Monday, November 21, 2011

Is The Deer Hunter a Remake of The Four Feathers?

Well, is it?

Okay, perhaps that headline’s a bit misleading – I’m not exactly saying that Michael Cimino sat down and chose to remake The Four Feathers when he made The Deer Hunter. Hell, I don't even know if Cimino's seen Zoltan Korda's 1939 masterpiece, now out in a gorgeous new Criterion edition. And God knows there are enough controversies over where Cimino’s film actually came from, or for that matter over whether it’s even any good. And perhaps those who see in The Deer Hunter a kind of fascist imperialistic fantasy (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose famous, eloquent 1979 pan not only trashed Cimino’s movie, but also managed to dismiss Coppola and Scorsese in the same breath, with a half-swipe at Days of Heaven along the way) may not be so surprised to hear that it has some similarities to a film made from a Victorian tale of imperial derring-do.

But the two films benefit from the comparison; for it’s clear that The Four Feathers is a lot more reflective and complicated than its reputation suggests, and that The Deer Hunter is about a lot more than just Vietnam. Personally, I find it hard to think of one film without the other nowadays; and the striking echoes between them reveal important, sometimes subtle, thematic concerns.

The two films do share a number of seemingly random elements. Both feature a group of very close friends who bond at home before they have to go off to war in a distant land.  (It’s four British officers headed to Egypt in The Four Feathers, while The Deer Hunter features three friends who go off to Vietnam, while a couple of others stay behind for what appear to be health reasons.) In both films, a major character is permanently incapacitated (blindness due to sunstroke in The Four Feathers, legs amputated in The Deer Hunter) and has to be saved by the film’s hero. Both films feature something of an interlude back home (partly having to do with the aforementioned injury) before plunging back into the madness of war. Both films show our heroes put in cages and held up for ridicule by an enemy “other.” Both films include a character who essentially goes mute, and a character who seems to “go native.” And both films make a great to-do about blowing one’s brains out: The Deer Hunter quite famously through its controversial (and historically inaccurate) Russian Roulette scenes, and The Four Feathers (rather surprisingly, for the kind of movie it is), through its references to a cowardly soldier who killed himself and through the despair of Ralph Richardson’s nobly suffering character John Durrance, who attempts suicide after discovering that he can no longer see.

All these elements – some major, some not-so-major – have contributed to my weird sense that these two films are somehow cosmically connected. But there’s something deeper here that seems to inform the two works’ notions of manhood.

Interestingly, though one rarely thinks of either in this way, both The Four Feathers and The Deer Hunter are romantic triangles. In The Four Feathers, Harry Faversham (Jon Clements) is engaged to be married to Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez), while his best friend John Durrance admires her from afar. In The Deer Hunter, Nick (Christopher Walken) is engaged to Linda (Meryl Streep), while his best friend Michael (Robert De Niro) admires her from afar.

Both films present their respective love triangles in interestingly understated and touching ways: In Feathers, Ethne’s brother blurts out his sister and Faversham’s impending engagement to his three friends, and we sense the life drain out of the scorned romantic rival Durrance’s eyes before we’ve barely had a chance to meet him. The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, uses a series of glances between Walken, De Niro, and Streep to convey their complicated longings.

The most powerful example of this occurs during the film’s justly celebrated wedding sequence early on. At one point, as she dances with Nick, Linda’s eyes meet Michael’s, watching her. It’s clear that he’s hurting inside. But then, just a little bit later, the tables are reversed: Nick pushes the two of them – his friend and his fiancée -- together into a dance. After Michael makes a few fumbling efforts to dance, he asks Linda if she’d like to go get a beer with him from the bar instead. The two of them walk off together. Nick watches this from nearby, where he’s dancing with another girl (who was, interestingly, making eyes at Michael earlier), and we can pretty much see the bottom drop out of his stomach at the sight of his girl willingly walking off to the next room with his closest friend. He gets it – perhaps because he’s known that the attraction was there all along. It’s the briefest of looks, but watch Walken’s eyes -- the submerged melancholy of this moment will wipe you out.

