Category: Vietnam war film

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Robert De Niro goes into a journey into the dark heart of America’s Vietnam experience in The Deer Hunter

Director: Michel Cimino

Cast: Robert De Niro (Mike Vronsky), Christopher Walken (Nick Chevotarevich), John Savage (Steven Pushkov), John Cazale (Stan), Meryl Streep (Linda), George Dzundza (John Welsh), Pierre Sagui (Julian Grinda), Shirley Stoler (Steven’s mother), Chuck Aspregren (Peter Axelrod)

The Deer Hunter is a mighty 1970s milestone of American cinema. Michael Cimino’s Vietnam story is a big poetic epic – its plot is slim but it’s all about the atmosphere, and Cimino’s understanding of the impact that the trauma of war has on different types of men. For vast stretches of the film nothing much in particular happens, followed by short, sharp bursts of gut-wrenching tension – but these have such impact because we have taken the time to see these men’s ordinary lives.

Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) and Steve Pushkov (John Savage) are three Polish-American friends working in a Pittsburgh steel yard, who have volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Before they ship out, they celebrate Steve’s wedding, in a traditional Polish ceremony, and go for one last deer hunt in the woods together – where Mike outlines his philosophy of “one clean shot” (or “This is This”) and the near sacred experience of man communing with nature and hunting. In Vietnam, the three friends are captured by the Viet Cong and forced to take part in a chilling competition of Russian roulette. The impact of these experiences changes their lives – and not for the better – as they struggle to adjust as the war comes to an end.

Michael Cimino was seen at the time as the next great director. This reputation lasted little more than two years, when the box office disaster of his next film Heaven’s Gate (with its tales of ludicrous excess and Cimino’s overly demanding perfectionism) led to the destruction of a studio and effectively ended his career. To be honest, the roots of all this are there in The Deer Hunter. Cimino fought tooth and nail to prevent anything in the film being cut – and he lucked out that he had a few supportive producers and a picture powered by great performances and capturing something of the spirit of the age. Because just this once, more was indeed more.

In some ways The Deer Hunter is an over-indulgent mess. It’s very long, its plot is very slight, it’s very pleased with itself, the camera dawdles for ages through first the friends preparing for a wedding, the wedding itself and then a long hunting trip. This takes up a solid opening hour and 15 minutes of this long film – and progresses the plot forward very little other than establishing the characters and their relationships. But somehow, despite this, the film is magnetic during this. I’m almost not quite sure why, because nothing really happens at great length, but there is a sort of poetic majesty about these sequences that just makes them work.

It’s also a perfect entrée into our characters. After basically sitting and watching them for over an hour do little more than live their everyday lives, we really feel like we understand them. We know Mike is distant, controlled, slightly repressed but prone to moments of exhibitionist wildness that suggest primal, raging emotions beneath the surface. We also understand, with his famous “this is this” speech (“what the fuck does that mean?” his frustrated friend-cum-adversary Stan blurts out), that he is reaching for some sort of symbolic, expressionist understanding of man’s place in the world. He wants to be a poet but doesn’t have the abilities of expression to achieve that.

Similarly, we see Nick as a more carefree, open spirit, someone more in touch with expressing himself and more ready to seize life by the horns. He’s also got a gentle, conciliatory quality to him – out of all the characters, he fits most naturally into the role of confidante. Steven is a child, just trying to do his best in the world, but too naïve for the grown-up world. Most crucially we also see how they interact with each other, and how they relate to women. 

Most women in the film are clearly of very little importance to the characters. Wives and girlfriends are very much on the outskirts of the macho world of the steelyard. And they are of similarly little concern to the men when they come home. Meryl Streep – excellent in an almost nothing part, really it’s amazing how slimly this role is written – plays a woman torn between feelings for Mike and Nick, but the men’s feelings for her waver between uncertainty, indifference and confused affection. Barely any other woman gets a look in, certainly not Steve’s wife who is treated with open suspicion as some sort of floozy.

All this thematic manly matiness then explodes in the later acts of the film, as the after-impact of war – and PTSD, although the word is never used – hits our characters square in the face. And there are few things that will hit you as square on as a bullet. Cimino of course faced waves of criticism about his inclusion of the grisly gambit (no evidence that it was used by the Viet Cong) – but as a metaphor for going to war, and the trauma it will do to your mind, there are few things better than a “sport” which involves placing a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. 

