The Deer Hunter Reviews
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's had, there were also a great number who considered it to be another American classic.
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.
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 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 naivete 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.
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 then 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 "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" were praised for such honesty and I believe this deserves the same credibility.
"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 failed in 1980 with "Heaven's Gate" (bankrupting United Artists Studio 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. Every emotional, physical and mental abuse that he seems to be suffering is perfectly and gruellingly displayed onscreen.
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 one 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.
Set across many years, the film is split into very defined sections or three acts, with one hour given over to the characters and their normal lives back in the US, the second to the war in Vietnam, and the third to the years after the war. After struggling for funding for the three hour epic screenplay, a British studio, EMI, finally got the film rolling and the cast together for this brutal war film.
The film tells the story of three men, and their friends, who take part in the Vietnam war. After one is married, Steven, played as like all the cast beautifully by John Savage, the other two, one a hunter of deer, Robert De Niro, and the other Christopher Walken, they leave for Vietnam and the film follows the war itself and the after effects.
Whilst the screenplay and film itself combine to make a long film, it's well worth the wait. The picture itself is slow, the characters slow moving, and the action steady and events slow one by one. However amongst the slowness of the film, every member of the cast gives a slow but beautiful performance.
Robert De Niro is riveting as the leading member of the gang of three, leading the film in the direction the director set out to do, and capturing the spirit of his horrified and somewhat soul rotted character perfectly. But each member of the cast performs their role wonderfully too, with John Savage's drained character of Steven, reflecting his injuries, and Christopher Walken's sunken and out of reality face and feel.
The supporting cast also give fantastic performances, with Meryl Streep as Linda, in one of her finest roles, and John Cazale in his last ever film role, and perhaps his most provoking one.
The action scenes themselves are not particularly special, but the Russian roulette scenes are what really stand out, with the intensity of the actors and set, stretching across, through the screen, onto any viewer. In the Russian roulette scenes, Cimino shows us his best, as we are literally taken into the middle of the games with the other characters and flung headfirst into uncertainty, panic and desperation.
But the real achievement of this film, is the study in human emotion and character, when such horrors of war are flung upon them, and how it affects not only them, but the people they know and love. At the 1979 Oscars, it was filled with controversy and its portrayal of the war, which had only ended a few years earlier, but in the end, the film's terrible, horrific study of human individual lives following the Vietnam war, will ensure its status as a classic war film and classic motion picture.
It is a striking film in every sense. John Williams' score, the acoustic 'Cavatina', is blissful; it complements every scene it features in. Its sequences of natural beauty and Clairton life are starkly juxtaposed in the film's second act: the infamous Russian roulette scene. It is acted with truly remarkable conviction; the actors must have forced themselves into an unpleasant place to produce such harrowing realism. The scene is so visceral and intense that it creates a disturbed silence amongst an audience; even its biggest critics would have to try very hard not to be affected by it.
Normally a critically acclaimed film, 'The Deer Hunter' hasn't been devoid of criticism. It has been labelled melodramatic, and it does indeed have its maudlin moments, I agree, but it has also been accused of being 'racist'. It may be a one sided account of the war and I appreciate it was released during sensitive times shortly after the war, but I do not agree. Does a film have to cover every aspect of an event? Does it have to cover every perspective? Of course not. 'The Deer Hunter' reflects one case: one group of men and their exposure to a small group of sadistic belligerents. Some say the depiction of the Vietcong is racist, but as rational, informed adults, I think we're all aware that the film isn't suggesting that all Vietcong were like this. We realise that atrocities similar to those seen in the film are committed by both parties in times of war; to proclaim that the film is trying to tell us otherwise is false and preachy. I concede that the majority of the Vietnamese are, to understate somewhat, portrayed unscrupulously, but the extent of one's criticism should be that the characterisation is flat, certainly not racist. Additionally, there are those who moan about how there were no cases of Russian roulette documented over the course of the Vietnam War; it's just an artist using his licence, you pedants. If you're so bothered by 'The Deer Hunter', if you yearn for fair portrayal, balance it out by watching Oliver Stone's vitriolic 'Born on the Fourth of July', which is a scathing attack on the United States' behaviour in Vietnam and their military and political ethos.
Returning to another popular comment; I do concede its melodrama, especially during a scene where the American National Anthem is sung in unison: far too gushing and American. However, overall, any flaw is completely pushed aside by its ensemble cast, its aural and visual impact and its ability to keep your attention for 180 minutes and leave a lasting impression on you.
