The Deer Hunter (1978)  

 

 



Director:    Michael Cimino.

Starring:    Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale.

Oscars:       Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken).

The now classic movie about the Vietnam War and its effects on a group of friends from a small Pennsylvania town.  The vets comes home and go back to their same routines, but are they now more ritual than anything else?

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Factories are busy   A truck comes down the road going really fast with the driver blaring the horn.  Sirens in the steel factory sound.  Men work in special suits to withstand the heat of the molten steel.  It's quitting time and Michael takes off quickly.  People who know Mike are wishing him good luck and tell him among other things:  "Don't get your ass shot off."

Mike goes out with a group of his friends to go drinking.  There's Axel, Nick, Stan and Steven.  Steven is getting married to Angela.  Angela gets into her wedding outfit and looks at herself in the mirror.  In the church the future Russian mother-in-law of the bride doesn't understand why her Steven is marrying a strange girl and not a thin one at that.  She asks the priest if he can explain this to her?   He just tries to calm her down. 

The guys drive down town to the bar.  The bartender is a big man named John.  He grabs the groom Steven and pushes him up and down and around the pool table. 

Women are bringing the cake to the wedding church reception area.  Three bridesmaids in their fancy dresses are carrying too many wedding presents and they keeping dropping them.  Bridesmaid Linda rushes to get the food on a tray to her father in the upstairs room.  He is drunk and he knocks Linda down as she tries to get him onto the bed.  She gets up and he gives her a shot to the head that knocks her back down. 

The guys at the bar are listening to a Frankie Valle song and singing along with it while some drink and some play pool.  Steven's mother comes into the bar and starts pushing Steven out the door of the bar.  Mom is mad.  She tells her son:  "To do this to your own mother who prays for you all her life.  Is your heart so cruel, so unfeeling?  You marry this girl.  You leave her with me.  And you go with these bums to the Vietnam!" 

Michael drives home.  Already there is Nick.  They both have parts of their tuxedoes on.  Nick tells him that it's crazy for Steven to get married and then the whole gang goeing deer hunting at night.  Michael talks about how he loves to be up in the mountains.  Nick says he loves how the trees are in the mountains.  The guys start arriving at Mike's place and putting their hunting gear in the trunk.  The three bridesmaids come up to Mike's house.  And now comes Linda, sobbing.  Nick asks her what's the matter and she tells him her father hit her.  She asks Nick if she could use the place as someplace to stay while the guy's are on their hunting trip?  She says she will pay Nick and Mike for her staying, but Nick doesn't want to take her money. 

The wedding ceremony begins.  The church quire sings at the wedding from the balcony.  Steven and Angela come down the aisle with the bridesmaids and groom mates behind them.    The newlyweds leave the church and drive away in Steven's car.  People are throwing rice all over them. 

A good time is being had at the wedding reception.  There is a lot of dancing to Russian music.  Mike watches Linda as she dances and she notices him.  Another woman keeps staring at Mike. 

An announcer gets up to welcome everyone to the wedding of Angela and Steven.  And a special welcome to Michael and Nick who are also going to Vietnam with Steven to serve their country. 

Nick has been mostly dancing with Linda, but nowthe lets Mike dance with her.  Mike stops dancing and says he will go get Linda a Rolling Rock beer.  He leaves her to go to the bar, but then quickly comes back and pulls her to the bar with him.  They drink their beers.

The singer with the band cuts in on Stan dancing with his girl.  The guy keeps grabbing her ass while dancing and Stan says he's going out to the car to get his gun.  But instead of doing that, he gets between his girl and the guy and knocks the girlfriend right on her ass.  She is out and laying on the floor.  Nick and Steven try to intervene to stop Stan, but now Stan starts fighting with Nick.   Stan's girl finally gets up.  She tells him he hurt her.  He kisses her where he struck her on the face and they seem to reconcile. 

At the bar Mike is getting a little too fresh with Linda and she pulls away from him.  A Green Beret soldiers comes into the bar to have a drink.  The guys going to Vietnam soon all want to talk with him, but the guy doesn't seem to want to talk with them.  Mike is the one really trying to talk to him asking how is it over in Vietnam?   The guy just keeps saying:  "Fuck it!" 

Everyone goes back to dancing some more.  Angela throws her wedding bouquet and Linda catches it.  Nick asks Linda if she would marry him and she says:  "Yeah."  Nick can't seem to believe it.  He then says he means when they get back from Vietnam. 

Steven drives off with Angela following the wedding reception.  Michael strips off his clothes as he runs down the street ahead of the wedding car.  Mike gets completely naked.  He finally stops running and Nick catches up with him.  They both sit down.  Mike asks if Nick thinks they will come back from Vietnam?   Nick just says that Mike has to promise him that he will not leave his old buddy Nick behind in Vietnam.  Mike promises. 

