Napalm, Ambushes and Russian Roulette: Why the Pentagon Rejected The Deer Hunter

Published September 26th 2019 | Tags: , , , , , ,

The epic war drama The Deer Hunter won five Oscars, despite the central conceit and metaphor of the film being inaccurate.  This conceit – that the Viet Cong forced American prisoners of war to play Russian Roulette – is the main reason the film was rejected for DOD support, along with scenes that made the US Army look incompetent or needlessly cruel.

While the film regularly appears in compendiums of the best movies of all time, I found it quite dull and depressing, one of those films that men born in the middle of the 20th century think is great because it presents an idealised masculinity that never truly existed.  On the long list of massively overrated Robert De Niro films it is up there with Taxi Driver and The Good Shepherd.

Nonetheless, it won numerous awards, was beloved by many critics and applauded by audiences.

Less love was forthcoming from the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison office, who rejected the film-makers requests for military support.  In the spring of 1977 the producers approached the DOD but were the Army quickly concluded that the film provided no benefit to them, and objected to the ‘technical inaccuracies’ in the script.  This included the Russian roulette sequence, the Army being ambushed in the same spot twice in a row, the napalming of a village and a scene where a lone tank retreats during the fall of Saigon.

While writer/director Michael Cimino claimed to have seen newspaper reports confirming the use of Russian roulette as a VC torture method, he has never presented any such evidence, so in all likelihood if it was used, this only happened very rarely.  Nonetheless it is a powerful metaphor, not a literal depiction of real events, so it seems the Army may have (not for the first or last time) taken it too literally.  Given that this is the same period in which Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was rejected for being too mocking of the White House, it seems there were a significant number of snowflakes in the entertainment liaison offices at this time.

Documents

DOD Film Office File on The Deer Hunter

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