Both Nick and Faversham are also torn about the prospect of war, and the empty ideals of heroism that inundate the world around them. The Four Feathers is all about Faversham’s supposed “cowardice,” (as represented by the symbolic white feathers his friends send him after he resigns from the military on the eve of battle). Spooked by his military family’s tales of bloodshed on the battlefield since his childhood, Faversham has been living in dread of combat all these years – he’s the sensitive black sheep of a macho, warlike gene pool. A brief speech he gives to the befuddled Ethne justifying his decision to quit the military is full of determined noblesse oblige, but it also genuinely undercuts the supposed patriotism of the film itself:
“The futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure…the ghastly waste of time what we can never have…I believe in our happiness. I belive in the work to be done here, to save an estate that’s near to ruin. To save all those people that were neglected by my family, because they preferred glory in India, glory in China, glory in Africa.”
That’s a far cry from Nick’s brief, painfully inarticulate confession to Michael in The Deer Hunter, wherein he struggles to express his ambivalence about going off to war:
“You really think about Vietnam?”
“Yeah… I guess I think about hunting the deer. But going to Nam…I like the trees. I like the way the trees are in the mountains, all different. The way the trees are. I sound like some asshole, right?”
Nick is grasping at something he can’t quite figure out, but in his own way he’s saying essentially what Faversham is saying – stating the importance of the here and now, of the world he knows, compared to an ominous war in a distant land. (It helps that in both cases we’re watching men who have to abandon their own countries during peacetime to go off and fight a war whose causes aren’t entirely clear to them.) 

Cimino and Walken establish Nick’s apart-ness in other interesting ways – Walken always seems to be a step or two away from his comrades, and he often watches the action with a certain animalistic hesitancy, like he’s waiting to see what happens next. In a remarkable scene later, still during the wedding, Michael, Nick, and Steven see a green beret who has just returned from the war, sitting quietly and menacingly at the bar. Michael tries to toast him, but the man remains silent. Nick jumps in with a bit of uncharacteristic bluster: “I’m the best man,” he says, seemingly talking about the wedding, but then adds, “I hope they send us where the bullets are flying and the fighting’s the worst.” It’s clear though that he doesn’t quite mean it; he then immediately steps back and carefully watches what his friends do and say to the man (who himself memorably responds by repeating the words, “Fuck it.”)

Click here to watch the scene.

In both films, the slowly simmering rivalry between the lead male characters fuels the narrative. Although Faversham is the ostensible “hero” of The Four Feathers, at first Durrance, the man who wasn’t picked by Ethne, seems to be the braver man, a noble officer who refuses to even let his fellow soldiers know that he’s been blinded and continues to try and lead his men. (This leads to some powerful and strange scenes in the film perched between slapstick and tragedy – where Durrance keeps running into things in a seemingly comical manner. Korda and Richardson skillfully play these moments for both yuks and tears: Your heart breaks for the guy, even as you stifle your giggles, which in turn makes it that much more painful.)

On the other hand, Faversham, by going to Egypt disguised as a member of a rare mute Sangali tribe, displays his courage through an act of self-negation: He completely gives himself over to his new identity, even allowing himself to be branded on the forehead. Even later when he’s left alone with the wounded Durrance, whom he saves, he doesn’t announce himself; rather, he secretly hides a card with a white feather attached to it on Durrance’s person. His worth and bravery is more important than friendship.

In The Deer Hunter, the rivalry between Nick and Michael is a lot less pronounced, but it’s still there. When the three friends (Michael, Nick, and Steven) end up as prisoners of the Viet Cong and are forced to endure endless games of Russian Roulette, Michael ends up devising a plan to break out by convincing their captors to put more bullets in the gun. Nick is terrified of the idea but Michael isn’t having any of it. “Side by side! Me and him! Me against him!” he cries to the guards – he wants to face off against Nick, using a gun loaded with three bullets. Thus do the subtextual rivals of the film suddenly, briefly become literal rivals. (It won’t be the last time, of course.) It’s an absurd tactic, but of course it works and soon enough Michael and Nick have blasted their way out of there, with Steven in tow.

Michael and Steven eventually make it back home. In Pennsylvania, with Nick now presumed lost and/or dead, Michael finally strikes up his previously-forbidden relationship with Linda. Similarly, in The Four Feathers, the wounded Durrance becomes engaged to Ethne upon his return to England, as Faversham too is now missing, presumed dead. Like Faversham, however, Nick has remained back in the war zone – albeit in Saigon, where, after quietly convalescing in a hospital, he became drawn into the world of underground Russian Roulette gambling (a fantastical and ridiculous idea for a gambling subculture, but an incredibly compelling one in the context of the film). It’s also worth noting that Faversham and Nick announce themselves through similar, indirect ways: Faversham through the white feather (and bit of sand) he has placed inside a letter on Durrance’s person, and Nick through a series of mysterious, unidentified mailings of cash he’s sent to the wounded Steven. Both men thus secretly let those back home know that they are still alive and, more hauntingly, that something of their identity still remains.

Russian Roulette has become a kind of symbol of Nick’s despair, and his total immersion into this world – his complete subordination of his identity to it – is clearly a result of deep hurt. One could say it’s just a form of PTSD, but within the ecosystem of The Deer Hunter I suspect it’s something more. (This is, after all, more a drama about friendship than a war movie.) What is it? A form of penance -- a Scorsesean attempt at redemption through violence?  If so, redemption for what? For his seeming cowardice during the earlier Russian Roulette scene? For his ambivalence towards the war, and for the violence he’s already committed? Or maybe for a kind of inadequacy in the presence of Michael – who could be argued to have proven, through his bravery, that he is the better man (or “the best man,” to bring things full circle to the encounter with the Green Beret at Steven’s wedding)?