The whole gang, except for Steven, head up into the mountains drinking beer all the way.  John takes the place of  Steven.  The guys stop to take a piss and then they teasingly leave big Axel behind twice, but always come back for him. 

They stop at their usual place, but, perhaps because they are drunk, they don't seem to recognize the place.  Stan pulls out his pistol.  He gets mad at Mike because Mike won't let him use any of his equipment.  He calls Mike a faggot.  John gets tired of Stan's whining and hands him Mike's boots to wear.  But Mike repeats to Stan that he's not using any of his equipment.  So Stan throws the boots at Mike and they hit him.  Now everybody is quiet.  

Mike and Nick go own to be separated from the other hunters.  They climb up the mountains to the very top.  Mike sees a handsome buck with big antlers and tries to shoot it, but it quickly moves on.   Mike kills the deer on his first shot.

The guys return home at night.  They stop at the bar.  They all seem to be drunk.  The place is closed but John opens the bar for them.  They sing:  "Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life."

John starts playing the piano and everyone gets quiet.  There's the sound of helicopters in the air.

Vietnam.  A village is nearly totally destroyed in an attack by the North Vietnamese.  The first soldier into the village throws a grenade into the place where perhaps 15 or more women and children are hiding.  Almost everyone is killed.  Mike and some other guys recover from the blasts inflicted on the village.  He sees the enemy soldier shoot a surviving woman with her baby, so he turns on the flame thrower and lights the soldier up.  The guy screams in pain.

More American soldiers arrive via two helicopters.  Two of the arrivals are none other than Nick and Steven.  They can't believe it when they run into Mike.  And now the North Vietnamese attack the village and the American soldiers. 

Mike, Nick and Steven are now prisoners of war.  They are kept in tiger cages.  The pit cages are buried 90% of the way in the waters of the river.  The prisoners have to breathe from the 10% percent of air space left to them.  Other men are put in other cages that are much more roomy and the prisoners can stand up.  Men are taken from the larger cages and then beaten one at a time.  The jailers play Russian roulette with the lives of the POWs.  The guy currently being forced to play the game loses as the pistol goes off and the bullet goes through the POW's brain.  Steven is freaking out over anticipation of having to play the game.   Mike tells him to calm down.  He tells the frightened fellow to think of something else besides where he is now.

Now the POWs have to put the gun up to their own heads and pull the trigger.  One POW comes out okay, while the one sitting across from him does not.

Now it's Steven and Mike sitting across a small table from each other.  Steven is to go first.  Mike tells him he can do it, he can do it.  If he doesn't do it, they will throw him in the pit and he will surely die there.  So Steven has to do it.  Stevie fires the gun, but it's at an angle that the bullet goes into the wooden roof.  Stevie is taken to the pit and thrown in.  Then Mike is thrown into the roomier water cage.  Mike comes up with a plan.  He tells Nick that they have to play against each other.  And they have to play the game with more bullets in the chamber.  He decides on three bullets as the number.  Nick will wait for Mike's move.  When he starts shooting the jailers, Nick is to grab an AK-47 out of the hands of one of the guards and start blasting them. 

Nick has to go first and he survives.  Now Mike says he will play with three bullets.  He puts the bullets in the chambers. He pulls the trigger and survives.  Now Nick has to pull the trigger. He survives.  Now it's Mike's turn.  He starts acting a big crazy and gets the guards laughing so hard that their rifles move off from Mike's head.  He laughs too but then suddenly shoots the host in the forehead and then a guard in the head.  Nick goes for an AK-47 and starts shooting.  Mike now gets an AK-47 and starts shooting.  They mow everyone down.  Nicky is bashing the head in of one of the guards over and over again.  Mike has to drag him away.  They go to let Stevie out of the pit.  They push a huge tree trunk out into the water and hold onto it tight.  The trunk starts floating down the river.  Nick goes under the water and Mike saves him by pulling him up out of the water.  The guys are now going to go over a a water fall so the men grab onto a decrepit pedestrian bridge made of wood and rope.  A helicopter comes over to them and the men are picked up one at a time and thrown into the helicopter. Nick is taken in first, but then Stevie and Mike both fall off the rungs of the helicopter into the river.  Stevie has a bone protruding out of the skin of one his legs.  Mike puts Stevie on his back and carries him away from the water. 

Thousands of refugees fill the roads headed away from the area.  Mike joins the line of refugees, still carrying Stevie on his back.  A South Vietnamese jeep stops and the men inside pick up Stevie and put him on the hood of the jeep.  They take him away.  Mike starts walking along with the refugees. 

The men are taken to the hospital.  Nick is there already.  A doctor starts asking him for basic information on his background, but Nick can recall very little of it for the doctor.  Nick starts crying.  They let Nick out of the hospital.  One of the first things he does is call home to Clairton, Pennsylvania, but he suddenly changes his mind and hangs up the telephone. 

