The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978)



Critic Consensus: Its greatness is blunted by its length and one-sided point of view, but the film's weaknesses are overpowered by Michael Cimino's sympathetic direction and a series of heartbreaking performances from Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken.

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One of several 1978 films dealing with the Vietnam War (including Hal Ashby's Oscar-winning Coming Home), Michael Cimino's epic second feature The Deer Hunter was both renowned for its tough portrayal of the war's effect on American working class steel workers and notorious for its ahistorical use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam sequences. Structured in five sections contrasting home and war, the film opens in Clairton, PA, as Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stan (John Cazale, in his last film) celebrate the wedding of their friend Steve (John Savage) and go on a final deer hunt before the men leave for Vietnam. Mike treats hunting as a test of skill, lecturing Stan about the value of "one shot" deer slaying and brushing off Nick's urgings to appreciate nature's beauty. As Mike ruminates post-hunt, the film cuts to the horror of Vietnam, where the men are captured by Vietcong soldiers who force Mike and Nick to play Russian roulette for the V.C.'s amusement. Mike turns the game to his advantage so they can escape captivity, but the men are permanently scarred by the episode. Steve loses his legs; Nick vanishes in the Saigon Russian roulette parlors. Mike returns alone to Clairton a changed man, as he rejects the killing of the deer hunt and finds solace with Nick's old girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep). Disgusted by the antics of his male cohorts at home, Mike decides to bring Steve back from a veterans' hospital, and he returns to Saigon to find Nick. As Saigon falls, Mike discovers how far gone Nick is; the survivors gather in Clairton for a funeral breakfast, singing an impromptu rendition of "God Bless America."
Cult Movies , Drama
Directed By:
Written By:
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Universal Pictures


Robert De Niro
as Michael
John Cazale
as Stanley
John Savage
as Steven
Chuck Aspegren
as Peter "Axel" Axelrod
Rutanya Alda
as Angela
Shirley Stoler
as Steven's Mother
Pierre Segui
as Julien
Mady Kaplan
as Axel's Girl
Amy Wright
as Bridesmaid
Mary Ann Haenel
as Stan's Girl
Richard Kuss
as Linda's Father
Joe Grifasi
as Bandleader
Victoria Karnafel
as Sad-Looking Girl
Jack Scardino
as Cold Old Man
Joseph Strand
as Bingo Caller
Henen Tomko
as Helen
Paul D'Amato
as Sergeant
Dennis Watlington
as Cab Driver
Charlene Darrow
as Red Head
Jane Colette Disko
as Girl Checker
Michael Wollet
as Stock Boy
Robert Beard
as World War Veteran
Joe Dzizmba
as World War Veteran
Frank Devore
as Barman
Tom Becker
as Doctor
Dale Burroughs
as Embassy Guard
Parris Hicks
as Sergeant
Show More Cast

News & Interviews for The Deer Hunter

Critic Reviews for The Deer Hunter

All Critics (62) | Top Critics (9)

It has no more moral intelligence than the Clint Eastwood action pictures, yet it's an astonishing piece of work, an uneasy mixture of violent pulp and grandiosity, with an enraptured view of common life -- poetry of the commonplace.

Full Review… | March 2, 2015
New Yorker
Top Critic

In trying to measure the devastating impact of Vietnam on the lives of three American soldiers, Cimino brings home the true horror of that senseless conflict in a way that the 6 O'Clock News never could.

Full Review… | February 18, 2015
New York Daily News
Top Critic

Is it as good as its advance word and nine Academy Award nominations suggest? Yes.

Full Review… | February 6, 2013
Chicago Tribune
Top Critic

This excruciatingly violent, three-hour Viet Nam saga demolishes the moral and ideological cliches of an era: it shoves the audience into hell and leaves it stranded without a map.

Full Review… | February 19, 2009
TIME Magazine
Top Critic

The film is ambitious and it succeeds on a number of levels and it proves that Cimino is an important director who deserves to be watched carefully.

Full Review… | February 20, 2008
Top Critic

A disgusting account of what the evil Vietnamese did to poor, innocent Americans stands at the center of this Oscar-laden weepie about macho buddies from a small industrial town.

Full Review… | December 13, 2006
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for The Deer Hunter


Cimino is a great director who wisely takes his time in a long, careful first act before launching his characters in a terrifically tense, gut-wrenching second act that makes us deeply consider the tragic effects of war on veterans, with Walken and De Niro in spectacular performances.

Carlos Magalhães
Carlos Magalhães

Super Reviewer

"You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta 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'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. Mark Walker

Mark Walker
Mark Walker

Super Reviewer

Whilst its running length may annoy some, "The Deer Hunter" and Michael Cimino provides viewers with the most gut-wrenching and harrowing examination of the Vietnam War, and most importantly its affects on the lives of individuals. 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.

Adam Kelly
Adam Kelly

Super Reviewer

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