The Deer Hunter

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Director: Michael Cimino.
Screenplay: Deric Washburn.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, John Savage, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Rutanya Alda, Shirley Stoler, Pierre Segui, Joe Grifasi, Somsak Sengvilai.

You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen

Released in 1978, only three years after the official end of the Vietnam war, Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” seemed as if it may have been too soon for the American psyche. It was a surprising box-office hit but was also one of the most controversial, major theatrical releases about America’s involvement in the war. It went on to receive 9 Academy Award nominations (winning 5 – including Best Picture and Best Director). Despite this, the backlash was pretty vehement. It received criticism from the likes of Jane Fonda and John Wayne – who in his last public appearance had to present it with it’s Best Picture award even though he wasn’t fond of the film. These criticisms came in many forms but for as many critics as it had, there were also a great number who considered it to be another American classic.

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Michael (Robert DeNiro), Stevie (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are among a group of friends who live and work in the steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. They spend their time getting drunk and going deer hunting before they are enlisted in the airborne infantry of Vietnam. What was once a slow-paced and fun-filled life is shoved into the stark reality of warfare and how their experiences change their lives forever.

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Clocking in at just over three hours, “The Deer Hunter” is a film of length. However, it’s one that never overstays it’s welcome as Cimino wisely works within a three act structure – book-ending the war with marriage and death. He may take his time and linger long on shots but it never gets boring. To view it as simply another Vietnam film is to entirely miss the point also. If it is to be viewed in any way, it should be as a commentary on American disillusionment and it’s loss of innocence at this time. It’s intention is not to focus on the war itself but on the aftermath and the impact war can have on the lives of ordinary working people. In fact, the scenes that take place in Vietnam only amount to a very small portion of the film, overall. Ultimately, it’s a character study that’s only heightened by the 50 minute wedding sequence at the beginning of the film. Many grumble about this being too indulgent but it’s integral that we get to know these characters in order to fully understand them. It’s during the wedding reception that they come across a Green Beret who has just finished his Tour of Duty; they buy him a drink and take offence when all he has to tell them about the war is… “Fuck it!“. This perfectly sums up the naΓ―vetΓ© of these young men as they seem to have a romanticised idea of war and have absolutely no idea of what is to become them.

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Following this, a bunch of them go on a deer hunting trip where we again see the dynamic of the group and get to know each of them more personally. Suddenly, we are thrust into the chaos of Vietnam and it’s not before long that the films iconic and controversial Russian roulette scene takes place. This is a scene that has received much criticism in not only being claimed as inaccurate – as there was no evidence to suggest that any such atrocities took place during the conflict – but for being racist in it’s sadistic stereotype of the Viet Cong captors. These criticisms are justifiable to an extent but, personally, I think the critics have taken it far too literally. If viewed as a metaphor for the senselessness of war and the inhumanity of man during wartime struggles then it’s entirety fitting to the films themes and says more about an initiation into manhood. It was literally minutes before this powerful scene that DeNiro’s Michael and Walken’s Nick were discussing how a deer should be killed with “one shot” and now (ironically) they must face a similar fate. This game of chance is the catalyst that changes the dynamic of the three principle characters (the other being John Savage’s Stevie) and further adds to the character development that was so playfully and innocently displayed in the opening wedding sequence or the camaraderie of the deer hunt. It’s purpose is not to be racist but to capture the extreme pressure that soldiers face in conflict. In the film’s final act, some of them return home only to realise that they’re traumatised as they struggle to fit back into society. There have been claims that it doesn’t take an overly pro or anti stance towards the conflict but I struggle to see how. This was one was of the first films to challenge the perspective on Vietnam. The likes of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” were praised for such honesty and I believe this deserves the same credibility.

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The Deer Hunter” is, undoubtedly, epic filmmaking and despite your political interpretation, there’s no denying the power of it’s emotionally devastating narrative. It’s unlikely that Cimino will be able to deliver a work of this magnitude ever again. He tried (and many would say failed) in 1980 with “Heaven’s Gate” (bankrupting United Artists Studios in the process) but his scope and ambition here deserves the utmost respect. So too does the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for his astounding ability to capture both the expansive landscapes of Pennsylvania and the war ravaged mountainous villages of Vietnam. The actors are also very strong and committed throughout. This would be the last performance of the great John Cazale – before his untimely death to cancer – and the first notable one from Meryl Streep, who brings a touching vulnerability to her supporting role. Walken (who won a Supporting Actor Oscar) is a marvel and deservedly made a name for himself in the process. As good as they are, though, it’s DeNiro who anchors the film in a enigmatic display of stoicism. Another deserved Oscar nomination came his way and even though this is a film that many omit from DeNiro’s plethora of magnificent performances throughout the 70’s and 80’s, it happens to be one of his strongest and most unsung. DeNiro apparently described his role as one of the most physical and exhausting that he’s ever done, and it’s easy to see why; the emotional, physical and mental abuse that he seems to be suffering is perfectly and gruellingly displayed onscreen.

