Sunday, December 08, 2013

One Shot

In the late 1970s, America's involvement in Vietnam had been over for only a few years, but Americans already were coming to terms with the experience the way they always seem to — by way of the cinema.

Vietnam movies were plentiful in the late '70s, and they were frequently well done, but each was different. The movie that was released 35 years ago today, "The Deer Hunter," had its own, unique angle. In this case, it explored the effect of the war on a bunch of working–class buddies from western Pennsylvania — guys who believed .

It was presented, essentially, in three acts — and would have been a great theatrical production if not for the fact that it would require some really extensive sets.

In the first act, the buddies were home, participating in two coming–of–age rituals — marriage and military service. After the wedding of one and before the start of military service for some, the buddies went deer hunting. Robert De Niro's character had a philosophy — a deer had to be taken down with one shot — and that "one shot" theme was at the heart of the story.

De Niro was probably the most bankable star in the movie at that time. Audiences had seen him in, among other movies, "The Godfather Part II" and "Taxi Driver." Other folks in the cast — chiefly, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep — went on to greater things, but they were largely unknown in 1978, especially Streep.

But De Niro was the name.

Anyway, in the second "act," the scene shifted to Vietnam, and movie audiences were introduced to "the game," in which North Vietnamese soldiers forced prisoners to play Russian roulette and gambled on the results among themselves. De Niro, Walken and John Savage were among those forced to play the game; De Niro and Walken even had to play each other.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that the characters were emotionally scarred by the experience. They managed to turn their guns on their captors and escape, but their physical survival was only part of the story.

It may have been the most intense scene I have ever witnessed in a movie theater, the no–longer–naive Americans forced to play a deadly game for the amusement of their sadistic captors.

Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who won awards for his coverage of the Vietnam War, insisted that the Russian roulette angle was not true. Most likely, it was not representative of the experiences of most American POWs, but, in the minds of many Americans who lived through both Korea and Vietnam and had been hearing stories of Asian wartime atrocities all their lives (if they were old enough to remember World War II) — and found Vietnam to be the more confusing and the more bizarre conflict by far — it probably seemed entirely plausible.

In fact, until I saw "Saving Private Ryan," "The Deer Hunter" was my gold standard for gritty depiction of war. Even more than "Apocalypse Now," which came out the following year.

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here. "The Deer Hunter" didn't re–create horrific battle scenes as "Saving Private Ryan" did. It depicted a lawless state of mind that seems to permeate nearly all wars.

The third and final act saw the Americans back home and dealing with their issues. De Niro's character found Savage veterans hospital and learned that someone in Saigon had been sending him large amounts of money.

De Niro returned to Vietnam and tried to bring Walken back to the United States, but Walken's mind had snapped and he had no memory of his previous life. He only existed to play the game in the gambling dens of Saigon.

Again, this was probably a little extreme, but, given the conditions that many vets were in when they returned to the United States, perhaps it wasn't as extreme as it may have seemed 35 years ago.

De Niro's character, in an act that I thought of when I watched Tommy Lee Jones dragging Robert Duvall's corpse back to Texas in the final installment of "Lonesome Dove" more than a decade later, brought Walken's character's body back to the United States for burial after he actually did kill himself playing the game. That, too, was an intense scene, symbolic of the waste of Vietnam and the wreckage it made of the lives of those who lived to tell the tale — even if it wasn't true.

And, in the final scene of the movie, Walken's survivors sang "God Bless America" and raised a glass in his memory.

Director Michael Cimino won an Oscar for his work on "The Deer Hunter," and Walken won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

"The Deer Hunter" also won Oscars for Best Picture, film editing and sound.

De Niro and Streep were both nominated but lost — De Niro to Jon Voight, star of another Vietnam movie, "Coming Home."