As we go through our lives we watch an uncountable number of movies and works of film. Of course, in that multitude, we will find movies which inspire us, movies which make us think, movies which we vow never to see again, and movies that leave us with a timeless lesson. Although The Deer Hunter may not have been the most pleasant movie to view, it would be very difficult indeed to say that nothing can be learned from it. In fact, throughout the movie, one can see an incredible amount of depth to the characters and their situations. As the plot of the story progresses, it is of great interest how virtue, self mastery, the idea of broken bodies, memory and the self, and the role of religion and the afterlife play into the movie and the actions of the characters.
Considering that The Deer Hunter is set during the time period and actions of the Vietnam War, perhaps some of the most interesting ideas in the film comprise virtuous actions or honor. Throughout the film, the viewer can constantly see virtue in the form of the characters. Even in the opening scenes of hunting, the mention of “one shot” takes on a sort of virtuous meaning for the hunters, attempting, one would assume, not to make the deer suffer in the act of killing it. It is interesting to note though, that this ideology does not always seem to be followed by the characters. In fact, in the last hunting scene in the movie, we see Stanley and several other characters randomly shooting at the deer, seeming to ignore the one shot rule. The first hunting scene in the move, where Stanley forgets his boots and wants to borrow Mikes is a prime example of how Nick can motivate Mike to have honor or virtue that he would not have on his own. This comes up again later when Nick refuses to leave Stevie when they are escaping the Vietnamese prison boat. Although Mike is a fairly honorable character of his own account, it is repeatedly his love for his best friend Nick that inspires him to greater actions. However, perhaps one of the most virtuous examples in the movie can be found when Stevie falls from the chopper in the escape scene, and Mike jumps after him. Keep in mind, Mike was completely safe, he could have escaped, but instead he jumped after Stevie, effectively saving his life.
Of course, the relationship between Mike and Nick’s girlfriend Linda is of great interest as well when exploring virtue. Although Linda asks Mike to go to bed with her simply for comfort, Mike appears very reluctant to do so, even traveling to a hotel as opposed to his home. Mike also falls asleep before Linda even comes to bed. However, we can also see Mike being a true gentleman to Linda at various points, walking her to work and picking her up when her shift is done. It is worth noting that Mike does his best to comfort Linda, although it is very strange that both Mike and Nick have the same picture of Linda in their wallets. However, considering Linda’s family situation, perhaps it is no surprise that Mike feels perhaps the same sympathy for her that Nick does. In fact, Mike represents the extreme amount of virtue when he once again takes his life into his own hands by traveling back to Saigon, even though it is close to falling in an attempt to get Nick. Mike also represents virtue by seeking out Stevie and attempting to bring him home. However, one can also see the virtuous actions of the other characters, especially Nick, who repeatedly convinces Stevie to do something he might not otherwise do. One especially thinks of his, “Do you think your God?” comment to Mike while they are debating on whether or not to rescue Stevie. We can also view the act of Nick sending his money to Stevie as another example of virtue. Virtue can be found at various points throughout the movie, and it is one of the primary themes to be found in the movie.
Another major ideal in the move is that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. None of the characters that travel to Vietnam come back the same, and Nick does not come back at all. It is easy to see the changes that occur in Mike during the period when he returns home. Of course, Nick is a shadow of his former self, although it is suspect that he is also on heroine, as judged by the track marks that can be found on his arms. However, it is also possible that Nick simply does not want to acknowledge what his life has become. Mike repeatedly talks about how disconnected he feels from everyone and how he feels that a normal life is now far behind him. Stevie, who, by the end of the move has become a triple amputee, does not even want to return home, even though he spends his days playing bingo with other disabled veterans. In fact, we can even see the effect of war on those characters that are close to the main character. For example, Linda is transformed by losing Stevie, and even has a breakdown during work. However, perhaps the clearest example is of Stevie’s wife, who can do little besides cry, she cannot talk to anyone. The veteran who is at the bar during the opening wedding in the movie can also be seen as suffering from PTSD. PTSD plays a very large role throughout The Deer Hunter, it would be incredibly interesting to see the after effects of losing Nick on Mike, however, the film concludes before we are given the chance to see that.
Of course, The Deer Hunter also contains some strong religious motives within it. If one listens carefully, we can see a pronounced difference between the chorus, which sings at the wedding in the beginning of the movie, and the much clearer choral verses that appear while Mike is hunting. That, along with Mike’s “one shot” attitude, supports the belief that hunting is a kind of cleansing or pure action for him. The idea that Nick asks Mike if he is God, and religious wedding are all religious symbols that can be found in the movie. However, an important question to ask is if Hell is portrayed at all in the movie. And, certainly, a quick glance would support the idea that Vietnam itself is viewed as a sort of Hell, accurately supported by Mike’s use of a flamethrower on a Vietnamese soldier during the first few minutes of the war portion of the movie. But rather, perhaps the greater symbology of Hell resides in the conditions and the lives that the veterans must go through. Nick has found his own personal Hell, which the viewers realize when he breaks down attempting to answer the names of his parents. Steve has found Hell in his disabilities, and the idea that he will never lead a normal life, although he attempts to be making peace with it at the end of the movie. In a sort of quasi-religious view, Mike, like Jesus, travels back into Hell, or Vietnam, in order to “save” his friend, and bring him back. Which cumulates in perhaps the saddest scene of the entire movie, when Nick repeats “one shot” before ending his life.
Although The Deer Hunter is definitely a somewhat disturbing movie, and has been historically attacked for its false portrayals of Russian Roulette and what some would call exploitative use of graphic violence, it nonetheless stands as a movie filled with symbols and meaning. It is impossible to ignore the message of The Deer Hunter, and it is impossible to ignore the final haunting moments of the film as the group mournfully and ghostly sings “God Bless America”.