The elegiac Deer Hunter tips Coppola’s Apocalypse..

(these views originally appeared on WiTD not too long ago)
deer hunter
My favorite Vietnam film continues to be Deer Hunter but I have a great weakness for Apocalypse Now. I also agree that the ‘Redux’ version is better. Of course with the footage Coppola has several different films could be fashioned! Harold Bloom once suggested that despite the popularity of the work there was something ‘obscurantist’ about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a sentiment I am in profound agreement with. In some ways Coppola’s work makes Heart of Darkness clearer by amplifying on the Kurtz character (and adding some T S Eliot in the bargain!) though it is still not completely free of such a blemish. Also there are tonal inconsistencies in the work. But Coppola definitely creates an authentic world. The finer ‘heart of darkness’ and stronger work about the ‘white man’s burden’ might be Herzog’s magnificent Fitzcarraldo.

The reason I prefer Deer Hunter despite the obvious strengths of the Coppola in many ways is because the former does a better job on contextualizing Vietnam to my mind. Apocalypse could have been a film about any war but the Deer Hunter could only have been one about the American experience of Vietnam. Even though the Cimino doesn’t contain much pure war footage there is a very moving ‘before and after’ to these segments which also refracts this conflict in very ‘American’ ways. The camaraderie represented in the initial portions [the ‘I love you baby‘ from (Frank Valli’s ‘Can’t take my eyes off you‘) refrain moment is to my mind one of the sublime ones in American cinema], the aftermath with Walken becoming totally unhinged, the psychedelic reality of Saigon and so forth. War in some ways appears much more ‘absurd’ in this film because this group of friends know nothing about this place they’re being sent off to. And it is appropriate that we don’t get a war with a narrative but just some scattered scenes and then those central torture moments. It’s disorienting and it seems to me that this is a truer representation in some ways than Coppola’s more ‘Homeric’ attempt. Don’t mean to knock Coppola here. Apocalypse is one of my favorite American films. The other thing about Deer Hunter is that it is a remarkable elegy to a whole way of life. ‘GM’ is so much in the news this year and the characters of that film in that particular town really represent the ‘GM’ side of American life. A certain post-WWII reality that has been in eclipse for a very long time.

4 Responses to “The elegiac Deer Hunter tips Coppola’s Apocalypse..”

  1. Re: “The finer ‘heart of darkness’ and stronger work about the ‘white man’s burden’ might be Herzog’s magnificent Fitzcarraldo.”

    I cannot agree enough with this, and of course one thinks of “Moby Dick” along with “Heart of Darkness” here.

    Re: “Apocalypse could have been a film about any war…”

    That is precisely what I find troubling about this monumental, and monumentally flawed, achievement. “Apocalypse Now” re-inscribes a colonial problematic in the heart of the war film, that is to say Vietnam here is simply the site for the self-discovery, the inner journey, of its American protagonists (principally the characters played by Sheen and Brando). It is not so much that the Vietnamese are absent from the film, as that they are irrelevant — this film could have been set anywhere, in any “third world country”, and that indifference to local context, hearkens to the narcissistic colonialism of the settlers who always saw land as “empty”…

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  2. Loved this note Satyam but wish you would have written more on the Cimino film. The Deer Hunter is my single most favourite hollywood movie. And i was ecstatic to find the poster of the film in the dead actor’s house in Talaash (in the scene where Aamir goes to the actor’s house to inform and inquire her wife regarding the death). There is also a poster of Eraserhead there and I strongly feel that Reema Kagti was somewhere inspired by themes of both films but particularly that of The Deer Hunter. A correspondence could be established between the motifs and the central protagonists of both films- both movie are about ‘closure’. as in about closing the chapters in life and trying to move on. They are also about the catharsis that precedes the closure. Deer Hunter has soldiers accepting their defeat by dehumanizing their enemy. It was about how they adjust to failure and handle the self blame. In Talaash too, the principal protagonist is coping up with self blame and somehow finds a solution. And then there is the theme of ‘disillusionment’ common to both films

    When I first saw The Deer Hunter I found it emotionally shattering. And to my mind it is the greatest epic film in Hollywood after The Godfather.

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    • thanks for this great note Saurabh. I too have a great weakness for Deer Hunter. I don’t think as highly of the film (though it is of course an important work) as I find it affecting. Find the director’s Heaven’s Gate much more interesting though it’s also a flawed work.

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