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Decades Ago, ‘The Deer Hunter’ Taught Us That ‘God Bless America’ Means Nothing

Today’s pathetic public singalong by House Democrats in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade evoked memories of the 1978 Best Picture-winner, which illustrated the hollowness of patriotic anthems at times of national crisis

What happened today wasn’t a surprise. In early May, a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court signaled that Roe v. Wade was about to be overturned, giving the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats a heads up to prepare their response to the inevitable. And so, just a few hours after the Court’s decision, a handful of House Democrats decided to take action… by singing a song.

Of course, these House Democrats weren’t actually commenting on the Court ruling at all: They were commemorating the recent passing of significant gun-control legislation. But the gesture felt spectacularly ill-timed, with the optics proving disastrous. When many Americans were angry and despairing over the implications of Roe v. Wade’s demise, Democrats were singing “God Bless America,” celebrating one victory while seeming oblivious to a catastrophic defeat for women’s rights that had just occurred. It only amplified what is ultimately a bit hollow about “God Bless America,” drawing unfavorable comparisons to a certain film that also features Americans breaking into that song during a moment of national crisis.

Written a little over a century ago and then revised in the buildup to World War II, “God Bless America” isn’t a salute to the country’s military might, like “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a prayer and a hope — a wish that the U.S. endures. It’s a love song that’s tinged with a bit of nervousness. We’re asking God to keep her safe.

God bless America, land that I love 
Stand beside her and guide her 
Through the night with a light from above 
From the mountains to the prairies 
To the oceans white with foam 
God bless America, my home sweet home 
God bless America, my home sweet home 

“God Bless America” has been featured in plenty of films, but depending on your temperament, probably its most famous usage was in The Deer Hunter, the 1978 Best Picture-winning drama about a group of working-class Pennsylvania men who go off to Vietnam to serve their country, returning as shells of themselves — if they even come back at all. Released the same year as Coming Home, which was also about soldiers’ experience in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter represented Hollywood’s first overt grappling with that unpopular conflict that fiercely divided the nation, with later films such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon continuing to explore the war’s tragedy and psychic toll. 

The Deer Hunter — which starred Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) — isn’t perfect, with critics complaining then and now about director Michael Cimino’s simplistic, demonizing portrayal of the Vietnamese characters our heroes encounter over there. Still, the film is an affecting, deeply compassionate look at ordinary Americans who sacrificed for a cause they believed in, only to later feel betrayed by their leaders. The story culminates with De Niro’s Mike, the rugged leader of this group of friends, returning to Vietnam to track down his pal Nick (Walken), who’s gone missing. In case you haven’t seen The Deer Hunter, I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but let’s just say that it ends up not being a happy reunion: War can do terrible things to people. 

Which brings us to The Deer Hunter’s finale. Mike gathers with some of his longtime buddies — the men and women he grew up with in this small town — at a bar to say goodbye to the friends they lost in the war. It’s a somber moment meant to serve as a juxtaposition to the film’s opening, which took place during a wedding. Two events that bring together loved ones — one happy, one very sad.

In the midst of their grief and numbness, no one knows what to say. Then, their bartender friend John (George Dzundza), while cleaning up the place, starts absentmindedly humming “God Bless America.” It doesn’t seem intentional — it’s just a song that was in his head — but he keeps humming. Soon, the gathered mourners begin singing the words. Clearly, this is a song they all know by heart. Most Americans do.

What’s so moving about that moment is that you can’t easily decipher how you’re supposed to feel. The characters — the average, ordinary Americans the media loves to champion (and patronize) — aren’t singing “God Bless America” as satire. But you can feel the pain in the way they perform the song. They’ve memorized the words, but now they seem to be really listening to them, thinking about their meaning in a way we never do when we’re mindlessly parroting the lyrics to patriotic songs. It’s a beautifully subtle scene, with the actors conveying these people’s sadness and resignation. They want God to bless America, but they’re starting to have mixed feelings about this country. And singing a song isn’t going to be enough to make that bitter realization go away.

The Deer Hunter ends on that note, reflecting on how Americans can love their country and then feel abandoned by it. Mike and his pals sing the song because they don’t have the power to do anything else. They can’t stop the war. They’re just regular folks.

People online today who saw the House Democrats sing “God Bless America” and then thought of The Deer Hunter were probably even more incensed than the general public. These Congresspeople were honoring the memory of those killed by gun violence, but to have the public gesture occur so soon after the Supreme Court’s decision only made them seem powerless, unable to keep up with the waves of shock and cruelty that keep assaulting this country. It was unfortunate timing, but it also felt telling.

The characters in The Deer Hunter sing because they have nothing else, and even that’s barely enough. God can’t save America — those who are supposedly representing us need to. Or maybe, today’s public singalong made us realize we’re just like Mike and his friends. Our leaders can’t do much to help us — all we’ve got is a song we were forced to learn a long time ago.