The Deer Hunter
US (1978) Dir. Michael Cimino
The classic film being struck off the “Overdue First Time” watch list is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. One of two epic films about Vietnam released at the end of the 1970’s – Coppola’s bombastic Apocalypse Now being the other – The Deer Hunter won Best Picture at the Oscars while Coppola’s work lost out to Kramer vs. Kramer.
Unlike Apocalypse Now which focused mostly on the actual conflict, The Deer Hunter is more of a character driven tale looking at the emotional and mental damage suffered by three friends – Mike Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) – as a result of their military service in Vietnam.
It opens in late 1967 in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania, where the three steel workers are given a big send off by their friends at the wedding of Steve to Angela (Rutanya Alda), before the lads spend a final trip hunting deer with friends Axel (Chuck Aspegren), Stan (John Cazale) and John (George Dzundza). Nick proposes his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep) but Mike has feelings for her too.
Mike becomes a staff sergeant in the Special Forces with Nick and Steve serving under him, but the group is separated after a daring escape from a prison camp. Mike returns to the US a few years later, with Nick still believed to be missing in Vietnam and Steve, having returned home before Mike, now residing at a war veterans hospital, having lost both his legs and half his body paralyzed.
A glib synopsis but to be fair, pretty much the gist of a story that is fleshed out to three hours, sounding like a bum numbing experience but after the bloated and uneventful first hour, the time flies by. The origin of this film is an unproduced screenplay The Man Who Came to Play by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker, which director Michael Cimino and screenwriter Deric Washburn eventually expanded into The Deer Hunter.
Whilst it may be about Vietnam and the horrors of war, there is actually little in the way of battle sequences, limited mostly to a few quick bursts of bullet-ridden carnage. However, the horrifyingly tense Russian Roulette scenes prove more violence than any explosive action. Questions were raised about the veracity of this happening in Vietnam but contextually, it works as a symbol of the life and death struggle faced by soldiers.
Not to mention it becomes a subsequent key plot point that sets out the tragic trajectory of Nick once his tour of duty ends, so to quibble over accuracy in this instance is rather spurious given the endgame it achieves in the story. As it stand, the games of Russian Roulette have become synonymous with this film, earning such a level of renown they have been copied and lampooned along with other great Hollywood movie moments.
Some of you reading this might roll your eyes at the earlier comment about the first hour, which has proven a contentious issue among film fans. Anyone coming into this film based on its “classic” status will be checking their watches wondering when the action starts as Vietnam is merely an occasional reference at this point.
It might be a long ponderous stretch of a quotidian existence but it is about establishing the characters – all of them, not just the three principals – and making the point that they are real people, not the typical muscular kick-ass heroes preferred in Hollywood military films.
Yet, Mike, the stoic de facto leader of the group who took his deer hunting very seriously as a noble pursuit becomes a bit of an action man on duty, perhaps the daily onslaught of violence and killing amplifying his hunting desires and extending his ability to kill to humans. Steve meanwhile remains the gentle one of the group, his experiences proving traumatic before their duty is even over for which Mike has to compensate.
As alluded to earlier, Nick undergoes the biggest change but not for the better. He and Mike are forced to face each other in a game of Russian Roulette by their Vietnamese captors, who bet on the outcome, and while Mike was able to hold his nerve, Nick was less fortunate. This would have a profound effect on him but what follows arguably takes him into places for more inhumane.
Thailand and its inhabitants substitute for Vietnam but you’d never know the difference, a rare occasion we can forgive Hollywood for its ignorant “All Asians look alike” mindset. Interestingly, Cimino doesn’t use this as an excuse to present a mini travelogue as other directors have, preferring to let the muggy atmosphere of night time Bangkok (as Saigon) or the unforgiving waters of the River Kwai speak for themselves.
In the US, Ohio doubled for Pennsylvania, where the sense of local community among the tight knit neighbourhood resonate with genuine warmth, buttressed by the bucolic spirit of the mountain range and the grime of the steel works. The colour palette is slightly subdued to create a sobering atmosphere, perhaps wisely given the upheaval that is about to strike when two of the three principals return home.
Judging the performances is tough as everyone brings something different to benefit the film overall. DeNiro channels both Travis Bickle and Michael Corleone in essaying both sides of Mike’s personality, his commanding presence offset by Christopher Walken’s gamine fragility and John Savage’s quiet dignity. Even a pre-fame Meryl Streep is quite watchable as the token female love interest.
At the risk of being blasphemous, I can see why The Deer Hunter is three hours long but don’t agree it needed to be. That said, even a heavily condensed first hour still wouldn’t prepare us for the emotional draining the rest of the film brings. There is a lot to praise about this film but a lot to get through too, most of it thankfully sublime.