The streets of Saigon are absolutely over-packed as Nick pushes through the crowds.  He goes into a strip joint.  He thinks he sees Mike, but it's not Mike.   He finds a seat at the bar and sits down.  A woman comes over to him and starts talking with him.  She propositions him, but he is reluctant to go with her.  She kind of drags him away from the bar and they go upstairs to have sex.   The woman's little boy shares the room with her.  Nick says he can't have sex with the little boy crying in the room.  He walks downstairs.  She shouts at him:  "Fuck you!"

Late at night Nick walks the streets.  He hears a gunshot and goes to investigate. He hears another gunshot.  Are men being shot dead in the back of a building?   Apparently, the men were playing Russian roulette and lost. A Frenchman starts talking to Nick and he tells Nick that he must come inside.  Nick says no, but the Frenchman keeps insisting he come in.  Nick goes inside.  Already inside the building is Mike watching the game.  Nick grabs the gun on the table, points it and the head of one of the players and pulls the trigger.  The gun just goes click.  Now Nick holds the gun up to his own head and pulls the trigger.  Again the gun goes click.  Nick starts to run out, but a bouncer tries to stop him.  He hits Nick so Nick hits him back knocking the bouncer onto the floor. Now he runs out into the streets.  Mike is chasing him calling out his name.  The Frenchman picks up Nick in his car and gives him some money.  Nick throws the money up into the air while the convertible goes down the street.  The people in the street start diving for the money.  Mike can't catch up to the car and has to give up his pursuit. 

Mike goes home to Clairton, Pennsylvania.  In the taxi, he sees a banner welcoming Mike home.  He tells the driver not to stop.  Mike stays in a motel instead of going to the party.  He is very restless in the motel.  He looks at the photo of Linda he has in his wallet.  He watches his house from behind a building.  He sees the people leaving the party during the early morning hours.  Mike sees Linda and goes down to talk with her.  

Linda is very melancholy.  Mike knocks on the door.  She opens the door and is very happy to see him alive.  Linda tells him that somehow she was hoping that Mike would have Nick with him.  She says that all they know about Nick is that he is A.W.O.L. (absent without leave)  He never wrote to her and never called her.  She starts crying on his shoulder and Mike holds her tight.  She now says she has to go to work.  Mike walks her there. They hug each other again.  They walk arm in arm and people stop Mike to welcome him home.  She forces him to come into the grocery store where she works.  Women come over to kiss him and the butcher comes and shakes his hand.

At the steel mill Mike surprises Axel and Stan.  They too are glad to see him and take him over to John's bar.   Back in the bar Mike is really swamped with men wanting to shake his hand.  John gives him a big hug.  The core group goes into the back to have a glass of vodka.  They toast to Nick and Steven.  The guys say Steven is back from Vietnam.  Mike asks about Angela and the guys don't want to say anything.  So Mike takes off to go see Angela who is now living with her mother-in-law.  He asks her where is Steven?  He asks her over and over again until she writes the answer down on a piece of paper and gives it to Mike.

Mike goes to a phone booth and starts to call the telephone number on the piece of paper.  He changes his mind and hangs up the phone.  He goes back home to sneak out, but Linda arrives just in time to stop him.  She says she bought a lot of groceries so she could prepare him a good meal.  She begs him:  "Can't we just comfort each other?"  Mike says he can't and he just has to get out of here.  He says he feels as though he is far away from everything and everybody and he just has to go. He leaves, but Linda goes right after him.  They end up in the motel together. 

She takes a shower and puts a bath towel around her.  She comes into the room and finds Mike fast asleep.  She lays down beside him in bed. 

The next day Mike watches as Linda and his friends bowl.  Axel runs to the machine to find out what happened to one of his bowling balls and ends up sliding right into the automatic changing system.  There he gets stuck and lots of people come around to try to get him unstuck.  They have to use a jack to raise the system up enough so they can slide Axel out from under it.  Axel does retrieve his ball.

Mike goes deer hunting up in the mountains with his friend.  He sees a deer and follows it trying to get a shot in.  Then he has a perfectly clear shot at the stationary deer.  Mike deliberately shoots over its head.  He sits down by a waterfall. 

Mike comes into the hunting cabin where Stan is threatening to shoot Axel for something he said.  Mike grabs the gun and forces it out of Stan's hands.  Axel and Stan tell Mike to calm down.  Stan says the gun isn't even loaded.  Mike checks the gun, rearranges the chambers and fires the bullet into the ceiling of the hut.  So it was loaded after all.  Mike goes a little crazy.  He says if Stan wants to play with guns, he has a really good game for him.  He puts a bullet into the cylinder, spins the cylinder and then puts the barrel right up against Stan's forehead.  Stan is scared as hell and Axel and John are scared for Stan.  Mike pulls the trigger, but the pistol just goes click.  All three guys are shaken by the experience.  Mike walks out of the cabin. 

