The Deer Hunter (1978)

Bob De Niro always gets invited to the best weddings. Alongside all of the countless things young brides concern themselves with in the months leading up to their marriage — what if it rains? Can Trudy and Greta get along if we sit them together? Chocolate or vanilla? — there’s incredible solace to be had in the fact that De Niro will be there, in attendance and in approval. The guy clearly loves weddings. One of his first starring roles was in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding Party and one of his most recent was The Big Wedding, followed by the pre-wedding bachelor party shenanigans of Last Vegas; jury’s out on whether those movies are any good or not (wait — jury’s back — they’re not) but still, the weddings in those movies rock. Come on: Robin Williams is the presiding priest in The Big Wedding. This could be an all-divas-on-deck Kardashian wedding or some other unfathomably incestuous socialite caucus and you’d still attend if Robin Williams was the priest. So too would De Niro, apparently.

One of the better ones is the wedding from Goodfellas, in which the goodwill wishes come in a drunken torrent and the prerequisite for inclusion on the guestlist is being named Peter, Paul, or Marie. Just look at Henry and Karen — they’re perfect together. De Niro’s here, he’s having a pretty good time. But there’s something else on his mind, maybe, like whether the salami on that antipasto platter is fresh or whether he should just go ahead and whack Morrie Kessler already. Remember how he cut loose at Steven and Angela’s wedding down in Pennsylvania? That was a blast! He almost fought that Green Beret at the bar. Then he took his clothes off and ran down the street! Really, when we all invite De Niro to our weddings, the Hammered Brawling Run-Naked-Through-the-Streets De Niro is the one we want to RSVP.

We can’t really call that guy “Deer Hunter De Niro”, though, because the character we’re left with at the end of the film is almost entirely different from that guy in the wedding scene at the beginning. There’s no shortage of academia on the intricacies of the social drama, the war drama, the character studies, the symbolism, and the ultimate messages of Michael Cimino’s second feature, but one of the most incredible things about The Deer Hunter is the sheer weight certain scenes take on in the context of the film. Running naked through the streets — there is no more jubilant snapshot of life than that. Or there shouldn’t be, anyway, but of course we might realize what’s coming as De Niro’s Mike strips and legs it down the road. The Mike that returns from Vietnam will never, ever have it in him to do this again. If we don’t grasp that at the beginning — if we’re wrapped up in all the verve of the last-minute celebrating — then we sure as hell get it at the other end.

It’s likewise impressive that Cimino was able to give such strength to these scenes on only his second feature. Granted, it was clear from his first film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that Cimino wasn’t exactly in the film business for the money. By any standard, that film was brimming with life; by debut standards, it’s pretty much a masterpiece. The Deer Hunter is a wholly different level, though, an American epic wrought with more kinship to a Tolstoy novel than a war movie.

The wedding scene itself dominates the first hour or so of the film, seeming like a prologue but becoming Act One before you know it. When producer Michael Deeley wrote about the on-set harshness between Cimino and co-writer Deric Washburn, he said that Cimino originally claimed that the wedding scene would take only 21 minutes of screentime. The final scene took 51 minutes, and Deeley seems to have no doubt that Cimino never intended otherwise. Regardless of the spat over who wrote what, there’s no doubt from the get-go that it’s Cimino in the director’s chair. So many aspects of that first hour combine to assert that simultaneous sense of innocent joy and approaching danger, from Mike’s streaking to the drops of red wine on the bride’s white dress to the near-silent Green Beret sitting alone at the reception bar.

The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter (1978)

This war veteran can only muster one phrase — “fuck it” — in the face of Mike’s taunts and attempts at conversation. This guy is more like Mike at the end of The Deer Hunter than Mike himself is in that same scene, the difference between the two men being the singular experience of atrocity. Mike will even walk around the same town wearing the same uniform upon his return from the war, and thus is the Green Beret’s presence in the bar the most explicit form of foreshadowing in the wedding sequence. Why is he even there? Was he invited? Cimino positions him as a specter of Mike’s eventual self, the Ghost of Mike Yet to Come, and in a sense the explicit, obvious-seeming symbolism behind the Green Beret makes it all the more tragic for the characters of the film who are blind to that meaning. There’s lots of foreshadowing in the wedding sequence, nearly all of it occurring unbeknownst to the people in the film. The fact of this bar scene is that Mike is literally confronted by himself and still has no idea.

There are lots of war movies about the difficulty or impossibility of reintegrating into society. Lots. One would think there’s a War Movie Checklist that anyone crafting such a thing would keep handy, noting First Exposure to Violence, Loss of Friend, Vision of Innocence in a Bloody Battlefield, etc. Check, check, check. Even The Hurt Locker, one of the best war movies of the past decade, found a way to end with a little commentary on reintegration. The Deer Hunter gives that immense power by showing us what life with these guys was like before they went to war, not just checklistable flashback morsels but more than a full hour of societal drama. The deer hunt is arguably the centerpiece of that, but the wedding sequence is a beautifully multifaceted sequence by itself. There’s revelry, drinking, traditions, cameras snapping photographs; there’s foreboding, a sense of dread had by anyone about to move on to something else. If you’re there, if you swung an invite to this crazy never-ending ceremony, try to hang out with De Niro’s Mike for a little while. He’s a fun-loving, hard-living, genuine guy, and that’s how you’re going to want to remember him.

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2 thoughts on “The Deer Hunter (1978)”

  1. This is a great piece. I saw The Deer HUnter for the 1st time about 6 months ago and I love your analysis of the wedding and its place in the story. Thinking back about it now you are completely right!

    It is an incredible film, in every way.

    Like

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