1978’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more polarizing movies to come out during the 1970’s. It was the first movie with the deeply controversial subject of the Vietnam War to both become a critical and commercial success. However, there were several people who expressed dissent ranging from its portrayal of the Vietnam War to the controversial involvement of Russian roulette to the singing of “God Bless America.” I remember not being too impressed with the film the first time I viewed it. I felt it was too long and violent. Years later, I am singing a different tune. It’s a difficult film to sit through because of its violence and the effects of PTSD (post-trauma syndrome). But it is a highly engaging and effective film and I regard it as one of the more influential American movies of the 1970’s. Not the best, but the most influential because there will be more successful films tackling the Vietnam War on the horizon.
You can call this movie a symphony of some sort. I sort this film into three major segments. The first segment is the longest because of its lengthy and effective characterization. We meet three Pennsylvania factory workers: Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken). They enlisted in the army to serve in Vietnam. Steven decides to marry before going off to war and this wedding also serves as the farewell party. This section is eerily reminiscent of the opening act of The Godfather. There is lots of partying and dancing. And we essentially get to know these characters. These men are hard workers who get drunk at the party because they deserve a night for themselves. After the party, the trio of friends along with another friend Stan (John Cazale) go into the mountains to hunt for deer for one last trip. Hence the title of the movie. I found this section to be incredibly effective in character-building. Director Michael Cimino took his time with his part because it was important to understand these men before they go into the horrors of war.
The second movement of our symphony is the actual war. Just like that with a loud noise, the film instantly changes its tone. From the foggy mountains of Pennsylvania to the tropical war zone of Vietnam we go. In one of the most terrifying sequences ever made, the three men are taken prisoner and are forced to play Russian roulette while their captors are betting who will win and who will die. Just seeing the men’s faces as they are waiting their turn in the rat-infested cages are undeniably scary. One of the film’s controversies is that roulette was not actually played in Vietnam. According to Cimino, he read articles saying they did play roulette although any of this has not been confirmed. But it’s one hell of a way to add tension to the movie. You can also take this as a symbol for the war overall. Roger Ebert puts it perfectly in his review, “Anything you can believe about the game, about it’s deliberately random violence, about how it touches the sanity of men forced to play it, will apply it to the war as a whole.” Essentially, this violence stands for the war itself and what these men face. Amongst the themes shown here is how these men react in times of pressure or peril.
Now our final act of the symphony is what happens after the horrors of the prison camp. Michael becomes a prominent character here as he returns home and is welcomed as a hero by his townsfolk and his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). But Michael does not feel like a hero. Steven is in the hospital after losing his legs and Nick is somewhere in Vietnam still. Michael eventually goes back to find Nick who happened to take his roulette experiences to heart by playing this game professionally. This section is incredibly sad and moving as here we see what exactly war can do to strong-willed men. It was horrible to watch this transformation onscreen. To see these characters we got to laugh with in the first part to seeing them play with death in the final act is sad to see. We also get to see an act of patriotism (or is it?) when the survivors join in a ragged rendition of “God Bless America” in the very end. A tune that I thought fit the movie well, but other people thought differently.
These characters were portrayed strongly by the actors. This movie has a very strong cast, although the only star at the time was Robert De Niro. De Niro instantly became the film’s leader and he played Michael very well. He became a bona fide star after his work in The Godfather: Part Two, and he put that stardom to work here. Christopher Walken had some of the strongest scenes in the movie because of his involvement with the deadly game of Russian roulette. Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses ever to grace our screens, and this was one of her first big roles. We end this paragraph with a sad note. This would be the last movie John Cazale would play because he was suffering from terminal cancer and he died before the film was released. He was very good as Stan, but you can tell in the movie that he was really sick.
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is a incredible movie about the horror of wars and it effective covers themes ranging from PTSD to male bonding and friendship. It was one of the first movies to successfully cover the Vietnam War, although I’d say this film may not be the most accurate regarding the actual war. I do commend its effort on conveying the themes of general war though. This film was nominated for nine Oscars and it won five of them including Best Picture. Walken took home the statue for his amazing and tense performance as Nick. The film may be controversial and it may be hard to watch, but it’s one you’ll remember forever. I feel bad for Michael Cimino though. He directed an incredible film, but his next film Heaven’s Gate would end his career because it was a disastrous bomb. But at least he has The Deer Hunter.
My Grade: A-