What The Deer Hunter Thinks – Oscar Series # 5

(All media is telling you something.  This is the fifth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah.  I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity.  Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned!  I will assume you have already watched this movie.  Previous entry in series: Rain Man.)

The Deer Hunter

Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken) – 1978

“A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” – Michael

A lot of the analysis of The Deer Hunter has attempted to force a parable out of it regarding America’s role in the Vietnam War.  The problem with that is that The Deer Hunter isn’t really about Vietnam.  Vietnam is almost a giant MacGuffin to The Deer Hunter.  If the movie is saying something about it, it is only an afterthought.  What The Deer Hunter really thinks is that Russian Roulette makes a dramatic story element.  Multiple members of the cast, the director, and a lot of people that produced this movie have confirmed that it is not about Vietnam.  In fact, the script was originally about a man who professionally played Russian Roulette.  Vietnam was added later.  Any attempt to analyze the message of the movie needs to keep this at the forefront of its thoughts.

Because the setting is secondary to the purposes of the film makers, the Deer Hunter seems determined to not be definitive about any topic.  It prefers to let its dramatic Russian Roulette story element play out in three long chapters with ambiguous beginning and ending points in their narratives.  The sheer length and abundance of empty scenes fuzzify any attempt at a direct point – perhaps purposefully.  If you like to watch films that don’t spell out an agenda to you, this is your film.

That doesn’t mean that The Deer Hunter isn’t trying to say anything at all.  For example, we are repeatedly told in the beginning by the films protagonist that a deer should be taken with just one shot.  By repeatedly saying this, The Deer Hunter is telling us that it believes that if you shoot a gun, you should do so with purpose, precision, and careful preparation.  People who don’t take the care to do just that are lost.  Lesser.  The character Stan is the embodiment of this.  There is a subtext, perhaps, telling us that a drunken, wildly distracted America has lost sight of the value of life wielding its power and freedom carelessly.

The Deer Hunter proceeds to tell us that using a gun without a purpose to shoot only once in a directed way has consequences in the real world.  Russian Roulette, of course, is the opposite of wielding a gun with the purpose of taking one directed shot.  It affects not only the people participating in it (because the willingness to pull the trigger, even with coercion, requires you to give up life in some way) but it also affects the people at home as well because they must deal with the consequences.  It shows abandonment to the value of life by the player and the people betting on it.  Again, perhaps, there is intention in the film to draw a parallel to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  I’m not sure I buy that, though.  If so, the film’s heart is not in it.

The film begins with a drunken wedding.  It ends with a sober funeral.  From this I gather that The Deer Hunter thinks we need to sober up both individually and as a country.

God is a strong and purposeful undercurrent of the film, particularly in meditation on how God works within duty to country.  The beginning of the film takes place in an immaculate church building with a wedding.  A church choir plays strategic prominence both at the wedding and later in the first deer hunting scene.  A banner hangs in the background of the wedding chapel displaying the message “Serving God and Country.”  The characters at the beginning of the film drunkenly sing “Drop Kick My Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life”.  The films highly debated final scene centers on the cast singing God Bless America.

As stated above, the film seems determined to not take a stance on anything so it’s hard to say what it is trying to say about God other than that He is a foundational part of the American life.  Taking the scenes at face value I see a bunch of people who go to a place with God’s name on it but are not Godly at all in the way they act.  These people seem to have no relationship with a living God.  If anything, according to the film, God’s name is used flippantly to authorize our excesses without bothering to realize that we haven’t had a real relationship with him for a long time.

Perhaps that is the meaning of God Bless America at the end.  Or maybe not.  I get the gut feeling that it was not meant to be ironic at all.  Who could know for certain?  You couldn’t get a definitive answer from the film itself because delivering a message is not what it really cares about.  It simply wanted intense moments and to provide the thrill of feeling the pain of its characters as the result of those moments.  Regardless, the watcher should take the opportunity to ask itself at the end if America really should be blessed by God.

Or maybe a better question would be: Is America blessing the people of the world through being like God?

I don’t think about that much with one shot anymore, Mike.” 

You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.”