“THE DEER HUNTER” AND “APOCALYPSE NOW”
”The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” were the Vietnam War films that first dealt seriously with the Southeast Asian conflict and that first received critical attention. Michael Cimono’s “The Deer Hunter” won many Oscars in 1979 because the public was ready to accept a vision of the war that had brought the United States to the brink of a civil war in a clash of sympathies. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” was his major follow-up to the enormous success of “The Godfather II,” and the director was able to create a surreal statement about the destructive effects of the war. It is the purpose of this paper to fully analyze all the important aspects of the films, and include how society’s attitude toward Vietnam was portrayed in both films.
Michael Cimino had been a medic in the military, so he was able to bring a degree of accuracy to his portrait of three Pennsylvania steel-workers who enlist in the Army and are sent off to Vietnam. Robert DeNiro and his buddies Christopher Walken and John Savage initially feel that they are doing their patriotic duty to go into the armed services, but once they get to Vietnam they see another world entirely. John Savage is maimed in the action, and he is confined to a wheelchair once he returns to the States. DeNiro escapes with only the “usual war wounds” and his homecoming is marked with ambivalence. His best friend played by Walken is AWOL, and DeNiro knows he must return to find him.
The destructive effects of the war have taken their toll on Walken: he has linked up with the Vietnamese underground and become a dope addict. In the war sequences Cimono showed the Viet Cong playing Russian Roulette with the American prisoners. This form of torture is now Walken’s bread-and-butter: like a prize rooster in a cock fight, he plays the pistol game for high stakes.
DeNiro returns to Southeast Asia, where he finds Walken involved in the deadly game. The only way he can attempt to bring Walken home is to play the game with him, hoping for a glimmer of recognition in the stoned-out addict’s eyes. Unfortunately, DeNiro is unable to reach through to Walken, who blows his brains out just as he becomes aware that DeNiro has come to save him.
Cimino uses the Russian Roulette as a symbol that can be taken on many levels. First of all, he sees it as the tortuous tactics that the Viet Cong used in waging their battle against the ARVN and the Americans. It is moral corruption and it does mean “suicide” for those involved. The Americans, in going to Vietnam, were interfering in a civil war, and playing Russian Roulette with their souls.
DeNiro is seen as the “survivor” in this morass. He is “the deer hunter” who prepares for battle because he “doesn’t like surprises.” Walken doesn’t understand his fanatic nature, but DeNiro knows that the only ones who will escape the destruction of the war are the ones who become “control freaks” with iron wills. (And even DeNiro is a casualty of the war: when he returns home he cannot participate in the welcome home ceremonies, he is so consumed with guilt over Savage’s wounds and Walken’s disappearance.)
In “The Deer Hunter” Cimino focuses on blue collar America and, in general, he shows support for the war on the home front. As his picture evolves, he shows the war through DeNiro’s eyes: the man goes from gung-ho patriot to disillusioned vet who feels that his entire life has been shattered. Cimino is relatively low key with his depiction of “war resistance.” The John Casale character avoids military service and he quietly mocks his friends who decide to serve, but he is seen as a weak man who rationalizes his short comings.
Society is torn apart by the war in Cimino’s movie, and he shows this through the Meryl Streep part. Streep was in love with Walken, yet he left for the war and was consumed by its horrors. She finds that she is falling in love with DeNiro, but she can’t let go of her former lover. Cimino is saying: the war put everyone’s life on hold.
In John M. Del Vecchio’s acclaimed Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, the writer continues to use the phrase “it don’t mean nothing” (Del Vecchio 203). This is echoed in the Cimino movie by the boys who became men at war: they feel that they have been sacrificed for a cause that apparently means nothing. In the final, moving scene, the group gathers together after Walken’s funeral to sing “God Bless America.” Here everyone is trying to make sense of the conflict, and on some level they succeed. But the audience is torn and emotionally drained, because the action of the film has stressed: “it don’t mean nothing.”
Pauline Kael said of “The Deer Hunter” that “it’s an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an unraptured view of common life poetry of the commonplace” (Kael 142). Her comment is summed up when DeNiro returns home and meets Streep. They are so awkward around each other – the war has changed both of them profoundly – but they struggle to make new connections. This is Cimino’s skill: showing that the common people could somehow come through the war and relearn how to live a life.
”Apocalypse Now” begins with a shot of the Vietnamese jungle, the Doors’ “The End” playing in the background. As the song builds in intensity, the greenery is wiped out by a napalm blast, and the tone of the movie is set. Coppola wants to show that the Vietnam war was insanity, pure and simple. He frames this thesis with the general plot: Martin Sheen is being sent in country and up river to “terminate” Marlon Brando, who has hunkered down in the jungle and let his command run amok. Coppola is saying: in this war, we were fighting ourselves, we were our own worst enemy. This possibly can find its equivalent in Cimino’s Russian Roulette metaphor: whether it is Sheen killing Brando or DeNiro “winning” at the gun table against Walken, it was U.S. vs. U.S. (Interestingly enough, this was also the theme of Oliver Stone’s highly acclaimed “Platoon,” a movie that saw Charlie Sheen – Martin’s son – blow away his commander Tom Berenger. “We were our own worst enemy.”)
