When The Deer Hunter opened in 1978 it was one of the first major films to deal with the war in Vietnam, still an open wound, and there were a lot of people who were unhappy about what they saw. North Vietnamese soldiers were portrayed as bloodthirsty savages eager to torment their American prisoners, forcing them into games of Russian roulette. The film was accused of being simple-minded and the fact that there really were no reports of Russian roulette ever taking place in POW camps only added to the criticism leveled at the film. Some believed its purpose was to back up President Nixon’s claim that there was a “silent majority” out there, i.e. a majority of the people who believed in the Vietnam War but wouldn’t speak out against the loud protesters.
This was only Michael Cimino’s second movie and already he had won plenty of admirers and detractors.
The film opens in a steel-mining community in Pennsylvania. Three buddies, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) are going to Vietnam, but they have one night of celebration before they leave – Steve’s wedding. It’s a huge, boisterous party and the filmmakers take their sweet time depicting it. But it serves a purpose, namely to familiarize viewers with these guys who are about to go through hell in a foreign land. The party feels very genuine, there’s a lot of love, and our affection for these characters grows. The next morning, the guys go deer hunting one last time and Mike shoots a magnificent buck. These are still uncomplicated, innocent times.
Then the movie abruptly switches locations. In Vietnam, atrocities are committed on a daily basis and the three childhood buddies find themselves prisoners of war in a Vietcong camp, helpless when the camp commander decides to force his prisoners to play Russian roulette. Whenever a POW blows his brains out, another one must take his place. The three friends manage to survive and escape – but barely. Steve loses his legs and partly his mind, and Nick never gets out of Saigon; trapped in a mental prison, he continues to play Russian roulette on the black market, not caring whether he lives or dies.
Powerful display of male friendship
The macho adventure has turned into a life-altering event. There’s another deer-hunting sequence shortly after Mike’s return from the war. He spots a buck but is unable to shoot it. Suddenly, the matter of life and death has become so much more important. As the film progresses, the friendship that was shared by the steelworkers grow into something deeper, so much so that Mike eventually is prepared to sacrifice his life in order to save Nick’s. That sequence is one of the most powerful displays of male friendship ever committed to celluloid.
There is a raw, emotional force in all this (the rendition of Garcia’s beautiful “Cavatina” adds to it) and it doesn’t matter much whether the Russian roulette game happened in real life or not – horrible events similar to that take place in any war. Flaws in the writing are overshadowed by… pretty much everything else. Walken is unforgettable in his breakthrough performance, his dead eyes near the end of the film perfectly illustrating how his life ended long before Mike came back to Vietnam.
The movie ends with a funeral in the steel-mining town. The old friends are gathered, battle-scarred but still there. They start singing “God Bless America” but it’s not as corny as it sounds. Consider the lyrics: “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” Is the scene patriotic? Is it ironic? It’s in the eye of the beholder.
The Deer Hunter 1978-U.S. 183 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Barry Spikings, Michael Deeley, Michael Cimino, John Peverall. Directed by Michael Cimino. Screenplay: Deric Washburn. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Editing: Peter Zinner. Cast: Robert De Niro (Mike), John Cazale (Stan), John Savage (Steve), Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, George Dzundza.
Trivia: Shortly after the film wrapped, Cazale died from bone cancer.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walken), Editing, Sound. BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Editing.
Last word: “When we were shooting ‘The Deer Hunter’, I had been working on this very difficult scene for two or three weeks, and then when the day came to shoot it I started to get real worried and I realised that my preparation was all wrong. I spoke to Bob [De Niro] about it, told him I was confused and he didn’t even take time to think about it. He went out a door, came back through it and started moving through the room. It was the perfect solution – I did what he suggested and the scene turned out to be one of the best in the film. That’s the mark of a genius like Robert De Niro, as opposed to a good craftsman like myself. But that’s okay. We can learn so much from watching geniuses at work even though we might never reach their level.” (Walken, Total Film)