Juxtapositions of Beauty and Destruction in Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’

Unlike war films to follow, there's no post-war celebration to be had in The Deer Hunter.

”A culture is no better than its woods.”

— W.H. Auden

In The Deer Hunter, Russian-American Nickonar Chevatorevich — played with distinct effeminacy and introspection by a young Christopher Walken — is a tree of life in an otherwise ashen factory town. Set in Clairton, Pennsylvania, the film’s hour-long first transpires in unnatural surroundings corroded by alcoholism, crude drunken exchanges, domestic assault, excessive machismo, and jingoism. However, against the film’s constant enemy — not the Vietnamese, but rather mankind’s propensity for arbitrarily violent excesses — Nick’s gentle, naturalist spirit embodies Cimino’s idealized vision of America.

Nick’s significance is directly tied to Michael (Robert DeNiro), the film’s putative American hero. As Clairton’s favorite son and factory crew leader, Michael is revered by his friends for his hunting prowess and devil-may-care driving, both typified small town American virtues. But while Michael performs mechanical tasks with a kind of “strong and silent” quietude, he’s a graceless wreck during his friend Stevie’s (John Savage) wedding prior to the war. Roaringly drunk, Michael picks a fight with a Green Beret on leave and pursues Linda (Meryl Streep) in what can best be characterized as a drunken, fumbling objectification of her as the town’s unattainable fair maiden. When it comes to love and mirth, Michael is utterly lost.

Most of The Deer Hunter’s wedding sequence is filled with rituals pocked by crude humor, anger, and repression much like Michael’s behavior. But for those who criticize the film for being overlong, the wedding’s length is effective in punctuating small moments of unique beauty. The most memorable scene from the VFW wedding hall is a single shot of Nick, who silently conveys genuine acceptance when he falsely believes Linda may have chosen to be with Michael over him. Here Walken shines, casting a slightly rueful smile set against his elegant grey eyes, and then nodding in selfless recognition of his friend’s happiness. This is a touching moment which can bathe days of drudgery in light.

Nick’s capacity for peaceful beauty, however, is deemed insufficient, if not weak, by most of mankind. The thirst for excitement, competition, and war, is a relentless beast. When Michael discusses his infatuation with the speed and instincts that deer hunting entails, Nick’s response, delivered with a soft and slightly off-kilter reluctance, captures the film’s divide between capacity for natural beauty and a default allegiance to its various obstructions:

I’m thinking about the Deer. Going to ‘Nam. I like the trees you know? I like the way the trees are on the mountains, all different. The way the trees are. Sounds like some asshole, right?

Nick’s concern with being an “asshole” for sharing genuine poetic appreciation for naturalism is a sweeping indictment of American culture. Like so many young, misguided individuals, Nick is guilted into thinking that traditional notions of “heroism” are more vital to being American than a pacifistic vision of beauty that stretches across the country’s vast forests and mountains.

Cimino gives the audience a long, lingering taste of Nick’s vision and, by extension, of America at its finest. Notably, the treacherous, fire breathing steel mill town is also responsible for a majestic lamp lit steel bridge connecting Clairton with the ethereal US countryside, which is overflowing with snowcapped mountains and splendid winding roads surrounded by lakes and trees. Later on, in the backroom of what is otherwise a Clairton watering hall, there’s a hearth with a piano prominent in the corner of the room, on which the crew’s bartender and lifelong friend plays Bach.

When The Deer Hunter finally cuts to the Vietnam War, the first scene is of Michael blow-torching, in mere seconds his enemies and, incidentally, some trees. Symbolically, Michael forcefully grasps full possession of the film from Nick. Of course, we’ve seen this transition in war films several times over, but The Deer Hunter utilizes it as a symbol for the quick obliteration of the beauty that Cimino has spent so much time cultivating for the better part of his film.

Most of the war is captured in the following “Russian Roulette” prison scene, which was strongly criticized as historically inaccurate and flagrantly insulting to the Vietnamese. However, a more holistic interpretation of the scene is its depiction of war’s senseless and arbitrary horrors, which overpower even the most peaceful of men. Once again, the contrast of Nick’s character to Michael’s is at the forefront of the scene.

Predictably, Michael readily accepts the nightmarish jail, where gambling guards throw money at prisoners forced to commit suicide, and those captives who refuse to play are placed in cage partially submersed in water, where ravenous rats await. Amid this hell, Michael reflexively assumes the role of typical war cinema hero. Michael may be more emotionally layered than say, John Rambo, but both share the patriotic ideal of registering war as a puzzle that will be quickly and most violently solved.

As Michael’s instincts peak, Nick’s voice begins to die. Lost in the scene’s brutal chaos, when Michael instructs Nick to forget about Stevie and focus on the killing which needs to be done, Nick responds with disgust, “Who do you think you are? God?” It’s a damn good question, and one which Hollywood assumes in the affirmative whenever it releases another half a billion dollar budget war film full of unquestioned heroism and marginalized death.

However, we see the effect of this militaristic god-complex at work in the roulette scene. Careful observation of Nick shows his soul drain and his eyes growing more inward as he dutifully executes Michael’s hatched plan. None of this is to discredit the “Michaels” of the world, but at the same time, The Deer Hunter sticks to its message: Michael’s heroism won’t wash away the cripplingly traumatic effects of war on mankind — and on beauty.

Unlike war films to follow (not to mention shameless commercials exploiting jingoism for profit), there’s no post-war celebration to be had in The Deer Hunter. Cimino relentlessly drives this last point home during the film’s final act, which is entirely devoid of levity and, stripped of its most luminous character, depicts Clairton as an even harsher place to live after the war.

During Michael’s next hunting trip, he becomes unhinged, and this time Nick is not available to temper his friend’s dangerous reactivity. Linda regularly appears ashen, and while Michael provides monetary comfort, he’s not capable of providing lasting joy. The watering hole’s back room is cast in fluorescent light and rather spare. Humor and optimism give way to seemingly endless drudgery, monotony, and sorrow. Not surprisingly, while this third act is a little shorter than the first, it feels much longer, as does life when stripped of beauty.

Of the American war films which went on to experience great commercial and critical sense since The Deer Hunter won Best Picture in 1979, none have taken on the film’s imperious approach of eschewing entertainment value in favor of an enduring yet emotionally lasting sense of loss. Instead, successful contemporary war films have opted for sentimental Hollywood heroism (Dances with Wolves, Saving Private Ryan), showcases of Hollywood hunk performances (Born on the Fourth of July, American Sniper, Lone Survivor), bromances with guns (The Hurt Locker, Jarhead), and third acts stuffed with enough Hollywood explosions to slake an action-film junkie’s appetite (Platoon).

What’s more, as bloodbath entertainment is consumed more episodically than ever — with Games of Thrones leading the field — audiences can engage their fixations on inventive forms of violence absent the lingering emotional impact of human loss more readily felt in a single, lengthier sitting with richly developed character-based explorations on the juxtapositions between beauty and destruction.

These troubling trends make the importance of Nick Cheravotevech even more vital today. Rather than marvel at CGI’s ability to capture destruction to such nerve clenching or adrenaline pumping affects, we have to remember the loss of the trees and of those human beings who understood that “the whole thing” need not include destructive levels of megalomania. Indeed, “no culture is better than its woods”, or than those individuals who seek to preserve them.

The same can be said for fearless director Michael Cimino who, in capturing immense beauty in this country’s natural settings, and in his boundless cinematic experimentation, represented each against the rising of the tide.