In the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, friendship and loyalty are put to the test as three friends leave their normal routines in small-town Pennsylvania to serve in The Vietnam War. Before, during, and after their terms of service, their relationships strengthen due to the heightened circumstances of their surroundings. This is particularly applicable with the character of Michael (Robert De Niro), who is forced to take drastic measures when it comes to the safety of his friends.
A couple of days before shipping off to serve in Vietnam, Nick (Christopher Walken) tells Michael about his secret love of the aesthetic overseas rather than the thought of actually going to fight there. He says, “I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different… the way the trees are.” He quickly punctuates this statement with “I sound like some asshole, right?” It seems like Nick has never told anyone his love for the simple, beautiful things and is worried about how Michael perceives him after he expresses it due to the expectation of sheer masculinity put on him by his other friends.
However, Michael does not ridicule Nick, but instead confides in him that the two of them have a bond stronger than he has with anyone else. He says “You’re the only guy I go hunting with, you know… I ain’t gonna hunt with no assholes.” Michael tells this to Nick, in a moment made more intimate by director Michael Cimino’s close-up shots, not only in regards to their hunting trip but to ensure a tight bond that will stay with them when they are thrown into the unpredictable, dangerous natures of war. Michael and Nick having that companionship while hunting for deer will only be magnified while participating in the infinitely larger-scale manhunt that takes place in Vietnam.
While in Vietnam, Michael, Nick and their other friend Steven (John Savage) get captured and the Vietnamese guards force them to play Russian Roulette against each other for their own amusement. Michael takes on a guardian position over his other two friends who begin to panic under the immense pressure. When he faces against Steven, the rapid close-ups cutting back and forth between them elevate the tension in the scene as Michael persuades Steven to lift the gun to his temple to avoid him being thrown into the pit where he could die.
However, when Steven misfires and is thrown into the pit anyway, Michael quickly alters his focus to ensure safety of him and Nick. Michael has a very black-and-white view of the world, and when Steven is separated from he and Nick in this bleak situation, Michael thinks that there is no way to save all three of them so he and Nick must leave Steven behind. He takes on a protective status that causes him to make fast, difficult sacrifices to ensure safety. However, Nick is there as the foil to Michael’s stubborn rationality and reminds him that Steven is their friend and he cannot just leave him behind. It shows how highly Michael thinks of Nick’s word when he goes to free Steven and take him with them when they finally get free. Their different personalities complement each other in this scene when the level-headedness Michael’s plan eventually leads to their escape and the passionate Nick’s words reunite the trio.
Michael and Steven’s relationship is further strengthened when Steven falls from a rescue chopper into a river and Michael immediately jumps in after him to save him. Cimino’s use of an extreme wide shot as they plummet into the water amplifies the vacancy of their surroundings, showing that only Michael is Steven’s last hope. Michael risks his own life to save the life of his friend, in stark contrast to how he acted when they were captured before. This time, Michael does not see Steven as baggage that he and Nick can leave behind when it comes to their own safety. He starts to think more with his heart, like Nick does, and make more impulsive decisions to help the people he is close to.
Before they left, Nick made a plea to Michael that, should something happen to him in Vietnam, Michael would make sure his body gets back to the United States. He begs, “If anything happens Mike, you don’t – don’t leave me over there. You got, you gotta…Just don’t leave me. You gotta promise me that, Mike.” Nick reveals his vulnerability to Michael more than anyone else; he expresses his insecurities and fears that only deepen their relationship. When Nick dies overseas, Michael remains loyal to him and makes good on his promise. Nick’s body is buried back home in Pennsylvania. Michael and Nick have a bond stronger than war, and they make each other better people. Michael gives a toast after Nick’s funeral, and summarizes their relationship up with a simple “To Nick.”
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