These scenes are already tension-inducing to watch (you can’t help but put yourself in the shoes of the men putting that gun to their heads and wondering if they’ll hear a click or nothing ever again) but Cimino ramps up the pressure here, helped by truly powerhouse performances by De Niro, Walken and Savage. The unbelievable intensity of these scenes, and the total gear shift from everything you’ve seen up to this point in the movie, is a justification of Cimino’s slow pace earlier. After a luxurious opening sequence where we’ve watched the guys fool around, dance, sing and play pool, to suddenly be thrown into this grim, despairing, terrifying situation works brilliantly.

No wonder the rest of the film feels as much in shock as the characters do. Walken is exceptional (and Oscar-winning) as the sensitive soul whose spirit and will to live are destroyed by the incident, who no longer sees any point going home and barely even (by the end) seems to remember who or what he was. Cimino even makes the film feel colder, drabber and chillier in the third act back in Pittsburgh, following Mike’s return home – and his utter inability to deal with his experiences or communicate the horrors of what he has gone through to his friends.

This is also where the film gains immeasurably from a truly sublime performance from De Niro as Mike. In any other actor’s career, this performance would be the stand-out, so it says a lot for De Niro that it’s so often overlooked. But he underplays to devastating effect, as an inarticulate, slightly shy man who has a sheen of confidence, who will do what it needs to survive, who has a poetry and power of love in him that he can’t really express or understand. De Niro is truly brilliant in this film, a still centre that bears almost the total weight of Cimino’s thematic intentions. Essentially De Niro kinda plays an everyman Vietnam vet, and the burden of a whole country after the war without ever having the release of fireworks. He’s excellent.

But then the whole film is a little bit excellent. The Deer Hunter is a masterpiece of a sort, a compelling, dark, tragic and unsettling piece of poetic movie-making. Saying that, there’s something uncomfortable in its depiction of its non-American characters – to a man they are all violence loving degenerates – but then in a film that focuses on the unsettling experience of these Hicksville Americans in a land they don’t understand and can’t deal with, this is at least justifiable in a sense. The Deer Hunter’s main problem at points is that it is a rather pompous, pleased with itself film, but it’s not so much the story that is so strong here but the telling – and Cimino’s telling is first class.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen heads into insanity in Coppola’s epic pretentious masterpiece Apocalypse Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt Col Kilgore), Frederic Forrest (Chef), Albert Hall (Chief), Sam Bottoms (Lance), Laurence Fishburne (Mr Clean), Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist), GD Spradlin (Lt General Corman), Harrison Ford (Colonel Lucas), Scott Glenn (Captain Colby), Christian Marquand (Hubert de Marais), Aurore Clément (Roxanna Sarrault), Jerry Ziesmer (Mysterious Man)

During the 1970s, the director was king in Hollywood. Get a reputation as a visionary director, and Tinseltown fell at your feet. You could spare no expense to put together ambitious, thought-provoking, epic films. If you wanted to shoot on location at huge cost, or reconstruct elaborate sets for single shots, for a huge runtime that catered as much to your ideas of being an artist as it did to crowd-pleasing narrative, then Hollywood would give you keys. It didn’t last: several massive bombs (combined with the huge box office take of Star Wars) shattered the mystique of the director as an ego-mad, flawless genius who had to be indulged, and persuaded Hollywood the future was in big-budget, mass-produced action films (welcome to the 1980s, Hollywood’s nadir).

Apocalypse Now wasn’t one of those flops, like (most infamously) Heaven’s Gate. But, by golly gosh, it really could have been. In fact, in many ways it should have been. It has all the hallmarks: a huge runtime, filmed over a colossal period of time in a difficult location, a plot that mixes action, war and thrills with impenetrably pretentious musings on mankind’s dark soul. A maverick director throwing his own very personal vision at the screen, and damn the consequences. It’s a miracle Apocalypse Now wasn’t a career apocalypse for everyone. It escaped because, despite everything, it more or less gets the balance right between plot and character and pretention and faux-philosophy.

