Winner of five Academy awards, “unforgettable saga of friendship and courage,” Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken…
I first saw this movie in 1978 in Atlanta. I remember coming out of the theater with this sense of unreality, and a serious dislocation from those around me, none of whom had been in the war. This was not “Hearts and Minds,” the terribly realistic account of the Vietnam War that I had seen in 1974, in Atlanta’s only art theater. No, this was the “big time, popular culture” version of the Vietnam War, a horrible phantasmagoria of the war that painted the Vietnamese as evil and the American participants as so damaged they would never be able to function again. This movie would be the first of several, certainly including “Apocalypse Now.” Yet, I was also fascinated by more than half the movie which depicted life around the steel mills near Pittsburgh, something that I knew a bit about, having worked in one for two summers, just as the Vietnam War was “cranking up.”
I knew this movie was bad… and that it had commenced a very distorted remembrance of the war in the popular culture. I’d been postponing a re-viewing of it to determine just how bad it was, but now have finally “bit the bullet.” It was even worse than I remember, and the 146 “trivia” items associated with this film helped confirm my even lower assessment. A new term: “Oscar baiting.” A “trivia” item explained how this was the first movie to use a number of techniques, like an initial small release, late in the year, to help ensure that the move would receive Oscars.
“Real men doing real men’s work”… that is a steel mill, or, at least it was. The locker room, and the bar, with signs for “Iron City” beer, but the preferred beer is “Rolling Rock.” Men, in their good-natured joisting, some faux male bonding. Drunks can be tedious; watching them in a movie, more so. Still, the center piece of the first hour and 10 minutes is Steven’s (John Savage) wedding, in a Russian Orthodox church. Steven’s mother is unhappy, ‘cause the bride is “showing” a bit. On the re-viewing, I heard, loud and clear, the Russian word “pozhaluista,” a handy word to know if you are traveling through the Soviet Union. Real men hunt; “one shot” is the only way to kill, ‘cause two is for… that slightly derogatory word for women. Depicted is, or at least was, Clairton Pennsylvania, just up the Monongahela River from Homestead. Although it appeared to be Clairton to me, thanks to the trivia section, it turns out it was really Cleveland, Ohio. The hunting scenes, even back then, were obviously NOT set in the rolling hills of Western PA. Rather, that old white Cadillac drove all the way across the country to the Cascades, of Washington state. Before they leave for the Army, Nick (Christopher Walken) extracts a promise from Michael (Robert de Nero): “You gotta promise me not to leave me over there…”
At 70 minutes, suddenly we are in Vietnam (Thailand). No hint what year it is. Michael, and we suppose Nick and Steve, are Green Berets, with the 101st Airborne, which requires a year of training. EVERYTHING about the military segments is wrong, outrageously so. You’d think Michael Cimino, the Director, would have someone check the uniforms, and make sure that they are right. No. A wild pastiche of badges and awards. Michael even comes back from Vietnam wearing a beard (which the trivia section also called out). Trivia section also noted that all three are too OLD to be in that sort of combat. The first Vietnamese shown immediately kills 50-100 women and children in a bunker. Michael uses a flame thrower, instead of his M-16, to kill this soldier, who is out in the open. Somehow all three are captured and are POWs, at a remote jungle Enter “Russian Roulette,” orchestrated by those evil Vietnamese. (The trivia section indicated that about 25 deaths have been attributed to the popularizing of “Russian Roulette” by this movie.)
Apparently, someone cornered Cimino enough that he would claim that the movie really was not about the Vietnam War… it was about all that “saga of friendship and courage.” Hum. That is the part when I really wanted to SCREAM. Somehow, drawing three cards to an inside straight, Michael manages to trick the Vietnamese captors as they play a bit of roulette, kill them, and then escape and float down a river. An American helicopter to the rescue, well, at least of Nick. Steven and Michael literally hang from the skids, before dropping back into the river. The helicopter leaves them!! Michael pulls Steven out of the river, noting a broken leg at the shin. He decides to carry him on his back from somewhere north of Danang to Saigon, through the jungle!! At the sign welcoming one to Saigon, he sees a jeep driven by South Vietnamese army soldiers. He dumps Steven onto the hood of the jeep, thus into ARVN hands, and wanders off. The next time he sees Steven he is in a VA hospital, with both legs amputated at the hip, and Michael asks him how he is doing!! SCREAM, redux. Meanwhile, Nick is making a pretty good living in Saigon playing Russian Roulette with those evil Vietnamese (and an evil Frenchman), for YEARS, sending lots of hundred-dollar bills back to Steven, that are kept in his drawer at the VA bedside, without being stolen.
It even gets worse! But if you’ve read this far, suffice it to say, I got a bit of this off my chest. As Charles Mackay described, almost two centuries ago, there are these delusions that sweep through the crowds. Anointing such an appalling fantasy with “must-see” Academy Awards is an example of such madness. And what did Streep and de Niro REALLY think about their role in this? This movie is not just “harmless” bad, and that extends far beyond the 25 roulette deaths, but remains a most damaging portrait of the war and its participants. Thus, I must provide a new rating category: “zero-stars.”