generally a tame and studiously apolitical lot, protested this depiction. Why American soldiers went over there is unclear from the film, beyond the fact that the three protagonists dimly see it as a rite of manhood.
The movie is suffused with the notion of the wounded innocence of a valorized white working class fighting in a righteous (but otherwise undefined) cause. This is of course utter crap, given everything we know about the criminal machinations of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the rest of our political masters. It was not as if the government that sent them to Vietnam (even while engineering the free trade and outsourcing what would turn their southwestern Pennsylvania home into a post-industrial wasteland) didn’t have their best interests in mind; no, it was all the fault of sadistic gooks getting them addicted to Russian roulette.
The major working class characters, unlike, say, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad or Gary Cooper’s John Doe, are passive stereotypes who are completely un-self actualizing. There is no responsibility or moral agency in them at all, which is what allows them to shamble through their experiences in a depoliticized fog. That is why the climax of the film, the Russian roulette scene, evokes not pathos, as in Greek tragedy, but an admonitory shiver. Yes, it’s gruesome, but characters without complex and believable motivations fail to strike a chord of empathy.
One sees this even in the scenes not set in Vietnam. The Clairton, Pennsylvania, steel works where the protagonists toiled was a place that in the right hands could have evoked Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, or, more darkly, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and informed us who was paying a double price in this country for its war policies and its economic policies. Instead, it appears that Cimino was merely interested in the grand, fiery tableau of the blast furnaces for the sake of his camera.
All this decontextualization is what makes the final scene, with the survivors singing “God bless America,” such a shameless manipulation that I am surprised a perceptive critic like Roger Ebert fell for it. After having the characters move zombie-like through a pointless gore-fest, to advert to such rank sentimentality — and there is no evidence Cimino was being archly ironic or slyly subversive — is the final insult. My own reaction to such a cheap emotional trick evokes the quote by Oscar Wilde, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
One final tap of the nail into the coffin: during production of The Deer Hunter, Cimino implied to studio personnel, and even to The New York Times, that he had served as a Green Beret medic during the Vietnam War. This service being wholly imaginary, one is forced to conclude that the director’s “vision” of Vietnam was fundamentally mendacious (war Journalist Peter Arnett certainly did come to that conclusion, saying that “The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie”). Men who stole the valor of others by claiming to have served in the war (and there is a surprisingly large number of them) are unlikely to hold a skeptical, or even coolly objective, view of that conflict: in attempting to valorize themselves they must valorize the war itself. One does not have to be “antiwar” in the least to detest this kind of dishonesty. Nevertheless, Cimino remains an important director, and The Deer Hunter an incredibly influential film. Why, then, do I say it is so pernicious?
In his excellent book on politics in the 1970s, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon, and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein says Americans had a golden opportunity in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate to grow up as a country. We had abundant evidence our leaders had lied repeatedly. We could have accepted Vietnam and Watergate as lessons about what not to do. We could have become a more normal country with a more realistic view of ourselves, not as Sly Stallone in an action movie, but as responsible adults.
Instead, we fell for the myth Ronald Reagan was peddling: a return to an innocent, virtuous retro-America, accompanied by a miraculous selective amnesia about painful events in the recent past. One of those events was Vietnam. The Deer Hunter came at exactly the right time, as Reagan’s campaign was gearing up. It offered absolution, presenting Americans as the pure, virtuous victims of villainous foreigners. Vietnam became a “noble cause,” as Reagan said, and wars were shorn of complex geopolitical causes — and certainly detached from accusations of squalid economic motivations by the military-industrial complex. Even Jimmy Carter got in on the act: We owed the Vietnamese no compensation to rebuild their shattered country (unlike with the Marshall Plan after World War II) because “Americans suffered too.” Ah, yes, that Christ-like suffering of the virtuous, which The Deer Hunter so effectively reifies in the final scene that moved Roger Ebert.
This dangerous myth of America’s innocence has transformed over the ensuing decades and is now breaking out in even more toxic form in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Once again, we are pure victims of rotten foreigners who always beat us. At one time, working class heroes were people like Joe Hill, moral agents who took responsibility for improving their lot, preaching human solidarity and building a better country. Their martyrdom, when it came, was a historically meaningful one. They’ve now been reduced to poor schlubs, the background cheering of “losers” at a Trump rally, with only guns and revenge fantasies, rather than the dignity of work to lend meaning to their lives. The characters of The Deer Hunter can be located about midway along that historical arc.