The film is famously a transposing of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into Vietnam. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered to head down the river to “terminate with extreme prejudice” rogue Special Forces Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is conducting his own vigilante war. On the boat trip down the river, Willard encounters a host of increasingly bizarre and surreal scenes, from war-mad Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) to a seemingly leaderless battle over a bridge, a playboy bunny show and a compound of ex-French colonials. And that’s before he even arrives at Kurtz’s compound and things get really strange.

Apocalypse Now is almost impossible to separate from the bizarre, tortuous route it took to get to the screen. Originally scheduled for a few months, the film took over a year to complete. A typhoon destroyed all the sets in the first two months. Original star Harvey Keitel was dismissed after a week (as his performance wasn’t right): his replacement, Martin Sheen, had a near-fatal heart-attack partway through filming. Marlon Brando not only turned up the size of a buffalo but refused to learn (or even speak) his lines. A year into production, the film had no ending. Coppola put his entire fortune up as collateral to complete the film. It was a nightmare.

But yet somehow what emerged has a sort of force-of-nature quality to it. Even though parts are basically pretentious rubbish, despite the fact I have twice fallen asleep in this film, despite the fact it is far from being a film that trades in complex ideas and offers profound insights, it still has a hypnotic quality about it. It’s done with a real force of commitment, a genuine labour of love, a film that doesn’t leave anything in the locker room but throws it all at the screen. The quality of what lands may sometimes be questionable, but the commitment with which it is thrown is beyond doubt.

And in a world of cookie-cutter films, it’s hard to have anything but respect and regard for a film that is so defiantly its own animal, that tells its story in its unique way. It’s perhaps one of the first “experience” films: no film could of course communicate what it was like to serve in Vietnam, but this film perhaps gets close to the surreal, drug-fuelled madness in that conflict.

Because Apocalypse Now is a very surreal film. Its plot is extremely thin, and each section of its (mammoth) runtime is all about experiencing another element of the American experience. In the commentary, Coppola talks about the river trip being partly a journey from the present into the past, a journey back not only into the history of the conflict (and its different stages) but also the regressing of mankind itself into a more primitive, malleable, basic state. It’s a big lump for a film to bite off – and I’m not sure if the idea really comes across without you knowing it. The real impression you get is of rules of society being left further and further behind.

The arrival at Kurtz’s compound is the fufillment of this increasingly unnerving story. We’ve seen the madness on the journey, the pointlessness, and the bemused, carefree confusion of the crew. But at the camp we get the overblown, decadent lunacy of Kurtz. Brando dominates the final 30 minutes of the film, although his monologues are meaningless drivel, the sort of intellectual point-scoring you could hear in a sixth form debating society. To be honest, iconic as Brando’s appearance is, his performance of mumbling battiness is actually a little awful (like one big practical joke from the actor) and the film’s momentum grinds to a halt while he babbles on. 

In fact, so self-indulgent is Brando that in a way it’s a sort of tribute to Coppola’s mastery of cinema that he makes this pompous character make any sense at all – or that he makes this sort of nonsense even remotely watchable. But again it’s the hypnotic pull of the film: Coppola builds towards a chilling, haunting final sequence of Willard and Kurtz’s final confrontation intercut with The Doors’ The End and the real-life slaughtering of an ox by a crowd of real-life villagers (they were going to kill the animal anyway but offered to do it for the camera). Coppola somehow turns all this into iconic cinema, even though, viewed objectively, it’s overblown, indulgent, pretentious rubbish.

The whole film is a testament to hewing compelling filmmaking out of breathtaking insanity. After the film departs in the boat, most of reason, sense and conventional story-telling depart with it. Information only gets conveyed through rambling monologues from Willard. The crew of the boat get into scraps that reflect heightened versions of the American experience in Vietnam – from a war crime as the crew shoot-up what turns out to be an innocent boat, to an attack from unseen tribesmen with spears from the mists of the shore. Sam Bottoms, as surfer-turned-GI Lance, is our guide of a sort here – as he gets more stoned, so narrative logic departs with his senses. 

