The Deer Hunter received the Academy Award for best picture at the Oscars ceremony in 1979. The film was much criticized by some for its Russian roulette sequences, especially the alleged “racism” on display in the film’s depiction of the Viet Cong. But The Deer Hunter is truly a mythic, poetic work of art. The film’s late director and co-author of its screenplay, Michael Cimino, would never duplicate the success he enjoyed with this film, but can rest assured that his work will last.

I saw The Deer Hunter for the first time during its opening run in theaters, and I can now offer what I hope are some mature musings on a film that has stood the test of time. If readers haven’t seen the movie, it may be best to watch it before reading my analysis.

The hero of mythic stories often makes a trip to the underworld in which he is tested. He dies but emerges reborn, stronger, and more capable of the task of restoring order in a chaotic world. The Deer Hunter’s transcendent hero is Mike, played with understated authority by Robert De Niro. Mike is a modest man, shy even. In a way even he does not fully understand, he plays out his role in a mythic ritual that reaffirms the values he represents in a tragic world.

The film opens in the steel town of Clairton in Western Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. The people of this working class community are bound by their work, particularly at the steel mill, where fiery furnaces and smokestacks set the atmospheric stage of the film’s opening sequences. They are also bound by ritual, religion, and the ties of kinship and friendship they have to each other. As the film progresses, the Clairton community, represented in the film by Mike’s circle of close friends, will suffer, dissolve into chaos, and, though wounded, be restored by acts of personal sacrifice. The three friends the film centers on, Michael Vronsky (De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), embark on a tragic journey their own personalities may not be fit to bear, yet they go unwittingly into the abyss. Their wider circle of friends includes Nick’s girlfriend, Linda, who is exquisitely underplayed by Meryl Streep in her second film appearance; Stan, the last role of the fine character actor John Cazale, who died of cancer before he could see the completed film; John, the owner of Welsh’s bar, where the friends meet frequently, played by George Dzundza; and Axel, played by Chuck Aspegren, a local non-professional actor who Cimino spotted working in a steel mill while scouting locations.

The friends are tight with one another and closely bound to their hometown. At one point, Nick tells Mike, “I love this f—in’ place”—a dreary mill town that few outsiders would see as lovable in any way. “The whole thing,” Nick says, “is right here.” The people are not prosperous, life is gritty, but home is home, and the people of Clairton, Pennsylvania, seem happy for the most part. For all its flaws, it’s a home that has nourished them, a known world that can be navigated and understood. Home is where life begins. Home is where they have to take you in, a place that means love even when it is unlovely. Leaving this shelter to face the challenges and unforeseen dangers of the outside world, and returning to reaffirm the ties that bind are major themes in the film.

The beginning of the film is devoted to ritual and rites of passage. Steve and his girlfriend commit to one another through marriage. Engaging in a different kind of vow, the three friends, Mike, Steve, and Nick, join the army and volunteer for service in Vietnam. The wedding sequence filmed at a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, is a major cinematic achievement in itself, a film-within-a-film that lends a grounded authenticity to Cimino’s story, evoking a sense of community and deeply significant ritual.

Three events at the wedding and reception foreshadow what is to come. Steve and his bride drink from a dual goblet and drops of red wine, like drops of blood, spill onto the bride’s gown, an unlucky sign. Nick asks Linda if she will marry him once he returns from Vietnam. And Mike and his friends offer a toast to a Green Beret who wanders into the VFW hall. The veteran, when he hears mention of the war, responds with “F—k it,” which confuses and angers Mike.

The wedding sequence and reception tell us more about the characters and their community. The people express a sincere, even naïve, patriotism: a banner at the reception reads, “Serving God and Country Proudly.” The sentiment expressed in that simple banner, and embodied in a circle of friends, appears again at the end of the film in a sequence in Vietnam, where Nick is asked about the origins of his family name, and he answers, “American.” The people at Steve’s wedding are properly solemn, then celebrate with exuberance during the reception. Their lives are marked by ceremonies and rites: a wedding, a homecoming, and a funeral are the bases for key scenes in the film.

