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'Deer Hunter' Is Good Drama, But Bad History
I was in Saigon at noon April 30 four years ago, when the old order rolled over and died. The Americans were gone soon after dawn, the last of them dashing across the U.S. Embassy roof to a helicopter and kicking away Saigonese who grabbed at their boots. I watched the North Vietnamese forces move into the city, green-clad foot soldiers methodically navigating the streets clogged with slow-moving traffic. It was the last act of the longest running war of this century.
I am now discovering that increasing numbers of Americans believe that the last act of the war took place in a sinister back room somewhere in Saigon, where greedy Chinese gamblers were exhorting a glazed-eyed American GI to blow his head off. Had I as a working reporter missed such a vivid human-interest story on the last day of the war, I might have opted for a similar fate.
That particularly bloody version of the war's end comes in the Oscar-winning "The Deer Hunter." It's the story of three steelworkers whose primary activity seems to be drinking and hunting. Robert De Niro is deemed the most admirable member of the trio because he kills his deer with one clear shot. It is all in the best tradition of Hemingway machismo. Then they go off to Vietnam where they are captured and tortured by the Viet Cong who force them to compete against each other in a grisly game of Russian roulette...
When I first saw the movie at a screening last autumn, one of my liberal colleagues stamped out muttering "fascist trash" when sneering Viet Cong soldiers were depicted enthusiastically torturing American prisoners of war. While I was personally troubled by much of what I saw that night, the sheer power of the film's photographic imagery, particularly the agonizing torture scenes, stunned me into mute acceptance of Hollywood's divine right to drench us in fictional nightmares.
I comment today not to challenge those who have acclaimed "The Deer Hunter" and De Niro and who have packed theaters. What disturbs me is that audiences and critics seem to have found much more historical truth and significance than there really is in the saga. Instead of viewing "The Deer Hunter" as the spectacularly fevered pro-duct of an ambitious film director (Michael Cimino), well-schooled in the cinematic arts of blood-letting,... they are interpreting his film as a deep historical truth, something on the order of the TV epic, The Holocaust's portrayal of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
While Holocaust dealt with controversial fact, the attempted extermination of a whole race, "The Deer Hunter" deals in controversial fiction.
I have found that enthusiasts are genuinely hurt when I tell them that while Vietnam had all manners of violence, including self-immolating Buddhist monks, fire-bombings, rape, deception, and massacres like My Lai in its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, or in my experience either. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie. "The Deer Hunter" is no more a historically valid comment on the American experience in Vietnam than was "The Godfather" an accurate history of the typical Italian immigrant family.
But Cimino defends his creative rights. During the filming in Thailand, he told reporters: "War is war. Vietnam is no different from the Crusades. It's a question of survival, friendship and courage, and what happens to these things in people under stress." But they didn't play Russian roulette in the Crusades either.
Even more preposterous than using Russian roulette as his metaphor is the morally irresponsible way that Cimino casually telescopes the years of the Vietnam conflict into a convenient backdrop for his bizarre macho heroics. So is history laundered. Absent are the disillusion at home, the bitterness of those who served, the destruction of a country and any other factors that might lessen his epic theme.
Most upsetting is the callous disregard of the war's impact on the Vietnamese. While Cimino places the trauma of Americans at the center of his concern, his portrayal of the Vietnamese people as inhuman monsters, for whom life is cheap, perpetuates the racist stereotype that sustained much of America's involvement in Indochina.
The audience cares about the three Americans because they are shown to have families and friendships and feelings. When they are hurt, the audience hungers for vengeance. Yet It Is unnerving to sit in a movie theater in the United States in the last year of the l970s and hear young audiences, for whom the war is an all-but-forgotten memory, roar their approval as De Niro kills his Vietnamese tormentors. Yet no other feeling is possible, for Cimino presents every single Vietnamese as a cardboard caricature. They are not real people and are, therefore, easy to hate--and it is all too easy to applaud their murder.
Cimino's depiction of the Vietnamese mortally wounds the moral Integrity of "The Deer Hunter." Cimino seems to be saying: "Yes, war is hell, but especially for young, white Americans." "The Deer Hunter" is inescapably a movie about archetypes. When a director as self-conscious, indeed as pretentious, as Cimino puts those three young Americans on a 70 mm silver screen in living Color they stand for all Americans. The portrayal of the Vietnamese similarly involves archetypes. Unfortunately, it is a lie.
There are a few real moments. Helicopters bucked and strained against the pull of gravity. Refugees streamed in fearful confusion down oil-stained roads. Panicked crowds stormed the U.S. Embassy walls. But when Cimino inserts actual ABC News footage of the last hours of the war, he is bending esthetic license to its limit. Such use of actual film clips imparts a gloss of historical accuracy to the entire film. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In his artistic selfishness, Cimino seems oblivious to the nation's underlying anxiety about the Vietnam experience and its need for explanations. Rather than applauding his directorial cleverness, the New York audiences I observed were glorying in "The Deer Hunter," partly because of the simple, satisfying answers that it gave to the tough questions.
In "The Deer Hunter," the enemies in Vietnam are ugly, sadistic torturers, while the American boys are noble; the Saigonese are greedy gamblers willing to bet on an American's blowing his brains out--they show no concern over the imminent collapse of their city. The movie was touted as being a major antiwar film, but it is packed with simplistic answers to some of our most enduring anxieties.
Some critics were harsh on "Coming Home" because they felt that the plot, which had housewife Jane Fonda bidding farewell to her gung-ho Marine husband as he went off to the war, and then having a love affair with paraplegic Voight while her husband was away, was just too much like soap opera. Historically speaking, "Coming Home" is an honest attempt to come to terms with one agonizing aspect of the war. And speaking personally, I would rather leave a theater with the suds of "Coming Home" in my mouth than the ashes of the "Deer Hunter."
(The review reprinted above is taken from Peter Arnett who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam in 1966. The article was originally written for the Los Angeles Times.)