The Deer Hunter, released in 1978, is considered one of the greatest war films ever. Directed by Michael Cimino, it follows three steelworker friends from Pennsylvania – Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) – who enlist in the army and get sent to the Vietnam War. Upon returning home, they struggle to reconnect and adjust to civilian life.
Before going to Vietnam, Nick made Mike promise not to leave him behind, which haunts Michael when he returns to the United States. When he finds out that an anonymous benefactor has been sending money to the VA hospital where Steven receives treatment, he suspects it must be from Nick.
Mike tracks Nick down and finds him playing Russian roulette for cash, but Nick across the game table is far removed from the beautiful laughing man he was in the Pennsylvania backcountry.
Despite their dramatic power, the final emotional scenes between Michael and Nick have stirred up much controversy over historical accuracy and fair portrayal that has kept The Deer Hunter hotly debated since its release in 1978.
1. Nick’s Death & Final Russian Roulette Game Explained
In the film’s final act, Michael returns to Saigon in search of Nick. He finds him in an underground gambling den, where he’s become a vacant-eyed regular at Russian roulette. Michael tries to convince a shell-shocked Nick to come home, but Nick refuses, saying he has a job and a new life there.
In the climactic game of Russian roulette, Michael ends up in the tournament facing off against Nick. When it’s Nick’s turn, he silently passes it on to Michael instead of firing the gun. This act signifies Nick’s wish to die and his plea for Michael to be the one to end his misery. Michael reluctantly fires the weapon and kills Nick in an act of mercy.
Nick’s death delivers the final blow to the three friends and their bond. His voluntary participation in the deadly game symbolizes his broken spirit and damage from the war. Through Nick, the film conveys the ideas of loss of innocence, the physical and psychological toll of war, and the irrevocable change it brings.
2. What The “God Bless America” Coda Means?
The Deer Hunter ends with an extended coda during which all the main characters sing “God Bless America.” This scene occurs after Steven’s funeral and conveys how the survivors cope.
The “God Bless America” scene has been interpreted as an ironic commentary on patriotism. After all, they’ve endured, their singing comes across as hollow and ironic rather than a genuine celebration of nationalist pride. Steven’s funeral and the losses of Vietnam have left them too broken to celebrate ideals of glory and patriotism sincerely.
The singing scene also highlights the characters’ alienation from the small-town America they’ve returned to. They no longer fit into regular life. The song attempts to reclaim their identity and patriotism rather than a heartfelt display.
So, while it superficially appears to be a straightforward tribute, the coda underscores the characters’ trauma and disenchantment with America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
3. How Nick Sends Steven Money Despite Losing His Memory?
One of the minor mysteries in The Deer Hunter is the scene where Steven receives an envelope full of money, seemingly from a Saigon bank. The implication is that the money came from Nick to help support Steven and his wife. But how could Nick send the money if he lost his memory in Vietnam?
While it’s never explicitly stated, the idea is that Nick had the foresight to set up a bank account and trust fund before his memory fully deteriorated. After months of being held prisoner, he knew he was in bad shape and wanted a way to support his friends if he didn’t make it home.
By setting up a fund before his death, Nick found a way to continue helping Steven even in his absence. It’s a final selfless act from Nick and demonstrates the strength of the bond between the three friends. Even from half a world away, caught up in trauma and chaos, Nick remembered his loyalty.
The money signifies hope – even if Nick and Steven can’t connect in person again, Nick can still financially aid his friend. It’s a tragic gesture, made poignant by Nick’s eventual fate.
4. The Deer Hunter’s Historical Inaccuracy, Controversies & Effect on America’s Veteran Relations Explained
While hailed by critics as a masterpiece upon release, The Deer Hunter soon became mired in controversy over its historical inaccuracy, especially regarding the Viet Cong’s use of Russian roulette. Many claimed the game was an invention of the film and was never actually used to torture POWs in Vietnam.
This intentional blurring of historical facts upset many viewers, who felt it irresponsibly distorted the Vietnam War and unfairly portrayed the Vietnamese as savage and brutal. Cimino was criticized for dramatizing the war rather than authentically capturing its complexity.
The artistic license also had real-life consequences for Vietnam veterans. Many felt The Deer Hunter propagated myths about the war and depicted veterans as psychologically damaged “crazy killers” unable to re-integrate into society. This unfair stigma stirred up anti-war sentiments and cast veterans in a poor light, damaging their reputation among civilians.
So, while critically praised for its artistic ambition, The Deer Hunter proved divisive for its loose interpretation of history and unnuanced portrayal of the Vietnam War. Its lack of historical accuracy helped cement unfair stereotypes about veterans that would linger in the American psyche for years.
The film became trapped in the politics and cultural trauma surrounding Vietnam, sparking debates we still wrestle with today.
5. About The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter is a 1978 epic war drama film co-written and directed by Michael Cimino about a trio of Russian-American steelworkers whose lives were upended after fighting in the Vietnam War.
The three soldiers are played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, with John Cazale (in his final role), Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza playing supporting roles. The story takes place in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a working-class town on the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, and in Vietnam.