Sexual propriety is a subtheme in The Deer Hunter. Mike and Nick love the same young woman, Linda, but Mike is restrained, even shy with her, and finds it hard even to kiss her. Steve, the groom, tells Nick that he has never slept with a woman, though it is clear that his bride, Angela, is pregnant. Steve loves her and is willing to be the child’s father and Angela’s husband. Nick reassures Steve that it’s alright and tells his friend not to worry about it. Later, when Nick fails to return from Vietnam, Mike is slow, even reluctant, to make love to Linda, and Nick, in a scene set in Saigon, refuses the services of a prostitute in a room where her baby is present.

There is a code in the world of The Deer Hunter’s characters, a code understood by the introspective Nick, and strictly lived by Mike. The deer hunt, a yearly ritual for the male friends, has special significance following Steve’s wedding, as Nick, Steve, and Mike prepare to leave their community and fight in a war distant from their home and their experience. Joined by John, Axel, and Stan, Mike and Nick drive into the mountains for the hunt. John, Axel, and Stan do not share the deep solemnity of Mike, nor do they acknowledge the hunt as a ritual. They drink, curse, fire their weapons wildly, and Stan, tellingly, carries a revolver like those used in the wrenching Russian roulette scenes in the latter half of the film. Stan, wielding what he believes to be an unloaded pistol, nearly kills Axel at one point, provoking Mike’s rage, as does Stan’s and Axel’s lack of proper reverence and preparation for the hunt (Stan has forgotten his boots and Mike will not allow him to wear his extra pair).

Nick adopts a more indulgent attitude toward his friends, and admonishes Mike for being a “control freak.” Mike is focused on setting up the hunt’s outcome as “a sure thing,” while Nick tells him there is no such thing—time and chance happeneth to them all, as it is written in Ecclesiastes. Nick, as we discover in an early scene in which he makes a wager with Mike and bets on a football game, is something of a gambler. In the film he represents risk, chaos, and spontaneity as opposed to Mike’s control and order. Nick lives in the moment, while Mike calculates odds and plans his moves.

The film’s first beautifully filmed hunting sequence is designed to establish the poetic, mythic truth within the film. Mike climbs to a craggy mountaintop above the clouds, stalking a magnificent buck whose wide antlers signify the power and majesty of the natural world. When Mike enters the mountains, he also enters a higher state of consciousness and awareness, as he and the great buck are joined in a mystic ritual as old as the world.

Cimino creates a bit of heightened reality here, as an elk stands in for a deer in this scene, and the Cascades of Washington state take the place of the Allegheny Mountains. This again establishes that the film’s concern is to convey poetic, mythic truth, and the deer hunt takes place in a symbolic realm. Mike tells his friends that taking a buck with one shot is the only way—another expression of his “sure thing” philosophy. Mike will emerge as the film’s surviving mythic hero, but his “one shot” rule will be upset by the tragic events to follow, gaining new significance in the unnerving Russian roulette scenes. During a subsequent hunt, Mike lines up a perfect shot on a great buck, but purposely fires over its head, refusing to kill it.

It is clear that only Mike and Nick understand its deeper significance of what is happening during the hunt. Mike tells Nick that he is the only one of the group who can hunt with him. Mike is most worthy of wielding Man’s power of life and death, as embodied in his rifle. Knowing good and evil, granting life and dispensing death are Man’s sacred powers, powers that must be handled with care and reverence. Mike stalks deer only he is worthy to bring down or reprieve.

Indeed, the film is a series of rituals acted and re-enacted—the characters play out the roles life has assigned them. Playing Russian roulette is another life-and-death trap the characters, particularly Nick, find themselves in as they descend into the underworld of war. The concept of this deadly “game” is itself mirrored by the geopolitical background of the Cold War jockeying between America and Soviet Russia that brings Mike and his friends to Vietnam, and which could end in nuclear conflagration at any moment. This subtext is reflected in the Slavic origins of the characters, though the film is not primarily a political statement.

The everyday reality of warfare is a kind of Russian roulette of its own—a narrative in which each of the combatants may or may not be killed at any time. War is the misuse of Man’s awesome powers. There are no sure things in the unknown landscape outside the life the characters have known up until the war: Before they depart for Vietnam, Nick asks Mike not to leave him behind. Mike makes that promise, setting up the The Deer Hunter’s characters and the audience for the harrowing war and Russian roulette sequences to come.

