Which is worse? A heartless, soulless blockbuster with no wit, intelligence or shelf life, designed solely to milk money from moviegoers in the quickest and most cynical way possible? Or a film which presents itself to be a poignant, intelligent, moving work of art, only to emerge as a bloated, pretentious, self-indulgent piece of crap? For most of us, the obvious answer is the former. But that all changes once you've seen The Deer Hunter.
At the risk of slowly making myself unpopular, let me be perfectly clear from the outset. The Deer Hunter is a truly hateful film, a badly-written, badly-directed, poorly-acted piece of garbage, at turns boring, racist, mawkish, churlish, pretentious and manipulative. It is in a very select group of films which are almost unendurable, because of its length, its structure, its tone and its content. It is an utterly hollow experience which leaves its audience somewhere between slipping into a coma and erupting into blind fury.
There are many three-hour films which justify their length - think of The Green Mile, Barry Lyndon or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are also a great many films which use long unedited shots very effectively, like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope or The Passenger. The problem is not length in itself, it's whether or not the film is disciplined in a way that you don't notice or aren't bothered by the length. In The Deer Hunter, the editing is so bad that you feel every agonising minute of those three hours. Shots that should be short and sweet are allowed to run on for minutes, so that hours come to feel like days until the whole film has run itself into the ground.
Film critics often heap praise on directors, but it's worth remembering that most great directors have been kept in check by their writers or producers. There's no doubt that Michael Cimino was talented; he co-wrote Silent Running and his first film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, is a solid, light-hearted thriller. But do a little digging and you discover that all his best work happened before he was given a free rein. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was produced by Clint Eastwood, who forbade the young director from doing more than four takes on any given scene. Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley simply didn't put pressure on Cimino like they should have done; left to his own devices he couldn't separate the wheat from the chaff, and thus the whole thing is dust.
Then we come to the politics of The Deer Hunter, which are at best churlish and at worst completely reprehensible. For starters, the film is every bit as racist in its depiction of the Vietnamese as The Green Berets ten years earlier (ironically, since John Wayne presented Cimino with the Best Picture Oscar). The Vietnamese are depicted as bloodthirsty gamblers who enjoy sadistically tormenting innocent soldiers and winning money in the process. There is no attempt made to explore the conflict from their point of view, or to offer examples of the intelligent political activity that brought Ho Chi Minh to power in the first place. It's the kind of blatantly racist propaganda that makes even The Birth of a Nation seem even-handed and subtle.
It's easy to see in hindsight why The Deer Hunter won over American audiences. America was still licking its wounds after the fall of Saigon and so a film which portrayed their enemies as essentially mad, bloodthirsty killers with no brains or mercy was bound to strike some kind of chord. Looking at it now, the film is overtly manipulative in getting us to sympathise with the people invading and terrorising a foreign country. In the last scene before the characters play Russian roulette - which incidentally, probably didn't happen - we see Robert De Niro turning a flame-thrower on a 'gook' soldier, and the camera lingers in graphic detail as the flames slowly engulf him. And then there is the ending, where Meryl Streep begins to sing 'God Bless America' in a pathetic rip-off of Paths of Glory. The film swallows the very lies it set out to dismiss, being little more than sour grapes and flag-waving.
As if that wasn't enough, the film is completely up its own fundament. It's the classic kind of epic or awards contender which constantly thinks it is saying something profoundly meaningful, when in actual fact it has no depth at all. The dialogue is just a bunch of platitudes and tittle-tattle delivered by characters that are paper-thin and uninteresting. All the issues which the film claims to address - the ethics of warfare, its impact on communities, etc. - aren't addressed beyond the odd scene of random hysterical crying.
More than anything else, the film has no sense of humour. That might seem an obtuse comment to make about a war film, but the best war films are those which see the humour and humanity in the darkest situations, whether in the outlook of the characters or in the total absurdity of the war in question. Full Metal Jacket may be a harrowing, chilling exploration of the duality of man, but it's also clearly a black comedy. Apocalypse Now has the scenes of the soldiers joking on the boat, not to mention all Dennis Hopper's ramblings. The Deer Hunter takes every aspect of these characters so seriously that they become less and less human. Everything is delivered with a face so straight it's made of stone, and the more we try to connect the less it works.
Then there is the tone of the film, which lurches between the ponderous and the melodramatic, the snore-inducing and the outright hysterical. For most of its running time, the film is like sleepwalking through treacle; most of the dialogue is either mind-numbingly repetitive or incomprehensibly mumbled, and the slow pace makes everything feel like a bad dream. But then, there is a massive amount of odd, stupid scenes which any editor worth their salt would have taken out in a heartbeat.
It makes no sense to have Robert De Niro running through the streets taking all his clothes off, only to sit down and have a quiet chat with Christopher Walken in the very next scene. We don't need the scenes of the veterans playing bingo, or the boys winding up Chuck Aspegren with the car, or the erotic dancers in Saigon: we get the message just fine without these distractions. Most of the opening hour is pointless: when we're not being bored out of our skulls watching people dance, we have to put up with the cast being drunk and disorderly.
Then there is the plot itself. As before, you don't need three hours to tell what is a relatively simple story - three men go to Vietnam, one gets left behind, one of the other two goes back to find him. But as The Deer Hunter draws to a close, various contrivances begin to emerge which cause it to tip even further into melodrama. How can Michael get back into Vietnam (and out again) just as Saigon is about to fall? How has Nick been able to earn so much money without getting shot? And why, if the army haven't found him beforehand, are they so willing to let Michael try?
The performances in The Deer Hunter are not much cop either. Robert De Niro is largely phoning it in, hiding behind that thick beard, mumbling most of his lines and not showing anything approaching emotion until the final reel. Christopher Walken, like most of his roles, essentially plays himself, right down to a scene of him dancing awkwardly in the bar. Meryl Streep is showy and grating as Nick's bride-to-be, and John Savage's performance flits between dull and hysterical without good cause.
The Deer Hunter is one of the worst films of the 1970s and a failure on every conceivable level. It is a total, unadulterated mess, exacerbated not just by its racism but its gleeful depiction of cruelty, whether towards humans or animals. If it had simply been boring it might be easier to forgive, or at least for the memory of its poor quality to quickly fade. But its attempts to be meaningful or profound, all of which fail miserably, leave you with a headache that will last for days and days.