The Deer Hunter (1978)—We Don’t Get to Keep the Trees

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project in the link below.]

The Deer Hunter was, in a small way, disappointing. I discovered with this movie one of the challenges I am going to confront with this project. One of the movie’s storytelling devices—the Vietnam War as a context for an experience so psychologically devastating that it costs a character his sanity—has now been so overused as to have become cliché. Indeed, this device is an unfortunate cliché to the extent that it falsely colors the impression of this war or its veterans. Seeing this plot element play out, I had to renew my commitment to stick with this movie and give it my attention, remembering as I did that perhaps this was the very first serious movie to use and explore this device.

The most gripping part of the movie is its POW scene. Vietnamese captors use their American and Vietnamese prisoners for amusement by forcing them to compete in rounds of Russian roulette. Two prisoners at a time are forced to pass back and forth a revolver containing one bullet, each prisoner placing the gun against his temple and pulling the trigger. Prisoners who don’t play are dropped into a cage nearly submerged in a rat-infested river to die a slow death rather than a quick one. This is the threat that keeps the deadly game going. When it is his turn to play, the plan employed by prisoner Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) is to seem to play along enthusiastically, insisting on three bullets in the revolver instead of just one. With him is fellow prisoner and friend from his Russian-American-populated hometown in western Pennsylvania, Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken). When the two of them are pitted against one another in the match with three bullets in the gun, each survives a pull of the trigger by discovering an empty chamber. Vronsky, who then receives the gun, knows that three of the four remaining chambers are loaded. Attacking abruptly, he shoots three guards while Chevotarevich assists in overpowering and killing those that remain.

There is nothing to be learned from this. A “what would you do” conversation posing this predicament has little value. The fallacy in any discussion of the choice available to the prisoners in this predicament (play along? refuse? keep repeatedly pulling the trigger?) is that extreme situations do not translate to useful principles outside of the extreme. Vronsky and Chevotarevich were in a no-win situation engineered by sadistic captors. Almost any response could have been defended. (The course chosen, trusting in two consecutive empty pulls on a revolver with three bullets, had only a 20-percent probability of success.) The moral choices that almost all of us are actually faced with are inherently different from this. They involve our work, family, integrity, purpose and purity, and they play out across days or decades rather than in an exigent moment.

The POW scene is so gripping—easily the most memorable part of the movie—that it threatens to distract us from the moral choice Vronsky makes that is instructive. It is the choice in the movie’s title. It is the choice we see briefly in the scene back in Pennsylvania, before departing for the war, in which Vronsky (hereafter Mike), on a hunting trip with a group of friends including Chevotarevich (hereafter Nick), refuses to lend a pair of boots to one of their number, Stan (John Cazale). To Mike, Stan should have been serious enough about the hunting to remember to bring boots. To Mike, there is something here at stake that is bigger than the boots. Holding a rifle shell before him, Mike declares, “See this Stanley? This is this. This aint something else. This ... is this.”

Mike, Nick and another hometown friend, Steve Pushkov (John Savage), all went to Vietnam soon after this last night hunting deer together, and Nick and Steve were both, in some sense, lost. Steve lost limbs to the war and had to pulled back into accepting some semblance of the life he use to have. Nick went insane and, after remaining in the country to continue playing the Russian roulette game for sport, for the amusement of gamblers there, committed suicide. But what would have happened to these men if they had never gone to war? The answer, of course, is that they would have been spared this damage and pain. But the answer is also that there still would have been loss.

Christopher Walken gave this signature line from the film:

“I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different... the way the trees are.”

Spoken in the still-innocent time before leaving for war, his character, Nick, can’t quite find the words for what he is aware of, what he is trying to express, which is that he loves the life he has. He loves the place where he is, in this moment of early adulthood, of first becoming autonomous, independent and free to make his own way. The war pulled him out of this and he never found his way back. (Literally as well as figuratively, since Vietnam is where this character died.)

But again, what if there had been no war for Nick? Answer: Something would have swept over him. Something would have swept him away. Look at the life he has, as we see it in his hometown. It includes labor in the steel mill alongside hundreds of other men, then drinking, carousing and occasionally deer hunting in the company of a corps of these friends and coworkers. If Nick had remained, surely this would not have continued. Likely he would not have remained content with this. A wife might have come, a family, drawing him to them. He might have become discontented with this job and acted to end it. Misfortune might have befallen him—an accident or a loss of health. Some combination of any of these things might have occurred in the lives of his friends, taking them away. Or the 1980s might have come, closing the steel plant.

All of us go through something in our lives in this world, maybe many somethings. All of us get swept up, overwhelmed, and perhaps swept away. Jesus made clear that this would be the case even for those who trust and follow him. He promised, “In this world, you will have trouble.” Rather than offering release, he actually promised it would happen. Instead of providing release, he said, “I have overcome the world.” We are to choose life therefore, choose to come out the other side. And part of the way to choose life is to choose our purpose in this life, choose the way that the Overcomer made us.

I am not saying that the trials of a life free of mortal danger are comparable to the trials of a real POW. But the fictional POW experience we are given here is a storytelling device, a stand-in for something else. It is a symbol for any of the personal trials we face that have the power to overcome us, since for a time at least, perhaps every one of us finds ourselves overcome.

DeNiro’s character’s purpose was to hunt deer. This is how God made him—a deer hunter is apparently what God made. Killing became too fraught for the character after the killing he had seen in the war. We see him change his hunting so that he no longer fires a fatal shot. This is a change in the way he follows his purpose, but the purpose remains. A hunter he remains. The deer hunter is the one who survived the events of The Deer Hunter because he found, and because he held fast to, the simple purpose he had been given to pursue in this world.