Mike throws the pistol away. 

Mike drives home.  He goes inside.  The other guys are with him.  They get out of the car and walk home. 

Mike goes to the grocery store and finds Linda crying.  She says she doesn't know why.  She asks him to just leave her alone.  Mike leaves but he waits for Linda outside in his car.  When Linda gets off work she gets in his car.  They finally have sex that night.  During the night, Mike gets up and goes to a phone booth.   He finds out where Steven is.  He's in a hospital.  The poor fellow has lost both of his legs. Mike speaks with Steven on the phone.  Steven gets upset suddenly and says he has to go because it's curfew time.  He hangs up the phone. 

Mike goes to the hospital to see Steven.  He soon discovers that Steven only has his right arm working.  The other three are gone.  Steven tells Mike he wants to show him something.  He opens his socks' drawer and he has a lot of money.  Steven says the money comes to him regularly from Saigon, but he doesn't know why or how.  Mike tells him:  "It's Nicky,  Steve."  Mike has told Steven that he would not take him home, but now Mike decides to take him home.  Steven complains, but when he realizes how determined Mike is, he gives in. 

It's the time of the Fall of Saigon to the enemy.  People are desperately trying to get on the planes leaving from Saigon.  Mike has come to find Nick.  It's literally a mad house.  He gets a ride into town.  Parts of Saigon are burning.  He goes into a bar with prostitutes in it and then walks on farther through the city.  He finds the Frenchman who knows Nick.  The guy tells Mike that Nick disappeared a long time ago.  Mike doesn't believe him and he lays down a lot of money to play against the American in the game of Russian roulette.  The Frenchman takes the money and says he will take Mike to Nick via the river. 

They take a boat to the place.  They have to pay $1,000 dollars to get inside.  Then the guy charges them $500 dollars more to tell Mike that the famous American is inside.  Mike watches one match.  The second man blows his brains out.  All of a sudden Mike sees Nick come into the main arena.  Mike tries to talk to him, but it seems Nick doesn't know him or he is pretending not to know Mike.  In fact, Nick spits in Mike's face.  Now Mike demands that the Frenchman get him into the game.  Mike keeps giving money to the runners of the game until they let him go up against Nick in the game. 

Nick goes first.  Click.  Mike goes next.  Click. Nick's turn again.  Mike tries his hardest to talk some sense into Nick, but Nick grabs the pistol and pulls the trigger.  This time the gun fires a bullet into Nick's head.  Mike cries over the dead Nick. 

Mike goes home.  A funeral is held for Nick.  Mike is one of the pallbearers.  Steven attends the funeral. 

After the funeral the mourners, including Steven, go to John's bar.  John has the coffee already prepared for the group.  Mike puts his arm around Angela to help comfort her.  John begins making breakfast for everyone.  Nobody is saying much of anything at the table.  In the kitchen John starts singing "God Bless America".  When he comes out of the kitchen he continues humming the tune.  Now Linda starts singing the tune and some others join in.  They give a toast to Nick. 

 

Spoiler Warning:  Wow, that's quite a film all right.  Bittersweet.  And it's around three hours long. All three men are scarred by their experiences in Vietnam,.  Mike makes it back only relatively okay from Vietnam, but Steven has only one working limb (his right arm) and Nick stays in Vietnam continuing to play Russian roulette again and again until he loses.  Mike tried to bring Nick back home around the time of the Fall of Saigon, but Nick was still too mentally ill to come home.  He died right there in his last game of bullet roulette.

Great scenes of life in a small factory town in Pennsylvania.  The guys in the group with Steven, Mike and Nick were all so close with each other that it almost makes one jealous of that very closeness. The wedding scenes of Steven and Angela showed how close that small Russian community was with each other.  Those fellows were really close.  The three that went to Vietnam, however, were forever changed and their livse back in their hometown just wasn't the same anymore.  They felt out of place there after Vietnam.  And Nick wouldn't even go home.

All three men were suffering different degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Mike had the milder case.  He saw first-hand how much more affected by PTSD were his two friends from Clairton, PA. 

Thank goodness there is much more wider knowledge of PTSD and people can be more understanding of the difficulties that many men and women have when coming back home from a war.  I still remember how my father warned us three kids to never, ever wake him up suddenly or stand too close to him while he slept.  He said he feared that he would harm us by his being startled into waking up and throwing punches our way.  As a child, I never got close to him when he was sleeping for fear of him hurting me.  Thank goodness he didn't have a serious case of PTSD, but the war still affected him through the rest of his life.

The actors were really terrific in the film.  And I knew so many of the actors which pleased me.  Of course, De Niro and Streep were especially good. 

 
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

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