“The Deer Hunter” – Vietnam’s War Trauma

The Deer Hunter


Title: “The Deer Hunter”

Release Date: 1978

Director: Michael Cimino

Cast: Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Rutanya Alda




Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” is a movie that will not be forgotten. Awarded five Oscars, the excellent drama with an all-star cast tells the story of the cruelty of the Vietnam War and the horror of post-war trauma. Ambiguous in its meaning, the picture offers no simple answers to the dilemmas of a man placed in a border situation. Instead, it shows that the chance of survival – biological and psychological – in the face of wartime hell is like a forced game of Russian roulette.

“The Deer Hunter” against the background of films about the Vietnam War

“The Deer Hunter” is one of the films that were made after the end of the Vietnam Civil War. When the Americans withdrew their military support of South Vietnam against the North Vietnamese regime in 1975 and left the Indochinese peninsula, cinema immediately reacted to these events. As late as 1968, a pro-war film called “Green Berets” was made, but it received serious criticism due to its numerous simplifications. The pictures made after ’75, starting with Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978), mostly presented a negative attitude toward American actions in Vietnam and promoted pacifist attitudes. A kind of magnum opus on the subject was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 “Apocalypse Now”, which set a certain canon of narrative about these events.

Among the classics of cinema about Vietnam is Oliver Stone’s trilogy: “Platoon” (1986), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “Haeven & Earth” (1993). An important work is Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). It is also impossible not to mention “The Killing Fields” (1984) by Roland Joffe. The plot of the latter film, although it does not depict the Vietnam War, is thematically closely connected with it. This is because the picture tells the story of the criminal actions of the Khmer Rouge, which occurred after the conflict spread to Laos and Cambodia. Contemporary films about Vietnam show a slightly different approach to American involvement in this bloody conflict, reflecting a historical shift in the assessment of those events. Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” no longer asks the question so often repeated in earlier productions: “why are we here?” and depicts the courage of American soldiers.

The Deer Hunter movie review


“The Deer Hunter” from 1978, directed by Michael Cimino against this background, is a very interesting film. It is an ambiguous picture, which, contrary to its initial reception in an extremely anti-war context, can hardly be read as unanimously condemning American involvement in the Vietnam conflict. What’s more, the work was the subject of numerous attacks, especially from Eastern Bloc countries supporting the other side of the conflict, which withdrew their participation in the Berlin Festival in protest of the screening. The film was accused of exaggerating the cruelty of the North Vietnamese and lacking evidence of their habit of playing Russian roulette.

“The Deer Hunter” – three friends in the Vietnam War

“The Deer Hunter” is the story of three friends, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage), who get drafted into the army and soon end up in Vietnam. In everyday life they lead ordinary lives, working in a factory in Pennsylvania, dreaming of stability and a family. Just before leaving for the front, Steven gets married to Angela (Rutanya Alda), and Nick proposes to Linda (Meryl Streep). Shortly after the lavish wedding, the friends go on their annual deer hunt. They soon find themselves on the front lines, where they are taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese army. Held in inhumane conditions, they are forced by their enemies to play Russian roulette. Thanks to Michael’s unheard-of courage, all three manage to escape from captivity. However, they are separated during their escape.

After returning to America, Michael cannot acclimate to the new conditions. He is still reliving the wartime events and is not sure what happened to his comrades. He gets involved with Linda, who loses hope for Nick’s return. One day the hero learns that Steven has also returned to the country. It turns out that the man has lost both legs and an arm. Soon Michael also finds himself on Nick’s trail and returns to Saigon to help his friend, who has lost his memory and makes a living playing Russian roulette….

The Deer Hunter film analysis



The movie “The Deer Hunter” – a story of war trauma

“The Deer Hunter” is a movie that extremely strongly visualizes what the hell of war is and what instincts it triggers in people. Without a doubt, it is impossible to forget this picture, and its frames scroll under the eyelids long after the end of the screening. However, unimaginable cruelty does not have the last word here. In addition to the usual human fear and pain, there is also room for extraordinary courage, which is revealed in a trying situation. Michael in extremely difficult conditions retains the ability to think logically, is able to support his friends and breathe in their fighting spirit. Thanks to the mad dash, the American soldiers manage to escape from captivity, although, unfortunately, this does not mean that they are and will be free.

