Sean Sweeney 04/03/2011
The Deer Hunter - a film about three Pennsylvania steel worker buds who go off to fight in Vietnam, and how the war affects them and the people around them - was massively praised on release back in '78. Time has been a mixed bag for the film, though everyone would agree the acting, with Robert De Niro leading a cast of then mostly unknowns, is exceptional; it’s the film’s murky politics and point of view that has been put into question. Much of the reevaluation has arisen with the epic rise and brutal fall that director Michael Cimino went through. But regardless of what the film was trying to convey, what is on screen is a stunning looking piece of filmmaking. Like a great symphony, it is often gentle and quiet, but still emotional and then loud with a horn section of shocking violence, giving the film a massive punch to pack.
The first third of the film’s three-hour running time follows a group of steel workers first preparing for Steven’s (John Savage) Russian Orthodox wedding and then a deer hunting trip as Steven, Michael (De Niro), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are about to be shipped out to Vietnam. They are joined by three other friends played by George Dzundza (Basic Instinct), Chuck Aspegren in his only film role, and the great John Cazale (Fredo of The Godfather and Sal of Dog Day Afternoon in his fifth and final film role before he died). The overly tense Michael also has a little thing for Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), but acting on it would play against his machismo code.
BAM. The next section has the three guys in Vietnam. After killing people with a flamethrower, Mike finds himself a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese riverside hell hole. Inexplicably, he is joined by his two hometown buds where they are forced to play each other (and others) in a deadly game of Russian roulette. After much terror Mike eventually shoots everyone and the trio escapes, but not without a lot of emotional and physical scares. The last third of the film Steven is a paraplegic mess and Nick has gone AWOL, now a Saigon back alley zombie playing Russian roulette. Mike is forced to mend all the wounds that have been inflicted on the friends back home and search for Nick, finally playing him again in one last game of Russian roulette. Eventually Mike and all the friends sit around and sing "God Bless America" in honor of the now dead Nick.
Action writer Cimino was hot off of directing the interesting, oddball Eastwood/Bridges buddy flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He was originally developing a film about Russian roulette and even though it had nothing to do with the Vietnam War, a war that was still taboo in Hollywood, somehow the script morphed into The Deer Hunter. Because it was ahead of its time on the issue and had the classy acting and gussied up beautiful cinematography by the brilliant Vilmos Zsigmond it was mistaken as some kind of antiwar film. It’s actually closer in spirit to a “crazy Vietnam Vet exploitation flick,” which was the one genre that was depicting the war in those days (flicks like Rolling Thunder, Vigilante Force, and even Taxi Driver). It shares a lot of traits with another film from the same year, Midnight Express, both of which exhibit some classic white man xenophobia. Also just on the heels of The Deer Hunter was the Jane Fonda definitely antiwar film Coming Home (the three films would split most of the major Oscars that year). Then in '79 came Apocalypse Now and the Vietnam War film floodgates were officially open.
Regardless of politics the film is utterly watchable and entertaining, the deer hunting scenes are particularly moving. And the POW action scene is gripping and unforgettable. And though De Niro, Walken, and Savage all seem a little too old to be going off to ‘Nam (they look more appropriate as WWII recruits) their work is impeccable. Of course De Niro continued to be the “Great De Niro” for another ten years or so before he got lazy and became a paycheck collector. Walken, after some great performances, would eventually become a Saturday Night Live character. And Streep would follow The Deer Hunter with Kramer Vs Kramer and the legend was born.
With Cimino an even bigger legend was born. He would follow The Deer Hunter with an even longer epic, the studio busting Heaven’s Gate, a much-derided indulgence. Though it’s again beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, its humongous over budget became the measuring stick for a flop. Recent years have seen some revisionist theory; some now consider Heaven’s Gate a lost masterpiece (though most will still find it unwatchable). Cimino would mire in B action dramas before vanishing into a Vanity Fair reported weirdness. Like Heaven’s Gate there has been much reconsideration of The Deer Hunter, even if it’s not as great as it was originally deemed, it’s still a mesmerizing experience and more than worth watching, even for a second or third time.
The Deer Hunter won five Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars: Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay.
Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino) and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), this critically-acclaimed, extraordinarily powerful film tracks a group of steelworker pals from a Pennsylvania blast furnace to the cool hunting grounds of the Alleghenies to the lethal cauldron of Vietnam. Robert De Niro gives an outstanding performance as Michael, the natural leader of the group. The Deer Hunter is a searing drama of friendship and courage-and what happens to these qualities under hardship. It is a shattering emotional experience you will never forget.
- Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, John Savage
- Format: Color, Dolby, DVD, NTSC, Widescreen
- Language: English, French, Spanish
- Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: R
- Label: Universal Studios
- Release Date: 03/31/1998
- Run Time: 183 minutes
- Catalogue #: 20177
- Production Notes
- Talent Bios
- Film Highlights