What keeps the film going throughout is the masterful film-making. Coppola shoots the bizarreness with brilliant, visionary imagination. As a social theorist he’s pretty basic – man is, by the way, a savage animal and the Americans didn’t know what they were getting themselves into in ‘Nam – but as a film-maker he’s one of the best. Who else could have made three hours of episodic boat journeys so strangely compelling? The film is crammed full of great scenes and moments which rarely feel like they tie together – in fact, they could almost be watched in any order – and there is barely a character in there, but the film feels like its throwing you into the madness of Vietnam. 

Even the sequence with a bit more narrative is still laced with absurdity. Kilgore’s helicopter assault on a village – and its use of Wagner blaring from helicopters to scare the Vietcong – is justly famous. This is a bravura film-making – and as much a tribute to the astoundingly amazing editing and sound work of Walter Murch as it is the photography of Coppola. Like most of the rest of the film it is visually outstanding, but it also has the film’s best writing (in the quotable but also strangely subtle characterisation of Kilgore) and also the film’s most iconic performance in Robert Duvall. Duvall is terrific as the war-loving, but strangely childish Kilgore, obsessed with surfing and with an ability to live totally in the moment. 

This sequence doesn’t hesitate in showing both the brutality of war – and also the insanity of our commanders. Kilgore is genuinely dreading the end of the war, and you can see why he would since he is clearly having a whale of a time bombing places. Kilgore is a lovable, quotable badass doing what needs to be done – but the film doesn’t forgot that he is also an insane soldier with no off-switch. And Apocalypse Now never really glamourises war, for all the excitement and beauty of watching those helicopters come over the horizon.

It’s the artistry in its film-making, and the genuine effort and work that helps make it a demented classic. Walter Murch’s sound design and editing is possibly flawless – this might be the best edited and sound designed movie ever – from the opening moment when the helicopter blade sounds transform into a hotel room fan you know you are seeing something special. Scenes such as Willard’s hotel-room breakdown hum with intensity as they feel genuinely real – that scene in particular feels like Martin Sheen exposing part of his tortured psyche at the time. Sheen is by the way perfect as Willard, a slightly unknowable killer with dead eyes and a dead soul, still aware of the vileness of his world.

Apocalypse Now is a sprawling batty film – and in many ways an intellectually empty one straining at a depth that ain’t there. But somehow, for all that, it still is a masterpiece. Which is in itself a bit of a miracle as it really should be a disaster. It’s pretentious. It’s overlong. It’s very full of its own importance as a work of art (the re-insertion of the long-winded political discussion at the French Plantation into the Redux version doesn’t help). Some of its performances are plain ridiculous, verging in Brando’s case on outright bad. But yet, it’s delivered with such force of conviction, it’s so wonderfully assembled, so hauntingly shot and edited, that it hammers itself into your brain. You literally can’t forget it, for all its many, many flaws. Despite yourself, you find yourself forgiving it an awful lot – a lot more than you might expect. A mess, but also a classic.

Platoon (1986)

Charlie Sheen goes to war in Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning Vietnam film Platoon

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Tom Berenger (Sgt Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt Elias), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Keith David (King), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Mark Moses (Lt Wolfe), John C. McGinley (Sgt O’Neill), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Johnny Depp (Lerner)

Vietnam has been a long-standing scar on the American psyche. For over 12 years, American soldiers were rolled into Vietnam to fight for something many of them were pretty unclear about. Vietnam was a bloody shadow boxing match for super powers to indirectly combat each other. American casualties were high, and the country that sees itself as championing justice and the free world ended the war with the blood of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians on its hands. Is it any wonder the country still struggles to compute this?

Before Platoon there had been films that had dealt with the Vietnamese experience. Apocalypse Now had embraced the druggy, morally confused insanity of the war. The Deer Hunter had effectively shown the traumatic impact the war had on regular blue-collar steel-workers. But Platoon was something different. This was the war on the ground, with privates and sergeants as the focus (many of them poor, working class and also black) – the lower rungs of American society flung into a war they don’t understand, in a country they can’t recognise, fighting an enemy they have no comprehension of. 

Platoon throws the audience into the visceral, cruel, terrifying horror of pointless conflict, with a feeling that the war will never end. Stone pulls off a difficult trick here: the film shows a horrifying picture of war and killing, but combines this with successfully showing the adrenalin rush that comes from conflict – and the excitement of visceral film-making. 