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The 1970’s are well known for producing some of the finest experiences in cinema and “The Deer Hunter” can, proudly, consider itself one of them. It’s marvellously structured, harrowingly vivid and so grand and ambitious that it thoroughly deserves it’s epic status. Truly one of the best of it’s decade.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: During some of the Russian Roulette scenes, a live round was put into the gun to heighten the actors’ tension. This was Robert DeNiro’s suggestion. Michael Cimino, however, checked each time to make sure the bullet was not in the chamber before the trigger was pulled.

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41 Responses to “The Deer Hunter”

  1. Really, a LIVE round? There was madness in Bobby’s method!

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  2. Popcorn Nights Says:

    Nice work, Mark. It’s a long time since I sat through it so it’s good to read your take and have my memory jogged at the same time. Whenever I’ve thought about it in recent years the two Russian roulette scenes come to mind straight away, but not much else. They are so strong I wonder whether the rest of the movie is overshadowed by those two scenes a bit too much, but as I say it must be 15-20 years since I last saw it.

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    • Cheers Stu. Those Roulette scenes are undoubtedly the strongest parts of the film but I enjoyed the whole thing overall. I was a fan many years ago and my opinion hasn’t changed to this day. I caught it again a couple of weeks ago and it’s still as powerful as it ever was. Such a good flick.

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  3. daveackackattack Says:

    Mark, ever read the book Final Cut by Stephen Bach? It’s essential reading for film buffs. It chronicles the making of Heaven’s Gate and the aftermath but also ties into The Deer Hunter and the power Cimino was given after all the critical acclaim for that movie. Check it out.

    They shot it here in Pittsburgh. For me the movie didn’t pick up until the second half.

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    • I haven’t read that Dave. Thanks for the heads-up, man. I’ll look into it.

      Heaven’s Gate is one I’d like to revisit. I remember thinking that it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be but it was a very long time ago and my memory will need jogged a little. I really love The Deer Hunter, though – even the 50 minutes wedding sequence worked for me.

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      • Just chiming in here but highly recommend Heaven’s Gate to anyone/everyone who likes Deer Hunter – “..a work of length..” or otherwise appreciative of what you aptly touch upon as some of the finest of 70’s cinema. Heaven’s Gate is in a lot of ways the penultimate Cimino picture, both in terms of his cinematic grandeur of vision and an inevitable consequence of his inability to juggle the demands of art and commerce. Sadly this period can be traced to our modern problem of the purulent studio-system whereby films are mostly tuned products first and foremost with any trace elements of art either excised as unnecessary or shaped by a lackluster marketing team of bureaucrats after the fact.

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      • I’ll definitely be revisiting it when I can Rory – hopefully soon. I seen it many years ago and always felt it was harshly criticised. It was certainly very ambitious and I remember it being beautifully shot. Looking forward to a revisit to delve into it further.

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      • I’m suddenly reminded of Barry Lyndon and how for a very long time I just avoided the film because it felt so laborious, so painfully and awkwardly slow…I mean there is minutiae and then there’s watching sand pebbles on a beach and wondering when you’re going to move up from the ankles and see who all these people are. Then I got this boxed set from Warner Bros. for this Blue-Ray review gig I got and inevitably I got around to it and it wasn’t the same film – or rather I wasn’t in the same distracted frame of mind, perhaps. At any rate, in the vein of what we’re talking about…films that aren’t afraid to paint verisimilitude by hand. cheers->

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      • You’ve now just reminded me of a film I really must see. Barry Lyndon is one I’ve always been interested in but never managed to get my hands on. Cheers man! πŸ™‚

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  4. Excellent review, a live round? That must have been tense.

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    • Cheers Vinnie. Yeah, this was the info that I picked up. Cimino knew the chamber was empty at each given time but the actors didn’t. Still, I’d reckon my shorts would be a bit heavy filming those scenes. πŸ˜‰

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  5. Hi Mark! Ha..ha.. your love for Mr. DeNiro knows no bounds πŸ™‚ 5/5, that’s impressive. Not sure this is my cup of tea, but the cast sure is wonderful.

