I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.
The Deer Hunter is directed and co-written by Michael Cimino and stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, along with John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is considered by many to be the pinnacle American film about the Vietnam War. With its breathtaking cinematography and meditative outlook on how war can drive man to pursue his own worst instincts, it's certainly a magnificent analysis of the darkness of human nature and of what was an odious period of American history (and world history, if we want to be honest with ourselves). With such a powerful film being released right at the end of the 1970's, it's easy to forget that a similarly powerful Vietnam War film came out the year before, winning the Oscar for Best Picture no less: Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. I do not wish to spend the majority of this review comparing and contrasting The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, but it's next to near impossible to do at least a little bit of comparing and contrasting, especially when the two films were released less than a calendar year apart. I am not here to judge which of the two is the better film, but what I will comment on is that, from what I've seen, The Deer Hunter doesn't come up nearly enough in conversations about the greatest Vietnam War film. Everyone just assumes Apocalypse Now has a monopoly on the Vietnam War movie market, that it's not worth the time or effort to try and suggest otherwise.
Perhaps in terms of pure analysis, Apocalypse Now has The Deer Hunter beat, but when comparing based on controversy and emotional weight, I think The Deer Hunter takes the cake. The Deer Hunter is a marathon of a film: three hours in run time and dishing out several emotional gut-punches along the way, which is why I do not recommend it for the faint of heart. It's not without flaws though: the three hour run time serves to hinder the film more than it does to enhance it, and the movie is largely told from one character's perspective. Nonetheless, the movie cuts deep with its depiction of the Vietnam War's brutality and the effect that brutality had on the men involved. We could spend this entire review talking about The Deer Hunter's production history, because around the mid 1970's when the film was being planned, the Vietnam War was still heavily frowned-upon by major Hollywood studios. The English company EMI helped finance the film, and Universal didn't jump on board to get the movie produced until much much later. On top of trying to finance and produce a controversial film about a war America was still hot and bothered about, there were plenty of stories that came out painting Michael Cimino as something of a control freak during production. That shouldn't be much of a surprise if you know at least a little bit about Michael Cimino; the man was criticized his whole career for being an egotistical S.O.B who took on an authoritarian approach to directing. Is it surprising or not surprising at all that nothing notable came from Cimino's career following The Deer Hunter? All his directorial features after The Deer Hunter were box office bombs, and not one of them is a film I envision myself ever reviewing on this blog.
So anyway, The Deer Hunter tells the story of three men from a small, steel-working town in Clairton, Pennsylvania: Mike Vronvsky (De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Walken), and Steven Pushkov (John Savage). The three men are preparing to enter into military service and assist in the Vietnam War, but before that, they enjoy their free time hunting deer up in the mountains and hanging out at a local bar. Steven marries his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Aida), and the town holds a giant wedding reception to celebrate Steven and Angela, and to wish Mike, Steven, and Nick farewell before they leave. Fast forward to Vietnam, and Mike, Nick, and Steven find themselves in a POW camp, where they are forced to play Russian roulette.
This is a difficult plot to write a synopsis for, mainly because I'm not sure what can be categorized as a "spoiler". The Deer Hunter's story has a three act structure: the first act is the opening in Pennsylvania, where Mike, Nick, and Steven enjoy the company of their family and friends. The second is the sequence in Vietnam, when Mike, Nick , and Steven are held prisoner. The third act is the aftermath, particularly watching Mike back home, as he grows closer to Nick's girlfriend Linda (Streep) while trying to reconnect with those he's been separate from for so long. Each act makes up about an hour of the film, designed to first inspire hope and confidence and then crush said hope and confidence into tiny piles of dust. The last act is supposed to be like a recovery period, until Cimino decides to throw you back into the fire at the very end, and when the end credits finally roll, you are so beaten and broken that you never want to hear the words 'deer hunter' ever again.
- There was criticism aplenty for the film's extended Russian roulette scene, most of which revolved around the fact that there were no documented cases of the Vietcong forcing prisoners to play Russian roulette during the Vietnam War. Controversy aside, the Russian roulette scene is where The Deer Hunter is at its best, because it's the ultimate metaphor for what the film is trying to say about the Vietnam War.
Robert De Niro holding a gun to his head during the controversial scene.