In Vietnam, Mike, Nick, and Steve are captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors bet on the outcome. Steve cracks under the pressure and averts the pistol barrel, firing a shot over his head, and the guards angrily throw him into a bamboo cage in the river, where Steve can barely keep his head above water, and rats swarm around him. Mike persuades Nick, who is drifting in and out of consciousness, that they must convince the guards to place three bullets in the revolver. Mike then uses the overloaded pistol to fire on the Viet Cong, distracting them while Nick grabs a guard’s weapon. The two men shoot their way out, bringing Steve with them. Nick is retrieved by an American helicopter, but Mike and Steve fail to hang onto the chopper, with Steve breaking his legs in the fall. Mike saves Steve by carrying him out of the jungle on his back, and they are eventually picked up by a South Vietnamese truck convoy.

The three friends are separated. Nick survives, but remains in Saigon to play the game as organized by Julien, a Frenchman, and Vietnamese gamblers. Shattered psychologically, he is unable to escape the underworld he has entered into, and feels alive only by cheating death in the game. Back at home, Steve, who has lost both legs and the use of one of his arms, refuses to leave a VA hospital, telling Mike he no longer fits into normal life. Steve shows Mike a stack of cash, money he receives every month, and Mike realizes that it is money sent by Nick, still alive in Saigon, which he has won playing the game. Mike is again called to fulfill the role of hero and to save his friends. He first forces Steve to shake off his malaise and return to his wife, and has unwittingly embarked on a quest to fulfill his promise to not leave Nick behind.

During the men’s absence, Linda has moved into Mike and Nick’s trailer to escape her violent, alcoholic father, confirming her bond to both men. Upon his return, slowly, reluctantly, an emotionally distant Mike finally accepts Linda’s love and rejoins his community. Linda tells Mike that Nick has never written or called, but the audience knows that Nick has tried to phone her from a Saigon hospital but has been unable to get through.

Mike is the only one of the friends who has visited the underworld represented by Vietnam and emerged from that Hell wiser—not unbent, but psychologically intact. Yet the underworld trial has been a near thing for Mike as well—in an earlier scene, prior to Mike’s leaving for home, we see him in Saigon as a spectator to the game. Mike, too, finds it difficult to break the hypnotic spell of the life and death game. Nick is completely enthralled. He wanders into a contest and, grabbing the revolver, places the barrel against his forehead and pulls the trigger—there’s no round in the chamber that time, and he survives the game he has interfered with. Mike tries to get to Nick, pushing through the crowd, but cannot reach him before he is driven away by Julien.

True to his code and in keeping with his promise, Mike returns to Vietnam as Saigon is about to fall, searching for Nick, the lost friend and missing brother who must be returned home to complete Mike’s restorative quest.

Mike tracks down Julien and tells him, “I want a game,” handing over all the money he has, in a bid to find Nick and convince him to leave the underworld and come home to Clairton. In the film’s most terrifying sequence, Mike and Nick sit down to play, gamblers crowding around them, placing bets, wagering on life and death. Nick, who now bears the needle track marks of drug addiction on his arms, seems not to recognize his friend. Mike pleads with Nick to give up the game and come home, but Nick survives the first round. Mike lifts the revolver to his temple (“Is this what you want?”), tells Nick he loves him, and pulls the trigger, but the hammer clicks on an empty chamber. Mike implores Nick not to play, reminding him of the trees in the mountains where they used to hunt, but Nick picks up the revolver for a final time and says, “One shot,” before the hammer comes down on a full chamber and the tragic game ends.

Mike brings Nick’s body home and the friends find closure at Nick’s funeral. Mike, the mythic deer hunter, and his friend Nick, a casualty of the underworld, are forever bound up together, reflecting an elemental unity of opposites. Though he failed to save Nick, Mike has restored his community. It is wounded, but the friends are back together and Nick’s tragedy has ended and he has returned home.

In a moving closing sequence, the friends gather at John’s bar for a meal following Nick’s funeral. John, at work in the kitchen, holds back his emotions as he begins singing “God Bless America,” and the friends gathered at a table at Welsh’s bar join in. Steve and Angela are there, and Axel and Stan, and Mike is with Linda and they sing a song meant to reflect the powerful, unarticulated feelings they have for each other and their community. Their circle, while damaged, has survived. Like all the bonds that really matter in our lives, the ties that bind us in friendship and community are beyond rationality, beyond simple explanation. The Deer Hunter profoundly shows us what we can rely on to survive and carry on in a world where there are no sure things.