The Last Theme You’d Expect for This Movie


Robert De Niro, The Deer Hunter

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 26 Oct 2015.]

It’s an unlikely choice of music for this movie, but WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at how The Deer Hunter theme came into existence, and why it still haunts us almost 40 years later.

The violence in this Vietnam War film is noteworthy even among war films, and is controversial for a depiction of something no one has said they have ever witnessed: a scene where North Vietnamese soldiers force prisoners to play Russian roulette.

But traversing the worlds from a hard-scrabble Pennsylvania town and its surrounding mountains to the jungles and urban warrens of Southeast Asia, The Deer Hunter is, to many, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Its theme music, however, is about the last thing you’d expect.

English film composer Stanley Myers scored The Walking Stick in 1970, and guitarist John Williams convinced him to work up one bit of it for him. That tune, called Cavatina, became, in 1978, The Deer Hunter theme.

It is as piercing now as it was in the years following the war. Set against type, set against the struggle of brutality, incomprehension, loss, and inklings of love, it is a bittersweet plea of longing. It is also, somehow, comforting.

Stanley Myers wrote music for more than 70 films. His theme to The Deer Hunter is an astonishing moment of cinematic brilliance.





6 thoughts on “The Last Theme You’d Expect for This Movie

  1. Barb

    It is a horribly violent film one would like to forget it reminds us of inhumanity to man and to glorify it is lacking the sensitivity to all those we lost and more tragic is to put it to music
    I thought u Kile loved your music to escape and bring thereby from sound. My bad

    1. Kile Smith Post author

      Hi Barb,
      It is indeed a violent film, but it does not glorify violence or inhumanity. I believe it honors those who died, the honor deeper because of the reality of the inhumanity. This theme music is a big part of that. I don’t look to music for escape, but to help me confront that which needs to be confronted. That’s my take on it, anyway. Thanks for writing,

    1. Kile Smith Post author

      Ah, okay! A Totentanz is a dance of the dead ones; perhaps you’ve seen pictures of skeletons holding hands in a line and dancing? Many old cultures have this: German, Spanish. It signifies that we are all going to end up together, in death, so it actually is both arresting and comforting at the same time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s