Ritual, Tragedy, and Restoration

The Deer Hunter at 40

The Deer Hunter received the Academy Award for best picture at the Oscars ceremony in 1979. The film was much criticized by some for its Russian roulette sequences, especially the alleged “racism” on display in the film’s depiction of the Viet Cong. But The Deer Hunter is truly a mythic, poetic work of art. The film’s late director and co-author of its screenplay, Michael Cimino, would never duplicate the success he enjoyed with this film, but can rest assured that his work will last.

I saw The Deer Hunter for the first time during its opening run in theaters, and I can now offer what I hope are some mature musings on a film that has stood the test of time. If readers haven’t seen the movie, it may be best to watch it before reading my analysis.

The hero of mythic stories often makes a trip to the underworld in which he is tested. He dies but emerges reborn, stronger, and more capable of the task of restoring order in a chaotic world. The Deer Hunter’s transcendent hero is Mike, played with understated authority by Robert De Niro. Mike is a modest man, shy even. In a way even he does not fully understand, he plays out his role in a mythic ritual that reaffirms the values he represents in a tragic world.

The film opens in the steel town of Clairton in Western Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. The people of this working class community are bound...

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