The Deer Hunter (1978) Director: Michael Cimino
By all accounts The Deer Hunter is the best movie Michael Cimino ever made. It won him an avalanche of awards and critical praise, including Best Picture and Best Director from the Academy Awards. In response United Artists granted Cimino complete creative freedom on his next project Heaven’s Gate, a four hour epic western that was one of the biggest box office bombs in history. It was widely panned in its day, though recent revisionists have seen fit to reappraise the film (I have yet to see Heaven’s Gate). The Deer Hunter remains Cimino’s masterpiece, despite many stories surfacing of Cimino being an egomaniac and a narcissist.
The Deer Hunter takes place over the span of three years in the life of three young men. The story is bookended and anchored by several contrasting scenes: at the beginning we see a wedding, music, dancing, drunken revelry, successful hunting trips, ordinary work days, romance, and a welcoming neighborhood bar; at the end we witness a funeral, silence, awkwardness, fear, distance, and psychological breakdown. The film takes us on a journey from unbridled optimism, hope, and joy to a state of complete emotional disrepair. The Deer Hunter is a gut-wrenching movie that focuses on the effects of war, rather than the glorification of battle. It is not an overtly anti-war film per se, though it does successfully honor the experience of individual soldiers while exploring the painful and unnecessary tragedy that was the Vietnam War.
There is a captivating sense of authenticity in The Deer Hunter, from crass working-class dialogue, to bar room fights, a notably lengthy wedding, real hospitals rooms filled with struggling veterans, and so on. In The Deer Hunter we are introduced to a group of steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania in 1968: Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven “Stevie” Pushkov (John Savage) and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken). The impending War in Vietnam looms large over the plot. The group of friends get drunk at a local bar owned by their friend John and they regularly go hunting in the mountains with a couple of co-workers: Axel (Chuck Aspegren, not an experienced actor but rather an ordinary steelworker from Chicago) and Stan (played by John Cazale known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather, whose scenes were shot first because he was suffering from terminal cancer. He was in a relationship with Meryl Streep at the time, and Robert De Niro payed his insurance bills. This was Cazale’s last film, he died before it was released). Mike is clearly the skilled and experienced hunter of the group, he often takes a mere “one shot” to slay a deer. Each young man is invincible, fearless, confident, and happy. They attend the wedding of Stevie and his girlfriend Angela, while Mike and Nick are in love with the same woman named Linda (Meryl Streep), though proposes marriage to her. We are also given scenes of the aging veterans of World War II as they are joyously celebrated in the town dance hall.
In Act II (the following year in 1969), we suddenly jump forward as Mike, Stevie, and Nick are all serving together in Vietnam, but they are soon captured and imprisoned in a hellish, torturous Vietcong prison. They are forced to play a nightmarish game of Russian Roulette -a game which cracks Stevie. He fires his bullet at the ceiling and as punishment he is placed in a water-logged cage filled with dead bodies where he is left to die. Mike devises a plan with Nick to fill the gun’s chamber with three bullets during their game of Russian Roulette in order to attack and kill their Vietcong guards. When the plan succeeds they rescue Stevie and float down river while clinging to a log, though Nick’s leg is bleeding from the tussle. Up around the bend they spot a low hanging bridge and suddenly an American chopper cuts through the sky up ahead. Nick is rescued while Mike and Stevie fall back into the river, and Stevie sustains brutal leg injuries (much of his leg bone in protruding). Mike carries Stevie from the river to a busy road where Stevie is whisked away to a hospital in Saigon. Our attention turn to Nick who is released from a psychological ward. He freely roams the chaotic streets of Saigon which are filled with prostitutes and drugs. He is lured into an illicit gambling game of Russian Roulette. Mike spots Nick but he is unable to catch his attention amidst the din of participants as Nick flees into the night.
For the final hour of the movie, we again jump forward to 1970. A now stoic and austere Mike returns home from the war but he is changed. He cannot bring himself to attend a welcome party for himself. He is unable to sleep in a normal bed, his words are garbled, he has trouble making eye contact, and he is uneasy about his carousing friends who freely brandish their guns. He can no longer hunt the way he once did. He spends his time with Linda but it is awkward, he visits Angela but she is now catatonic, and finally he discovers Stevie in a hospital ward with both his legs missing. Stevie has been receiving piles of money from an unknown person in Saigon. Mike immediately realizes it is Nick. Amidst the collapse of the American occupation of Saigon, Mike is able to return. He frantically wanders the streets in search of Nick until one night he turns up at the illegal gambling den. Nick has become a heroin addict and he no longer recognizes Mike, but the two play Russian Roulette despite Mike’s pleas to his old friend. In the end Nick shoots himself in the head after echoing Mike’s old hunting refrain of “one shot.”
There is a brief epilogue back in Pennsylvania where Mike’s funeral is held. Afterward, the remaining group of friends return to their favorite bar, only this time it is somber and morbid. They sit in a silence for a time before quietly singing “God Bless America” and the film ends.
The Deer Hunter is a powerful, traumatic, haunting picture that sticks with you. The film’s intended effect succeeds to a remarkable degree. One point of criticism I have is its blatant revisionism with the dominating presence of the disturbing games of Russian Roulette played in Vietnam. It’s nothing new for Hollywood to fabricate history, and apparently many Vietnam veterans had some dissatisfaction with those scenes in the movie, but I was sorely disappointed to learn of this embellishment. Little facts like these lead this viewer to be suspicious of the director’s attempt to merely elicit a disturbing reaction at the sacrifice of some of the film’s greater themes. While admiring its many praiseworthy qualities, this is not a film would soon return to. At least Stanley Myers’ score for The Deer Hunter is utterly incredible, its light acoustic theme has since become an essential tune for classical guitarists.