Heroism in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate

If all stories are about conflict, of what value are knowledge, love, and peace?

by Daniel Garrett Volume 17, issue 11 / November 2013 15 minutes (3575 words)

Heaven’s Gate begins and ends with scenes of great privilege, and what comes in between is the struggle to make power sensitive to ordinary people—and the violent resistance to that struggle. A Harvard graduating class of bright young men is asked to use its knowledge and energies to make America a more civilized place—and that is what the Kris Kristofferson character attempts to do in his work in the nineteenth-century American west. As a mature man, idealistic philosophy has been burned away into simple practice and he is neither perfect nor simply virtuous (he has a financial interest in a whorehouse), but he is honorable: he is honest about his intentions, and tries to help and inform the poor immigrants who are being hunted by rich landowners, a brutality approved by the state and national governments. It is fascinating to be made to remember that each generation of accented, hopeful, hungry people has been resisted by preceding generations, now assimilated, of once accented, hopeful, hungry peoples. This is a very different vision of the American past than the one—of innocence, community, work, justice, sacrifice, and spirituality—that we have been used to getting in expensive, prestigious mainstream productions. Or is it?

I suspect that someone not knowing how different Michael Cimino’s films The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) were received would be able to see the similarity between the two cinema works, as both focus on male friends and their responsibilities to others; and that someone would be confused by the fact that the more courageous and imaginative of the two films received the harshest reviews. Whereas The Deer Hunter centers on a group of working class male friends who go off to war and defend country and each other, Heaven’s Gate presents an America in which government and rich landowners unite not merely to police or defeat but to kill poor European immigrants trying to make a living in the American wilderness. Heaven’s Gate, inspired by genuine fact, is a gorgeous film, full of story and character and detailed settings and unexpected moments; and its content informs the action and is likely what made the action and its presentation so objectionable to many established critical viewers (in addition to the scandal of the film’s great cost, and the resulting intolerable irony of a large amount of glamorous money being used to indict capitalism).

In Heaven’s Gate, Kris Kristofferson is one among many students at Harvard who is told at a graduation ceremony to use his knowledge and privilege to help those less well-placed, and to help make America a more civilized country. He is a rich boy, and then a rich man, who tries to be true to a commune of immigrants who are under his management and protection. The immigrants are decent, rough, hardworking people trying to make a home and a living in the wilderness, people who in hunger and desperation sometimes take the freely roaming cattle of prosperous landowners for food. The landowners have commercial development plans for the barely settled wilderness, requiring the removal of the immigrants; and the landowners create a kill list of more than one-hundred people. One of the enforcers of its land clearance plan is played by Christopher Walken, a friend and rival of Kristofferson’s official. Walken plays a gunslinger who decorates his house to please a woman. The two men are both in love, or in lust, with the same woman, a French whore with a heart of opportunism, a generously grave opportunism. That the woman, played by one of the screen’s most believable actors, Isabelle Huppert, cannot decide whom she cares for more is a fact that makes her opaque (her feelings lacking clarity, her motives can seem as murky); and her lack of decision also nullifies, somewhat, the appeal and singularity of both men: if she cannot decide between them, neither must be all that great: yet that implication is a rare admission about human nature—sometimes people are not all that impressive, even those with power, even those we love.

Conflict has been defined as the core of most stories by many observers and practitioners, by literary artists and screen writers and film directors, critics, and audience. What that means is not only that we have an interpretive lens through which to view character and action, but that we expect and reward the appearance of conflict as a sign of craft, of reality, of seriousness, of value. Instead of seeing the growth of love or wisdom or peace as central, we see conflict. Instead of gathering knowledge, the eruption of impulse. Instead of harmony, dissonance. Instead of order, chaos. Instead of healing, hurt.