Maybe it’s all these things, and something more – a final act of revenge, both against Michael and against himself. Perhaps Nick’s finalconfrontation with his best friend is both an acknowledgement of romantic defeat and a final act of one-upmanship.

Click here to watch the scene.

Interestingly, The Four Feathers ends with its own act of self-negation, except in this case it’s Durrance ceding his ground.  Though he’s now engaged to Ethne, upon hearing of Faversham’s heroics, Durrance decides to leave – or at least to say he’s leaving. He had just seen a German eye specialist about his blindness, only to learn that his situation is incurable. Nevertheless, he dictates a letter in which he lies to Ethne:
“I've just had some splendid news. I've been to a famous German eye doctor, and my sight can be restored. It means a long treatment in Germany and I leave tomorrow. When I can see again I shall return to the army with the happy memory of all you have done to help me through. Just heard the splendid news of Peter and Willoughby and Harry Faversham. I enclose a little souvenir of a journey through the desert with a dumb Sangali native. If you give him the chance that he deserves you'll find he's not as mute as I thought he was."
It’s a brief letter, from a man who might have been a lover but is now nothing, and Richardson plays it with a curious air of foreboding. Where will Durrance go? He has already admitted he knows Faversham is back, so this isn’t just a cover for a graceful exit. So why lie at all about going away, or at least his reasons for going away? He’s spoken a number of times about “blowing his brains out” – earlier in this very scene, in fact, he notes that he might have done so had he known from the outset that his blindness was incurable. And while it may be a bit of a stretch to say that that is indeed his intention, it’s hard not to think that this letter is more than a brief missive from a man who’s going away for a little while – and Richardson plays it with an air of despair that it’s hard not think this exit is, on some level, a final one. (It’s also worth noting that the person who takes down Durrance’s dictation is Dr. Harraz, a family friend who was also the one to vouchsafe an earlier message from Faversham on the eve of his departure, that if he hadn’t been heard from in a year it would mean he was dead.)

The roles are reversed here in a curious way: In The Deer Hunter, Nick is the hesitant, sensitive one who has to prove his mettle, but he’s also the one who, ultimately, loses out. In The Four Feathers, Faversham is the one who has to prove himself, and it’s the more conventionally brave Durrance who loses out – at the very least, loses out on the girl he never really had. In The Four Feathers, all is set right with the world, and things are, at least in the hero’s universe, back to the way they were. The Deer Hunter’s vision of male bravery is both more romantic and despairing.

Still, I can't shake the fact that both of these “departures” – Durrance’s in The Four Feathers, and Nick’s in The Deer Hunter – are prefaced by brief, almost loving acknowledgements of friendship. Durrance inserts that line about giving Faversham “the chance he deserves.” And Cimino films Nick’s final act almost as if it was one of generosity. Michael, trying to convince Nick to stop the game and come back to America, reminds him of that conversation abut war and home they had a lifetime ago: “Remember all the trees? The different ways of the trees? Remember the mountains?” he asks. Nick smiles a hint of recognition. He remembers… and promptly blows his brains out. By shooting himself, Nick acknowledges that neither of them can ever go back to what they were. He lets Michael have Linda, but also proves, once and for all, his willingness to face death – even more stoic than Michael, who now has so much to live for, could ever hope to be.


  1. I tried to find my copy of WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN and can't. I think Kael likened it, not to FOUR FEATHERS, but some similar stuff....maybe LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER?

  2. I just checked my copy of FOR KEEPS, and you're right. She compares it to the fantasy of macho camaraderie in BENGAL LANCER and locates De Niro's predecessors in Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking frontier tales. I think she's pegged that correctly -- and I think the response to THE DEER HUNTER reveals how the outdated mores of 19th century adventure literature and the like become borderline "fascistic" (or perceived as such) when applied to modern day conflagrations such as Vietnam.

  3. Of all the incidental reviews on Deer Hunter that I've read, yours is the most well-written, clearly articulated article.

    A man once complained to me of the distasteful depictions of Vietnam in The Deer Hunter and how they guilted Michael Cimino into an apology. I thought it a bit unnecessary, but kind of the director if true.

    However, inaccuracies and misrepresentations aside, the Deer Hunter tells a tale as old as time, as evidenced by your article. You NAILED the meaning of Nick's final act, as I have always seen it. While I have little knowledge of the Four Feathers, it sounds as though I would enjoy it.

    Thank you

  4. My father, a historian who specialised in Vietnam, always hated this film. He called it "Imperialist nonsense". I only saw it recently and wished he was around to talk to me about it. The Vietnam War was really misrepresented and miss-sold the the public with films like this.