For they will forever remain in the clutches of post-war trauma, which destroys bodies, souls and minds. Steven is severely physically maimed, and Steven, under the influence of shock, loses his memory and loses himself in self-destructive behavior. The roles of all three men are outstanding achievements: the tough De Niro, the hysterical John Savage and, finally, the Oscar-winning Christopher Walken – as a character plunged into a kind of hypnotic trance, almost allegorical in his horror and losing rebellion. War is an element that breaks lives and hollows a person out from the inside, leaving a lasting mark. Only a few, like Michael, are strong enough to be able to hide them from the eyes of others like war wounds under a uniform with medals.

The duo of two completely different characters reacting to extreme experiences is extremely significant here. Both Michael and Christopher undergo a profound transformation. The former, in the past famous for his bravado and risky behavior, only recognizes the weight of life and death after Vietnam. The most telling scene showing this metamorphosis is the deer hunt, when the protagonist looks the animal in the eye and decides not to shoot. It is an almost mystical moment when Michael realizes that he has not been given the right to rule over the lives of others. After all, the essence of war is a kind of dehumanization, when the enemy becomes in our eyes an Other, a non-human, someone we can take away from biological existence. In Nick’s case, on the other hand, the opposite process takes place: he becomes completely desensitized to the value of human life – both his own and that of others. Even the moment when Michael, his closest friend, sits down opposite him to play Russian roulette, no awakening occurs in the protagonist. Nick then mechanically repeats Michael’s motto from before the war, when they hunted a deer together: “one shot.”

The Deer Hunter 1978

“The Deer Hunter” – perfect form of war drama

“The Deer Hunter” by Cimino draws attention to the precise mastery of construction. It seems that the structure of the film was based on the principles of symmetry and contrast. So we have a clear framework of the story: the picture begins with a wedding, while it ends with a funeral. We have the two deer hunts of the title, and the contrast between their course highlights the transformation of the characters under the influence of the war. The fate of Michael and Nick, who are united not only by friendship and war experience, but also by love for the same woman, is played out symmetrically.

Twice the motif of “one killing shot” is repeated. And a dead hunted deer anticipates the coming death. The hunting scenes in the mountains have an almost metaphysical overtone, which is emphasized by the majesty of nature drowning in mists and clouds and the solemn music with its characteristic motif of religious songs. It is here – in the place of exaltation, traditionally associated with primordial beliefs, that the characters’ peculiar initiation into the mystery of being and existence takes place.

Certainly noteworthy in “The Deer Hunter” is Peter Zinner’s Oscar-winning superb editing, which emphasizes the contrast between the pre-war, almost idyllic life of the characters and their fate in Vietnam. Therefore, from a nostalgic evening with classical music, we move straight into the epicenter of hell. And from the Vietnamese Saigon we land with Michael in a car right in front of a huge banner prepared by friends in his honor: “Welcome home, Michael.” The changing mood of the film is perfectly emphasized by the wonderful Oscar-winning music. Lyrical compositions sit side by side with popular songs, solemn hymns and disturbing sounds heralding lurking danger.

Does “The Deer Hunter” fit into the anti-war critique of the Vietnam conflict? On many levels, it certainly does, especially in the searing depiction of the cruelty, disability and trauma faced by veterans. However, the very meaning of American participation in that war is not completely negated. Remarkably, in the final scene, the lost and variously battered characters find solace only in singing “God Bless America” together after the funeral of a friend. And the words of this patriotic song seem to be the last ones they really believe in.


P. Kemp, „Historia kina”, przeł. A. Wajcowicz, Warszawa 2017.

„Kino epoki nowofalowej”, pod red. T. Lubelskiego, I. Sowińskiej i R. Syski, Kraków 2015.