It is actually intriguing that most of the main characters in Heaven’s Gate are soft men: not only those played by Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken, but also Jeff Bridges as a work associate of Kristofferson, a barkeep and settlement house manager, and John Hurt as a college orator and rich boy who becomes a perceptively intelligent yet silly drunk. That softness, individual and shared, is disarming, making them surprising, making them more believable and likable. In contrast, Sam Waterston plays a cool, relentless organizer of power, a suavely hard young man, easily moving through the dust, smoke, and fog prevalent in the film: if he has no moral confusion, that may because he has little, if any, morality; and when a hired hand asks him if he has an arrest warrant for the man he has tied to a wagon wheel, Waterston goes out and shoots the bound man in the head. The bulk of the film is about the land-clearing project and the contest for a woman’s love, and other than private club conspiracy and scenes of vicious murder, Heaven’s Gate involves the eating of a whore’s pie, a gift of a horse and buggy and a wild ride through town, a naked dip into a lake, a communal dance with fiddle music and skating, and finally a battle, a brief peace, and an execution.

There have been other western films that have given us radical views of American history, but those are more like footnotes rather than primary texts: in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Warren Beatty is a gambler, restaurant owner, and whorehouse funder whose efforts build a town and win the precarious allegiance of a madam, until a large company wants to buy his stake, and he resists, and is threatened with violence. That west may be wild, but it does not implicate official American civilization in its immorality. Dead Man, featuring an injured wanderer, a Native American guide with a poet’s name, a white man’s cannibalism, and a town of carnivorous industry, was too eccentric and metaphorical to be taken as much more than an evocation of a spiritual journey. Films such as The Ballad of Little Jo and Ride with the Devil are alternative visions too, chapters in a larger history. Brokeback Mountain, with its cowboy lovers, may allow the love that long did not speak its own name a place to frolic and play, but that was far from town. There are actually a couple of older westerns that are not usually described as radical but which tell us something shockingly vital about American character: in both Red River and color The Searchers, John Wayne plays a man whose experience makes him brutal.

It may be important to note that Wayne’s actual first name was Marion, and several stories have been given for how he acquired the nickname Duke—one that he played a nobleman in an early play, and two, that he had a favorite dog with that name—but in John Wayne’s first western films, he was a slim, sensitive liberal presence, someone of understanding who was inclined to help the weak, whether white or Native American. In Red River (1948), John Wayne, older, heavier, is a cattle driver desperate to get his herd to market, making him insensitive to the men he is working with; and in The Searchers (1956), Wayne is Confederate soldier and an uncle whose brother and sister-in-law have been murdered and nieces abducted by Native Americans, the Comanche, and he commits to finding the girls but, at the thought that one or both of the girls may become a concubine of a Native warrior, he is willing to kill them too. It is possible to read Wayne as a symbol of conservatism or reaction, but he is actually a renegade figure in both films, outside community, not allegiant to the dominant establishment: an anti-hero. He has values but they are his own, pragmatic and racist and vengeful, and he is as inclined to hit or shoot anyone who gets in his way as he could be.

There are similarities between the kind of character John Wayne plays in Red River and The Searchers and that of Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter or even Taxi Driver: in both films, DeNiro is a man with experience in war; and DeNiro in The Deer Hunter is a man of imagination, resource, and toughness, a man of fellowship and obsession; and DeNiro in Taxi Driver is a man of imagination, loneliness, and paranoia, a man of rage and violence. It was actually brave for John Wayne to play men whose efficient strength was admirable but personalities and habits dislikable, if not contemptible. Of course, if you were not a careful reader of those Wayne performances and films, you might not understand he was not a typical hero. In fact, in both films it is the younger man—Montgomery Clift in Red River and Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers—who is the hero: capable, caring, and intelligent, the one who actually achieves the goal of the Wayne character, but achieves that with humanity: in each film, the younger man is an adopted son, and in the first, Montgomery Clift’s able rancher and gunman gets the herd to market in time, making a great sale; and in the second Jeffrey Hunter rescues the one surviving niece and kills her threatening abductor (though he has trouble telling the difference between a blonde blue-eyed girl and a brown-eyed brunette). It is the Wayne character who must learn, through the example of a younger man, a succeeding generation, how to be fully human again.