Coppola does not bring in “society” to his movie; that is, he does not go stateside to any degree to show how society views the war. However, he does make many comments on the war through the various soldiers and journalists who are on the scene. In this way he can show how America viewed the conflict.
The Robert Duvall character “loves the smell of napalm in the morning” and he is shown as a maniac who views an air raid on a village with the same gusto as a surfing safari. The Dennis Hopper character, patterned after journalist Michael Herr, who wrote Dispatches and who co-wrote the script, is a classic case of madness: he preys like a vulture on the action, a war junkie, and his amoral stance is a link with the American media, who chronicled the event from afar.
”Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear” (Herr 2). So writes Herr of his feelings for the jungle, and they are mirrored in Dennis Hopper’s performance. Drugs were indeed a part of the Vietnam experience, and Coppola casts a very potent drug haze over his movie, especially once Sheen moves in closer to the Brando compound.
If Cimino wanted to show common men dealing with the insanity of war, Coppola wanted to show men who had given in to the insanity. Sheen begins as something of a normal soldier, but he ultimately has to attain madness to terminate Brando in his world.
”Apocalypse Now” was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola evoked the novel’s feeling for lost souls deep in a primal setting where there is no turning back. Coppola’s film was the first major effort to make a statement: his surreal vision was eagerly awaited. Kael writes that: “Part of the widespread anticipation of ‘Apocalypse Now’ was, I think, our readiness for a visionary, climactic, summing-up movie. His film posited on great thoughts arriving at the end, and when they weren’t there, people slunk out of the theaters, or tried to comfort themselves with chatter about the psychedelic imagery” (Kael 18).
This statement rings true, as “Apocalypse Now” was somehow unsatisfactory. Some might say it was because Coppola did not portray enough of what society’s attitude toward the war was. Some might say that it was because neither Coppola nor his screenwriter John Milius had any war experience: they were writing a psychedelic impression of what they thought the war was about. In any case, the film was not entirely successful, but it did open up the dialogue about the United States’ motivations in the war. Certainly Coppola’s imagery and use of music were true to the spirit of the hallucination.
Coppola has always been a very political director, and his “The Godfather II” can be seen as a metaphor for American business. The director used his Vietnam war movie to show that Americans were so obsessed with power that they would be primarily concerned with a mad military leader from their own side, not the Viet Cong in the jungle. Brando is seen as a product of the war’s madness, but in the film’s context he is not unlike a Mafia don who needs to be assassinated. Coppola is making the point that Al Pacino in “The Godfather” and Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” are cut from the same cloth: they are mercenaries who want to work their way to the top, and murder is one of their instruments.
In The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War, 1961-1975, George Esper writes with a sad finality of the war’s end. “After 30 years of fighting, the city and the country finally belonged to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong” (Esper 208). This is certainly the sense that Coppola wishes to impart. He knows that the Americans were so wrapped up in power games and so little committed to an actual declared war, that Vietnam was a lost cause before it began. The U.S. did not pay any attention to the French in their activities in Southeast Asia, and so we were doomed to repeat history.
Coppola lets the Sheen-Brando conflict serve as his plot, and this leaves the Robert Duvall character to represent America in the war. Duvall is so obsessed with destruction that he fails to care about what he is actually destroying. He is a commander in search of a war, he feels totally impotent when he’s not dropping bombs. His character takes on a grandiose “Dr. Strangelove-type” humor, and he would be entirely comical if he weren’t so frighteningly real. With Duvall, Coppola is showing society’s attitude toward the war: rack up the body count and make the headlines with America’s muscle flexing. Never mind if the war had any real purpose, or if we should have been there in the first place.
Other films preceded “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now”: “Go Tell the Spartans” starring Burt Lancaster also showed the futility of the Vietnam War. Other films came after, like “Platoon” and the grueling “Hamburger Hill” as well as the comical “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Each film has its own point of view, and probably “Platoon” will go down in history as the definitive war picture (because Stone had served in Vietnam and this was his autobiographical story).
But “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now” are especially valuable because they show vivid pictures of the war and do offer comment on society’s attitude toward Vietnam.
”The Deer Hunter” showed the fortunes of three men who went to the war, and the fact that only one survived intact is a major statement. It espoused a certain morality not unlike a “Dirty Harry” action film in saying: if we are to win wars we must be prepared to fight them with conviction. Otherwise: “it don’t mean nothing.”
”Apocalypse Now” offered a surreal version of the war that probably, on many levels, captured the feel of existence in combat where, as Herr said, one didn’t need “uppers” to feel the adrenaline flowing and the nerves tingling.
”The Deer Hunter” saw a moral corruption and offered the DeNiro Superman hero as a way to combat it. “Apocalypse Now” saw the corruption and chose to depict it graphically and let it self- destruct. Both directors couldn’t help but show the horror of war, and the idea of Russian Roulette or interarmed services “termination” shows how damaging the war had to be to those who participated in it, and by extension, those who watched helplessly back home.