The Lemko “Deer Hunter”

Mike Vronsky
Steven Pushkov
Nickanor Chevotarevich

  • Michael Cimino | Robert De Niro | Christopher Walken
  • Meryl Streep | Rutanya Alda
  • George Dzundza | Kenneth Kovach | Fryderyk Chopin

The Carpathians are the main mountains of the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth, stretching from south-east Poland (Lemkivshchyna) through Ukraine to Romania (Moldavia). Most of the inhabitants of the range in the Eastern lands were Orthodox and then Greek Catholic Ruthenians, who also lived on the other side of the mountains in the Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Slovakia and Zakarpattia, Ukraine). In the modern period, this group began to identify with various nations, especially Ukraine. However, some in south-eastern Poland decided to take on their own identity. They often used the regional ethnic ethnonyms ‘Lemkos’ or ‘Rusyns’ in Slovakia and Ukraine. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a large part of this group returned to Orthodox Christianity. Many Lemkos migrated to the US, settling particularly in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the industrial regions neighboring the Appalachian Mountains.

The Greek Catholic Parish Church of the Pretection of the Mother of God in Owczary, Lemkivshchyna, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, Poland, Source: Shutterstock

These American Lemkos and Rusyns became the main protagonists in The Deer Hunter, a 1978 epic war drama that became one of the most highly regarded films in the history of American cinematography. The New York Times called it “a big, awkward, crazily ambitious motion picture that comes as close to being a popular epic as any movie about this country since The Godfather”. The movie was co-written and directed by Michael Cimino (1939-2016) about a trio of Lemko-American friends (Mike Vronsky, Steven Pushkov and Nickanor Chevotarevich). The group work as steelworkers and love to spend their leisure time hunting deer in the mountains. Later, however, their lives are changed forever after fighting in the Vietnam War. The trio is played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, whilst Meryl Streep, Rutanya Alda, and George Dzundza play supporting roles.

George Dzundza is an actor of Polish-Ukrainian background whose parents were from Eastern Galicia. Meanwhile, Rutanya Alda is an ethnic Latvian born in Riga. It is worth remembering that most of Latvia’s territory was for more than 230 years an integral part of the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The story of The Deer Hunter takes place in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a working-class town south of Pittsburgh. Despite this, none of the scenes in the movie were actually filmed there. The movie begins with a wedding and reception scene that has become an iconic part of the history of American cinema. The actual wedding was filmed in St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The wedding reception scene was filmed in Lemko Hall in the same neighborhood. Producers recruited more than 200 extras and a local band for the scene. Besides Lemkos, many other Eastern Slavs played a role in creating the film. Moreover, several tracks of Slavic folk and Orthodox choral music from the movie’s soundtrack were adapted and arranged by Kenneth Kovach, the choirmaster at St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral. Kovach is of Rusyn background. One of the most touching scenes in the movie shows the protagonists sitting in a bar listening to Nocturne, which was composed by Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849). In this scene, George Dzundza plays this piece on the piano. Chopin was a world-renowned Romantic musician who was born in Central Poland but drew huge inspiration from Ukrainian folklore. As Mieczysław Tomaszewski, a prominent Polish musicologist, pointed out: “It can be considered paradoxical: composers born in the Borderlands (Eastern lands) wrote their own music, colored – in a specific and unique way with the folklore among which they grew up – one might say subconsciously. In the case of Chopin, compositions characterized by Ukrainian culture arose because of a conscious desire to capture the character of one of the varieties of music perceived as ‘Polish’ in this broad, ‘Jagiellonian’ meaning”.