In The Deer Hunter, most of the conflicts are ordinary, a man with a secret crush on his friend’s girlfriend, another man who gets involved with a woman made pregnant by another man, but those conflicts do not rise to the level of great drama; and what seems fundamental is the nature of male life, men on predictable paths toward work, sex, and war. The freest moments involve their affection for each other — whether hunting, drinking, joking, or dancing. (It is hard to hear some of what goes on during a wedding celebration in The Deer Hunter, just as it is hard to hear some of what occurs in certain crowd scenes near the beginning of Heaven’s Gate — that could seem the accurate recreation of public noise but it is more likely faulty sound design in both, though on the whole the former film received rapturous reviews and the latter film scathing reviews.) In war, the deer hunting friends face great brutality and violence, and one friend demonstrates a rare imagination and courage: he turns a game of Russian roulette against his captors, and frees his friends. The Deer Hunter can be seen as the update of older war films, such as The Best Years of Our Lives and From Here to Eternity: in William Wyler’s mid-century (1946) film The Best Years of Our Lives, a group of men meet upon their return from war, the second world war of the twentieth century, and through those men we can see the effects of the war: the youngest man has lost his hands, the oldest man, a banker, has had his values modified, making him more sympathetic to struggling people, especially returning veterans, and the other man, a hero in war, has recurring nightmares and is no longer fit for low-level jobs but does not have the professional experience qualifying him for better. The women in the film hold their own with the men: besides the consistently loyal girlfriend of the handless man, there are the older man’s loving but wary wife and intelligent but willful daughter, and the frustrated war hero has an ambitiously sensual and cruel lover willing to give him up, her hero husband, when he cannot find a good job. The honesty and realism of the portrayal of war effects—in fear and anger, in indulgence in drink, in reckless flirtation and night terrors—make the film intelligent and moving, genuinely serious.

It is surprising to see The Deer Hunter and to think that the women and men are less vivid, less honest, than a contemporary milieu would indicate, to realize that we do not know why one young man loves or is marrying the young woman made pregnant by another man, and that the attractive blonde girlfriend (played by Meryl Streep) the other two men are infatuated with has no real depth, and that some of the habits of the men are more interesting than their personalities, if working class life allows the development of significant personality. Robert DeNiro’s character, for what seems his rigorous eccentricity and profound courage, is the most interesting character, if not the only interesting person, in the film. One of his friends (Christopher Walken) loses his memory and his sense of purpose in the war, and the other (John Savage) loses his legs. DeNiro’s character comes back a hero, his jacket full of ribbons—but, though welcomed, he does not have a true place in the world he returns to (he does not feel comfortable in the little house he used to live in, and moves, at least briefly, to a motel for mental comfort). The war liberates a man to become someone or something else, but the society from which he came and returns to is not good at accepting that transformed man. Yet, the view of war that we get, the transforming experience, is one-dimensional: the Vietnamese are mindlessly and murderously cruel, subjecting American captives to Russian roulette (apparently, this kind of thing did not happen, is political slander, leading filmmaker and activist Jane Fonda to call the film a Pentagon version of the war, but the gunplay remains a good metaphor for being compelled to take deadly chances for no good reason). The most attractive aspects of the film are those times when we see the community—the wedding celebration, the hunting party; and the same is true of Heaven’s Gate, when we see the communal dancing. Cimino has an instinct for making community perceptible, community as a unique pleasure and power. It as if people are freed from being themselves in a crowd, and there have easier access to joy.

The erasure or suspension of self-awareness and self-expression can be liberating or oppressive. It is an irony that in war, when their lives are most threatened, men are often conformists: they must work together in the most predictable ways—a point that the old Fred Zinnemann 1953 film From Here to Eternity makes: the men eat, sleep, exercise, and perform their martial chores in the same ways; and when one refuses to join the unit’s boxing team, having injured a friend when fighting, he is punished. The heroes in From Here to Eternity and The Deer Hunter defy conformity. Yet, heroism gains respect and ribbons and also dire repercussions: one hero puts his own life in danger, and the other’s actions both free and endanger his friends.