Oliver Stone had fought as a young man in a similar unit, after dropping out of college. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is effectively a surrogate figure for the director, with the film crafted from Stone’s own experiences and those of his fellow soldiers. The film is a simple, intense experience with a straightforward plot: Taylor is torn between two potential “father figures”. One, Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger), is a supernaturally ferocious warrior and martinet whom the men hold in awe. The other, St Elias (Willem Dafoe), is an equally fierce fighter, but also a hippy, nearly saint-like protective figure. Which of these two will Taylor side with?

Well okay it’s not a massive surprise really is it? The strength of Oliver Stone’s film is its visceral, bloody, impressive intensity. You are thrown into the midst of a series of terrible battles, interspersed with bored soldiers bickering or taking pot. At no time is the viewer (or the soldiers) given any real idea about what is going on, what the aims of the war are, what is really happening in the battles. Stone plays the film totally from the soldier’s POV. Battles are a confused mess at night. The location of the enemy is frequently unclear. There are no indications of any tactics at all. There is barely any leadership – Mark Moses’ Lt Wolfe is an almost hilariously ineffective moral weakling, who follows the leads of his sergeants. The soldiers (or rather the two sergeants) essentially operate as lone wolves, doing what they think best for any particular circumstance.

The film pivots on a confused raid on a Vietnamese village, as the platoon descends on a village for no very clear reason – apart from seemingly being pissed off that one of their number has been killed in the night. Nominally they are searching for Vietcong fighters. But really it seems like an excuse to let off steam. Platoon must have hit hard in the 1980s, as it doesn’t flinch at all from watching American soldiers committing atrocities. Women are shot, teenagers are beaten to death, a fox hole containing what looks like a child is exploded after a brief warning. The soldiers are all terrified, thrusting guns into Vietnamese faces. Above all Sgt Barnes feels no guilt at all at executing villagers in order to pressure the elders into telling what he thinks they might know about the Vietcong (who equally are largely faceless figures of terror in the distance stalking the platoon).

Where the film is less strong is in its plotting and narrative ideas. These are straightforward in the extreme, with Barnes and Elias almost literally as opposing devil and angel on Taylor’s shoulders. The film is clearly weighted in favour of Elias’ hippie mentality, his desire to preserve innocent lives and his caring attitude to his men. Barnes is presented far more harshly – even though his brutality stems from his own deep-rooted desire to keep his men safe, and his belief that Vietnam is hell and you can’t pussyfoot your way around hell. 

Saying that, it’s hard to argue against Stone’s feelings that compromising your humanity is not worth it no matter the struggles to keep yourself and others alive. But these are (forgive me) rather obvious, even traditional points – and its part of the film being essentially a conventional morality tale with a breath-taking military setting laid over the top. The ideas in this film won’t really challenge you – and in fact the film itself is really more of an experience than something that rewards reflection.

Stone’s direction is extremely good – even though he at times falls too much into the trap of overblown, overly operatic visuals (Taylor’s final confrontation with Barnes in the forest falls heavily into this trap). Stone has never been accused of being the most subtle of directors, and there is no stone (sorry) left unturned here to get the message across. In fact Platoon frequently hits its points so hard and with such unsubtle force, that it actually leaves you very little to think about after its finished – the film does all the work for you, like an angry rant that goes into unbelievable depth of detail.

But the acting has a very healthy commitment to it. Sheen shows why he was an actor of promise before he became a self-destructing punchline. Dafoe is very good as the serene Elias – a man’s man, but one comfortable in his own skin, with a strange campness about him, whose courage extends to doing the right thing no matter what. Tom Berenger is hugely impressive as the cold-edged Barnes, who has had to stamp out his humanity to survive. The rest of the characters split into two rival camps following these different soldiers, and there are some fine performances here from some now far more recognisable actors.

Platoon was garlanded with Oscars, partly because it talked about the American experience in Vietnam in a manner (and from a perspective) that had not been addressed before. It is an important historical landmark of a film, even if it is possibly not a great film. A simple, at times less than subtle anti-war film dressed up as a war film, it will immerse you in the conflict and the horror – but I’m not sure it will give you as much to think about as it thinks it does.