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The Deer Hunter & the Superman in Vietnam


In film historian Leonard Quarts article, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” the author discusses an interesting notion how the film (Deer Hunter, 1978) in itself created an American mythological figure, the soldier, living beyond conventional values and projecting heroic, almost alluring, emotional invulnerability. According to Quart, Hollywood has used this mythology to blur the argument of our involvement with Vietnam War away from the political world, away from any specific policy, and back into an introspective question regarding the human condition in Vietnam. Using The Deer Hunter as a backdrop, Quart reconstructs the main character, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), and illuminates his superman archetype as the American mythological figure for the human condition. This reconstruction can be seen in three character developments: first, Michael, as local steel-mill worker, second, seeing Vronsky as an accomplished hunter and woodmen, which directly leads into the third character development, Vronsky’s leadership ability during his stint as a Vietnam POW. These three reconstructions demonstrate two years after the Vietnam War ended (1978), how the overwhelming sense of self-confidence and invulnerability drew many American fighting men into Vietnam during the 1960’s.

The myth of the superman in Vietnam is first constructed in the persona of Michael Vronsky, as the Pennsylvanian, blue collar, working class hero. During the film, even the small factory town to which the main characters belong was glozed over with a refined middle-class shine. Men, working without complaint, nor distressed, nor sweat from countless hours of back-breaking work; even their steel-mill uniforms are absent of blemish. This image of the working class town fits perfectly as Michael Vronsky’s fortress of solitude; a town that emulates intrinsic values of church and country, indicative to middle class America. The picture perfect sleepy little industrialized town, far removed from the hustle of modern cities, gives the audience a sense of romanticism, the American Dream in its natural environment.

The second construction mentioned, was how Quart uses the development of Vronsky as the American superman through his prowess as a hunter. Vronsky can be pictured as “an outsider…[,albeit] chaste, honorable, forbearing, revering the mountains and nature, and given to a purity of purpose embodied in his deer-hunting gospel of the one-shot-kill. ”  Michael as an actual hunter, an ultimate outdoors man, he becomes the myth of a romanticized figure of American folklore and tradition who constructs his identity in conflict with nature, similar to historically famous Americana outdoorsmen, such as: Davey Crockett or Teddy Roosevelt.

The third construction Quart uses in the development of Vronsky as the American superman myth, is during his performance at the Russian-roulette table in the Vietnam POW camp. Here, Quart complements Vronsky’s characterization in notions of a Hemmingway-esk sense of heroic grace and indomitability. Vronsky’s capacity for violence is seen as calm and controlled and when he frees his fellow patriots, he becomes “the incarnation of the superman…the apotheosis of American courage and daring…a transcendent figure who seems almost immortal. ” However, this comparison also begs the question, regarding the state of the human precondition, if a person can kill without fear or constraint.

Quart’s article on The Deer Hunter as an allegory for the mythological superman in Vietnam is a convincing argument. The director obviously attempted to portray the middle-class American as both the hero and victim of the war in not only how Vronsky was developed, but also how his town changed as the people themselves changed. If film symbolizes our hopes and fears, The Deer Hunter represents our ideological need to create certainty where there is none. However, the horror of Vietnam is too ambiguous and complex to explain or dismiss away within the concept of the American superman; Vietnam is not the OK Corral or some other western motif where the Duke rides in on a white horse and justifies the atrocity of war and our involvement. The Deer Hunter is an awesome movie, a must see for any Vietnam War movie buff, but like Quart, the film lacked significant historical accountability, and, even more important, the film lacked social realism that would have allowed the movie to go beyond being just another cartoonish depiction of middle class America in the Vietnam War.

Leonard Quart, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” pg. 160-161.

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