This harrowing scene from The Deer Hunter is one of the high points of a flawed but engrossing story about war and the mystique of male friendship. It won three major Oscars, including Best Picture. At the same time, it triggered strong negative feelings.
This is not to say it is a bad movie. Director Michael Cimino has filmed a moving, if loosely edited, story tracing the evolution of the relationships of three blue-collar workers and the women families, and friends they left behind.
This drama film's Southwest Asian scenery was beautiful. But there was a tradeoff. Cimino could not see daily rushes. The country's political affairs were volatile, and there were frequent reports of an impending military coup. So he worked in expectation that the film would be confiscated if authorities learned of its sensitive nature. Knowing this, he shot from many angles because he realised he would not have a second chance.
For each of the three main characters, the war has changed them greatly, and none for the better. Robert De Niro is great, but the stand out here is Christopher Walken, who accurately takes his role and makes it into something memorable. And Meryl Streep brings a wonderful supporting performance as beautiful when she was young.
The film is split up into three main parts: The Wedding, The Boys' time in Vietnam, and Michael coming home.
The wedding lasts almost an entire hour, a message of peace and happiness among the American heartland. Six childhood friends are celebrating the marriage of their friend and his girlfriend, pregnant by another man, Steven's devotion evidently apparent from his bouts with his mother. In this long sequence we are also shown the glee of Rusayn American households exemplified in song and dance. Three of these friends are slated to fight in a war that they fully believe they can win, that they will fight in with honor and bravery, ignorant to the atrocities of the bloodshed and cruel POW camps. Michael (De Niro) promises his friend Nick (Walken) that he'll never desert him and bring him back to his girlfriend, Linda.
While in Vietnam Michael, Nick, and newly married Steven (Savage) are interred in a Vietnamese prison camp, filmed in Thailand. They are forced to play Russian roulette as the captors gamble on their chances. At first I found this wicked sport to be unnecessarily violent and unneeded, yet the blatant symbolism for the war was inescapable. This suicidal game of chance is a strong message for the war: the chance of death is always up in the air and men lose their sanity trying to play it. It's universal, and yet seemingly glorified by the back alley parlors pitching Nick against opponents.
Back in his hometown Michael has no real feeling of hope. His past attraction to Nick's girlfriend, Linda, resurfaces, but they both know they're only clinging to the memory of him, lost somewhere in Saigon. The loss of innocence after such a gruesome and exploitative war made the ethical implications of the film apparent. Even if Cimino wasn't trying to directly criticize the war, the plot clearly states that violence plays a degrading role in society. Michael's pacifist stance on gun control and the taking of any form of life is a moral statement on all of society's conscience.
This was a De Niro vehicle from the beginning of production. They needed some star power to get studio backing, they needed his skill, and he truly brought many elements of the films together. He helped the cast bond, he cast foreman Chuck Aspegren, he location scouted in Ohio, and he suggested great tips for other actors' scenes, which brought them together really well. This film really backlit the talent and variance of Robert De Niro. In the 1974 Saigon sequence, there is still hope in his eyes, trying not to desert his friend, his other promises relinquished with his betrayal. Nick, a complex and beautifully portrayed character, is both mentally anguished, and wishful. He has no hope, and this makes for a very intense scene between Nick and Michael.
A beautiful scope of war, specifically Vietnam. The cast, unlike any other, each had their own place in this film. It wasn't an action film geared towards explosions and heartfelt romance. It was each person trying to make their way through the world after being touched by the senseless act of war. Streep is a weakling without the capabilities to imagine what Nick is going through, Cazale is a hazardous human being with the whimsy of a beer slugging man in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, and Savage is the newlywed who was never meant to fight a war he could never win. One of the best films on the subject of war in American history.
The Deer Hunter is a much more superior film to Platoon, in my opinion, and is much more revolutionary. De Niro was magnificent, as always, but Christopher Walken really blew me away with a well deserved Oscar-winning performance.
In some scenes, you could foresee Michael Cimino's future wouldn't be as great as the success he pulled with the classic that is The Deer Hunter, but by watching this, nobody can deny he pulled off such a masterpiece.
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.
If you want to watch a unforgettable movie, this is it. If you are looking for a three-hour escape, don't watch this movie.