December 18, 2004

The Deer Hunter

Category: Movies :: Permalink

On Thursday night, I watched The Deer Hunter for the third time.

In his “Apologia on Reading the Bible,” which is well worth reading, by the way, Jim Jordan says

Before I saw The Deer Hunter the first time, I was told by a friend that Michael was a “Nietzchean” hero, a man whose powerful will enabled him to dominate circumstances and other people and to perform heroic deeds. This made sense to me the first couple of times I saw the film. (We used this film in a Summer Institute I used to teach at, so I saw it several times.) It began to dawn on me, however, that Michael undergoes a transformation in the film, as a result of his Vietnam experience. In the first part, his heroism is indeed that of the will. At the end, however, his heroism is that of self-sacrifice. He has gone, essentially, from being a pagan to being a Christian hero. He has gone from being hostile to the Church to singing “God bless America.”

I agree, and every time I’ve watched the movie that impression has been strengthened. This time through confirmed something I had suspected last time: The Deer Hunter is structured more or less chiastically. (Spoilers follow.)

A USA: Friends sing together; wedding; hunting.

B Vietnam & Russian roulette

C USA: Incomplete return home; friends; huntingÂ

B Vietnam & Russian roulette

A USA: Funeral; friends sing together

The movie starts with a bunch of guys getting off work and driving to a bar, where they sing together (Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes OfF You”), as they prepare for Steve to get married and for Michael, Nick, and Steve to go to Vietnam. There’s also a very long wedding scene in the Orthodox church, which (I gather) bores some viewers but which I’ve always enjoyed. The music is glorious.

Michael, however, appears to be stand-offish, the guy who doesn’t need anyone else, the guy who doesn’t fit well into the community and who makes it clear that he has little use for God or the church.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Michael promises Nicky that he won’t leave him there. The men, except for Steve, all go on one last hunting trip together.

The B section takes place in Vietnam, where Michael, Nick, and Steve have been captured by the Viet Cong and are forced to play Russian roulette. I don’t know whether anything like that every happened in real life, but The Deer Hunter doesn’t claim to be a war documentary. It’s a story, and the Russian roulette fits somehow with Michael’s philosophy of deer hunting: “one shot.”

Already at this point, we see some growth in Michael’s character. He originally says that he and Nick have to leave Steve behind because Steve is too badly wounded to survive, but in the end he gives up his own chance at safety to rescue him.

C is the central section of the movie and it is the turning point. Michael has returned home, but Nick has gone AWOL and Michael has left him behind in Vietnam. The return home is awkward, but more than that, it is also a temptation. The temptation is to ignore his promise to Nick, to settle down with Linda, whom he loves but who is engaged to Nick, and to return to his old life. He tries. He even goes hunting again.

One might object that, if this movie is indeed a chiasm, the hunting scene ought to have been at the end of the movie. That may be true, but by putting it here and breaking the perfection of the chiasm, the director has managed to present this first return as a false return. The USA-Vietnam-USA chiasm which makes up the first part of the movie isn’t complete. Michael’s hunting trip clinches things for him and he decides to return to Vietnam.

In the next B section, then, Michael finds Nick and tries to persuade him to return. Nick has been playing Russian roulette for money and is so messed up that he can’t stop. At last, he does recognize Michael and he even quotes Michael’s old boast about deer hunting: “one shot.” But though Michael risks his life to save him, as he risked his life to save Steve, he can’t.

In the end, there is another A section. This time, however, it isn’t a wedding we see but a funeral, again in the Orthodox church. The movie started with a bunch of rowdy guys singing together, but in the end it isn’t just a bunch of guys; it’s a community, men and women, and they’re singing “God Bless America.” Michael has learned self-sacrifice and now he is part of the community and can sing a prayer with humility instead of scorn.

The structure thus contributes to the story. The first little chiasm (USA-Vietnam-USA) isn’t the full return; the deer hunting isn’t the same without Nicky and is a reminder of broken promises. The final return completes the big chiasm, though without the deer hunting now. Now, at last, Michael has become a true hero, one who lays down his life and his hopes for another, and now a new life can begin.

There’s a lot more going on in the movie than this brief outline shows. For instance, I’ve said nothing about Stan, another key character. Every time I’ve watched it, I’ve noticed more in it to appreciate.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:29 pm | Discuss (0)

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