THE ACADEMY AWARD to "The Deer Hunter" as best motion picture of the year presents an interesting comment on where the war in Vietnam now sits in American folklore, and where it probably will rest for a long time. Academy awards, as everyone knows, are not necessarily to be trusted as indices of beauty or quality. And the ceremony itself is always a clown act. Nevertheless, the awards do have a way of reflecting the general public acceptance of certain ideas. A couple of years back, the Oscar went to "Rocky," a celebration of clear-cut individual heroism. This year we have "The Deer Hunter," which, as a bloody and relentless indictment of the Vietnam War, would appear to represent "Rocky's" opposite corner.
Yet "The Deer Hunter" is also about individual heroism - heroism that is no less clear-cut for being the heroism of the victim. The movie's three main characters - three home-town buddies who get torn up and apart in the war - are thrown from a life they control too easily into one they cannot control at all. The central fictional device of the movie is the game of Russian roulette, which is a way of pretending that control is in one's hands when it is really in fate's. And fate is cruel in this movie, destroying lives purposely in the great purposeless war.
That, put too simply, is the point of "The Deer Hunter"; and it is also the point at which the society has evidently arrived in terms of interpreting the war to itself. The first major Vietnam War movie was the jingoistic "Green Berets"; the second, the blatantly anti-American (and Academy Award-Winning) "Hearts and Minds." "The Deer Hunter" stands with neither. It depoliticizes the war almost entirely, changing considerations of historical rightness for strictly human concerns. Depolicization is what you do to a war you haven't won. It makes its memory easier to take.