Late yesterday morning respected author and movie journalist Peter Biskind posted the following on Facebook about Michael Cimino‘s The Deer Hunter (’78), obviously in response to Cimino’s death last weekend: “I hate to speak ill of the dead and all that, but the obits for Cimino, particularly Mark Olsen’s in the L.A. Times, are shockingly oblivious to the context of The Deer Hunter. Talk about historical Alzheimer’s!
“Of the notorious Russian roulette scenes, all Olsen can manage is that they became ‘instantly iconic, symbolic of the maddening pressures that set upon men at war.’ What? In fact, although it has a great cast and is undeniably a powerful picture, the politics are execrable, and were widely denounced at the time for turning the war inside out.
“The tiger cages in which our boys were held captive were a South Vietnamese invention, not a North Vietnamese. Nor were Vietcong guerrillas likely to grenade their own people, as the film portrays them doing. My Lai was a U.S. atrocity, not an NLF atrocity. The protests of the journalists who covered the war were the loudest, and all agreed that the North did not force U.S. prisoners to play Russian roulette, which was a device left over from an early script.
“All in all, Cimino was caught in numerous lies, ranging from his claim to have been a medic attached to the Green Berets, to his attempt to steal script credit from Deric Washburn.”
About three hours later Biskind responded to some who disagreed:
“I can’t reply to each of the people who disagreed with me, but I do want to address one question raised by Barry Norman and a few others. Clearly, filmmakers who make features ‘based on’ reality take liberties with their material, and the truth vs. art debate is one that will probably go on forever, encompassing films like Triumph of the Will, On the Waterfront, Birth of a Nation, etc., etc. But I think we can make some distinctions.
“First, ironically, although The Deer Hunter is certainly not a documentary, Cimino took great pains to replicate documentary footage his researchers had uncovered. Even the Russian roulette sequences were mean to evoke the famous still photograph of the Saigon police chief shooting a prisoner at point blank range with a pistol to his head.
“But more to the point, there are so many perversions of the truth in The Deer Hunter, all seemingly intended to make the same ideological point — the Vietcong were evil Orientals — while the Americans were no more than naive victims. There’s more going on here than mere creative license. And finally, if I may be indulged, the film is centrally about male bonding and friendship among Americans, with the war as a backdrop and the Vietnamese reduced to stick figures with guns. In my opinion it’s really disgraceful!”