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    • Can’t get enough of Bob, Ruth. It’s great to look back at some of his older, classic stuff. They still stand the test of time.
      With the exception of the roulette scenes, this is mainly character driven, Ruth, and the violence is kept to a minimum. Its a wonderful ensemble and everyone is on top form.

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  6. You and De Niro, eh? Let it go Mark! Ha ha, but seriously; I love this movie as much as you. Cimino is a master. Have you watched Heaven’s Gate?

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  7. great and powerful movie. Nicely done Mark!

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  8. I think you hit the nail on the head with this, what I’ve always thought as creepy, movie.

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  9. Tremendous review Mark, this is one I have stocked up for an epically rainy day. I find myself having to really set aside time for movies with a 3-plus-hour runtime, but for this movie I am quite aware that there’s good reason for the length. I can’t wait.

    Also, that trivia bit at the end really makes me uncomfortable. :/

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    • Cheers Tom! This is regarded as a classic for very good reason. Even though it’s 3 hours, it never feels that way. Be prepared for a lengthy wedding sequence at the beginning though. A lot of people criticised it for that but I just went with it.

      Our Bobby eh? Are there no lengths he will go to to get the scene right? The man’s a legend!

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  10. Again, that trivia is insane! Great review, Mark. Such a stunning film. I will agree with the ones that say that the weedding sequence goes on too long! But it doesn’t take from the fact that it’s a fantastic movie filled with fantastic performances. Bobby D. is in top form!

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  11. Solid review Mark, finally getting to the many blog rounds I’ve been meaning to make since the top of the year. Great points about a truly accomplished slice of life film told at an epic level. Such a challenge to pull off in any genre, much less a “Nam” picture that for some (myself not included) didn’t have enough war, wen’t on too long (the wedding as you an others mention) and caught much flak from celebrities, politicians and the like. For me Deer Hunter has always been about the marriage of character and happenstance, less reliant on plot as concept films often stumble, and more interested in the specificity of everyday ordinary moments of our lives. One of my mentors in film school often said successful drama occurs in the “moments between the moments”, much the way Daldry’s “The Hours” — based on the brilliant Michaell Cunningham novel — artfully, poetically conveys the ever present volatility of time. These fleeting in-between experiences are frequently missed or even misconstrued, viewers missing the beautifully rendered landscapes of lives lived and people on the verge of changing or staying the same forever. I’ve been meaning to review this film for far too long, thanks for the inspiration. Looking forward to reading your work again. Cheers->

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    • Thanks Rory. “Moments between the moments” certainly captures this film. It’s so much more than just a Nam movie and it’s not afraid to take its time and explore the characters and their devastating personal journey’s. I absolutely love it and it still packs as much power now as it ever did.

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      • It’s a shame we can’t make these kinds of films today, not on any sustainable level, especially with the editing and pace that seems to discourage so many people. Then again some folks refuse to experience subtitled films because they hate to read the screen. cheers->

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  12. Dare I say it……………..The Best Film of All Time!! There I’ve said it!
    Perfection from the very first scene and whenever I hear that Frankie Valli song, these guys in the bar spring immediately to mind! Walken and De Niro have never been better!

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    • High praise indeed, sir! And I won’t argue at all. I know many who consider this to be one of the very best. I absolutely love it myself. There’s no doubt that it’s a classic and DeNiro and Walken deliver some very powerful work. Thanks for dropping in, man πŸ™‚

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      • Streep too…….is simply astonishing, such a tragic role to play! Beaten up by her father…….in love with two men……..one lost in the war…………one returning home very damaged! And……..in real life, engaged to John Cazale (also outstanding), who is tragically dying of cancer, she is so good………a wonderful glimpse of what was to come in her career!
        And John Savage………….extraordinary!
        What a movie!

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      • Yeah, apparently Streep wasn’t given that many lines in the script and she had to improvise most of her role which only adds to how good she is.

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  13. I saw this films years ago at college and didn’t like it anywhere near as much as you. Always good to hear the other side, especially when so argued though.

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    • I think it’s a great film Alex. I’ve been a fan for a long time now and it’s a film I never tire of. A very emotional and well structured epic in my eyes.

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  14. About fucking time you did it justice with your score brother!! πŸ™‚

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    • Just reliased that I haven’t responded to this, bro! A definite five stars but going by your comment, I think you’ve got my opinion of this mixed up with Taxi Driver. I was always a fan of The Deer Hunter and it has always been highly regarded. I did review Taxi Driver at this time also and my reappraisal resulted in a glowing review. Check that out and tell me if you agree. πŸ™‚

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