Traditionally, stories of war have been among the greatest stories that men and women tell about themselves, about society: about humanity. Contemplating war has been the source of poetry and philosophy. Contemplating war has been the source of ideas about personal and national identity—for instance, the great American western films remember better than most of American culture that the land has been contested terrain, has been fought for until recently. (The Searchers was a film set in 1868, less than one-hundred years before it was made: and on the open dusty plains and amid sculptural hills and mountains, the Native Americans are still on the warpath. Where else does one find any Native American presence in popular culture?) Stories of war are stories of death, but also of life—stories of choices made, of what we are choosing to become, do, and value. The Deer Hunter, like Heaven’s Gate, is a long film: the length is not only in service of an epic vision, but a technique that allows for a certain slow, lulling thoughtfulness. The film viewer feels surrounded by the experience, and can note the idiosyncrasy of it, the details: the little house in which DeNiro and Walken live, the colorful orthodox church, the trees and lakes of a foreign jungle, and the terrifying occupation and sterility of a hospital, the settings and scenes in particular lives. The cinematography and production design are of such mastery that the film viewer might think Michael Cimino has an instinct for the epic, but the dialogue is not equal to the images; whereas in Heaven’s Gate the talk is more than concise clues, is actually considered conversation, making the characters and the story more particular, and particularity is always easier to criticize than generality. Stories of war are stories of crisis, of rupture: they represent rupture and are tools for recuperation, for healing. In both The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, men attempt a new life with a beloved woman, a life beyond war, but each learns that war does not end when and how you expect, and the desired reconciliation is beyond their control.

It is often hard to accept that there are aspects of our own existence that we cannot control, and not surprising that artists would remind us of that. Of course, artists exist to create beautiful and interesting objects, and something more: they articulate the facts, ideas, and perceptions that we would rather ignore or forget; and that is their purpose and the root of much of their difficulties. Yet, Heaven’s Gate, with its critical view of American history, was screened in 2012 at the New York Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, proof that it is beginning to be looked at with greater appreciation and respect than when it first appeared.

In time, the story of The Deer Hunter (1980) is set during Vietnam, many decades after that of Heaven’s Gate (1978) in the nineteenth century, although Heaven’s Gate was made after The Deer Hunter, and could be thought of as a reconsideration of some of the themes in its predecessor: following The Deer Hunter, featuring a determined hero, was Heaven’s Gate, with its frustrated heroes, and recognition and presentation of amoral if not immoral American business and government, and then Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In Apocalypse Now (1979), an American military leader in an eastern country becomes a dictator, a mad man, a savage, and must be defeated and sacrificed, though it may not be clear that his behavior is a logical extension of his training and a colonizing culture. It has been common comment that there have been few great war films about the recent conflicts in the middle east, the Iraqi and Afghani wars, but the films that do exist are honest, intelligent, varied: among them, The Dry Land, Green Zone, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, and The Messenger, films that do convey the terror and torment, and rare triumphs, of war. In The Dry Land, a young man returns home rattled with some of his memories gone, and he learns that his best intentions caused harm; and in Green Zone, starring Matt Damon, a good American investigates hidden Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the given reasons for war, and cannot find any; and in the film In the Valley of Elah, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, parents grieve, and a patriotic father learns that his soldier son, who wanted to come home, became immoral in battle; and in Lions for Lambs a teacher (Robert Redford) cannot convince two good students (Derek Luke, Michael Pena) to stay out of combat; and in The Messenger, a widow’s grief lead to both exploitation and new possibility for a young soldier. None of those are master texts, defining history or war for all time, but they do give one genuine understanding of the experience of war and of what can be lost. They show the limits of human efforts.

The limits of heroism are what The Deer Hunter portrays, too: one conscientious friend, a greatly charismatic Robert DeNiro, goes to rescue another friend, an amnesiac, and brings an awareness that threatens the zone of freedom, including the thrill of danger, the absent-minded man has been in—the lack of care and worry, the lack of self-consciousness—and which has brought him monetary rewards. It could be said that the film is about the lethal danger of male friendship, of one man’s love for another. Or is it knowledge that is dangerous?

(Article submitted October 26, 2012)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 17, issue 11 / November 2013 Essays