The Deer Hunter wants to tell us that the stakes and the outcomes of war are similar to those of Russian roulette: death is right in front of you, and you'll only survive if you're lucky enough. The player holding the gun to their head represents the soldiers fighting on the battlefield. The other player who just sits and watches represents those of us waiting and praying back home. One of two things happens: either the soldier gets a loaded chamber and dies, or he miraculously survives, only now he's traumatized from having such a near-death experience. Either way, someone loses. It's unfair, makes no sense, and ends badly for everyone, but that's exactly what the Vietnam War was. For as much flack we could give Cimino for being a grade-A asshole, there's no denying that the direction for this sequence is top-notch. Everything is raised to a fever pitch: the Vietcong verbally and physically abusing the players and the players ranging across a series of extreme emotions like red-hot anger and panic-inducing fear. Cimino primarily relies on shots that are relatively close-up, to evoke the sense that we are also at the table participating in the game. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography takes on a murkier, water-like display that achieves the two-part goal of capturing the scene's pure un-pleasantry and to give us the sense that this is a hot, humid jungle that we would rather no spend our time in. It's a scene meant to disturb you and put you out of your comfort zone, and Cimino nailed it.
- The other thing I didn't mention about what enhances the Russian roulette scene so much is the acting, especially from De Niro and Walken. The great acting is over the course of the whole movie, and The Deer Hunter ought to be the prime example as to how and why Christopher Walken is, in all seriousness, a very talented and committed actor. Movie choices over recent years has strongly suggested that Walken has stopped taking his career as seriously, and thus, people are more prone to view him as goofy and unhinged. The Deer Hunter puts Walken's Nick through the wringer, and Walken is magnificent in showing us the impact that the Russian roulette game and overall Vietnam War experience is having over Nick. This is most evident in a scene in a military hospital, where a man walks up to Nick and asks him some general questions. Nick can't find the words to respond, instead breaking down into tears. Later on, Nick grows completely numb to his surroundings, and to see what Walken put himself through physically to achieve Nick's ghostly look is something that will stick with you for a long time. Through his words, facial expressions, and general physical acting, Walken better than anyone sells the heartbreaking tragedy that Cimino wants the film to portray.
- No matter how much I praise the film for how powerful it is with its depiction of the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter suffers from its three-hour length, specifically in that the film takes way too long to get started. The wedding reception in the film's first hour is an unreasonably long sequence that is comprised of too much dancing and celebrating and not anywhere near enough story telling that at least gives you impression that the movie is moving forward. To be fair, this scene is important, because it gives us valuable insight of these characters' personal lives and how they feel towards each other. The problem is in that Cimino doesn't know how to prioritize quality over quantity. The major beats of the wedding reception, such as showing us the love triangle between Mike, Nick, and Linda, and foreshadowing that Steven and Angela's marriage is not going to end well, could all be done by focusing more shots on these specific characters laughing and dancing, while doing away with other moments of characters just goofing around. and making small talk. Why focus time and energy on characters that we know aren't going to have much bearings on the plot in the long run? Once the movie gets to Vietnam though, it picks up considerably and never lets up.
- The other issue with The Deer Hunter is its one-sided point of view: the Vietcong are portrayed as sadistic, money-grubbing racists who don't have a shred of humanity in their bodies. Multiple bits of trivia have suggested that Cimino had a difficult time finding Vietnamese actors who were willing and able to act in the film's Russian roulette-Vietnam scene. It is also said that many of the slaps during the Russian roulette game were real, and the reactions by De Niro and Walken were genuine. What makes the portrayal of the Vietcong so problematic is that it turns The Deer Hunter into an unnecessarily political and borderline offensive film, despite Cimino's claims that The Deer Hunter is not political, literal, or anything else like that. The one-sided point of view makes the film extremely pro-American, and suggests it has little to no regard to accounting for the general attitude that Vietnam and America had toward the war. America is painted like it's a pure victim without fault, and while it may be unintentional (according to Cimino), it's still a lingering effect that weakens the film's overall impact.
Overall though, The Deer Hunter is extremely ambitious and does not hold back in its quest to pursue its ultimate goal: show us the the brutality of the Vietnam War in all its hellacious fury and thoroughly crush our spirits while doing so. The inflated three hour length and the questionable depiction of the Vietcong prevent the film from achieving true masterpiece status in its execution, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and that's why The Deer Hunter should be right up there with Apocalypse Now as one of the greatest films about the Vietnam War. The Russian roulette game is one of the most memorable scenes you'll ever find in a war film, and the acting, especially from Walken, is the kind of material all aspiring actors can be inspired by. Make no mistakes about it though: this is not a happy film; the ending may very well leave you in a depressed state as you go about the rest of your day. But what happiness is there to be found in war? The Deer Hunter knows what it wants to say about war, and my gosh, does it get the point across. War is hell, and everyone is a little worse for wear because of it.
Recommend? Yes. If you can somehow find three hours on a quiet day, the film is definitely worth watching.
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