Should I Watch..? 'The Deer Hunter'
What's the big deal?
The Deer Hunter is an epic war drama film released in 1978 and was directed and co-written by Michael Cimino. The film follows three Pennsylvanian steel workers as they are thrust into the middle of the Vietnam war and the effects the conflict has on them and those around them. The film stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale in his final film appearance - he died shortly after filming was complete. Not only was the film over-budget and delayed but it was hugely controversial when it was first released due to the prominence of Russian roulette in the film and the depiction of the Vietnamese people. Nevertheless, the film was a critical and commercial success and was ultimately selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1996. Nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards and winning five, the film has been regularly hailed as one of the greatest films ever made and was one of the first major movies to depict the Vietnam war, influencing other filmmakers and movies for years to come.
What's it about?
In the small steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, three friends working at the steel mill have a big few days ahead of them. Steven Pushkov is about to celebrate his marriage to his pregnant fiance Angela alongside his close friends Mike Vronsky and Nick Chevotarevich. With all three coming from Orthodox Russian-American backgrounds, their bond is closer than it is to their co-workers like Stan, John and Peter. Nevertheless, the six of them are regular hunting partners and after partying the night away after the wedding, they travel into the mountains for their last hunt together before Steven, Mike and Nick depart for Vietnam to serve their country.
Their tour of the conflict does not go well. All three are captured by the Viet Cong and held captive whilst their jailers force them to play deadly games of Russian roulette for their amusement. As Steven succumbs to the terror unfolding around them, Mike convinces Nick to partake in a daring escape attempt - one which will have dramatic consequences not just for themselves but also their friends and families back home...
Trailer (restored version)
Robert De Niro
Michael "Mike" Vronsky
Nikanor "Nick" Chevotarevich
Peter "Axel" Axelrod
Release Date (UK)
28th February, 1979
18 (1987 re-rating)
Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Walken), Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Streep), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography
What's to like?
These days, we have become used to seeing the hellish theatre of operations of the Vietnam War depicted in films, TV and video games but at the time, nothing had come close to Cimino's undoubted masterpiece The Deer Hunter. The film blasts the lid off experiences and images that are designed to shock audiences with their visceral brutality and while the authenticity of the film's set-up has been called into question (see Fun Facts below), it's no stretch of the imagination to picture such atrocities taking place. The film is spread across three epic acts, held together by De Niro's assured performance which perfectly demonstrates the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder - something I have had experience of myself. You believe he has seen hell - not just because we've been with him through it but because of his reticence and change in behaviour. This is most apparent during a hunting scene after he returns from the war a changed man.
Walken may have walked away for the Oscar but the film is stacked with quality performances throughout most of the cast. Streep, Savage and the late Cazale give the film added emotional heft and frankly, any of them could have walked away with gold. Streep, saddled with the lovelorn girlfriend role, brings such an intensity to the film that her and De Niro can exchange glances and speak a thousand words. At first, I was wondering why Camino was taking so long with the wedding sequence which takes up almost the whole of the first hour of the film. But by taking his time and filling each scene with detail and characterisation, it makes the inevitable trauma that is about to unfold even more tragic. It was also interesting to see the film depict the war not as a flag-waving and patriotic exercise in extinguishing Communism in south-east Asia (I'm looking at you, Rambo: First Blood - Part II) but a bloody, confused and pointless waste of human life. The violence feels personal and intimate rather than grandiose and spectacular and frankly, it makes the film an uncomfortable watch at times. This is genuine life-and-death stuff and knowing the stakes, the film generates almost unbearable tension.
- The film is loosely based on a spec script (an unmade project offered to studios) written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker called The Man Who Came To Play that featured games of Russian roulette in Las Vegas. Cimino was then hired by producer Michael Deeley who wanted to develop parts of that script into The Deer Hunter so Camino worked alongside Washburn for a number of weeks. According to Camino, he would contact Washburn with ideas while he was scouting for locations but was so appalled by Washburn's work that he re-wrote it himself. According to Washburn, he and Camino hammered out the plot in three days in a hotel in Los Angeles but he was unceremoniously fired after writing solidly for a month by Camino and associate producer Joann Carelli.
- Cazale was already dying of cancer when he was cast so his scenes were shot first. When the studio discovered that Cazale was ill, they threatened to replace him. Camino and Streep, who was Cazale's partner at the time, then threatened to walk if they recast Cazale while De Niro paid for Cazale's insurance after the studio refused to do so. Cazale never lived to see the finished film.
- The woman who cast the Thai extras in the film had to recast the role of the man running the games because he was too nice, refusing to slap De Niro for real during the scene. Luckily, she knew a local man who strongly disliked Americans and he needed no further encouragement.
- During filming of the wedding scenes, Camino encouraged the extras to bring fake gifts to the shoot but treat them as real. To his astonishment, many of the extras bought actual wedding gifts which strangely disappeared from the set. Deeley later wrote "Who got to keep all these wonderful offerings is a mystery I never quite fathomed."
What's not to like?
There's no question that The Deer Hunter has a somewhat one-sided perspective of the conflict - aside from a fleeting appearance of a young Vietnamese woman cradling her possibly dead child, I can't recall a single other Asian character cast in a good light as they are either rabidly betting on the games of Russian roulette or running them. Even the city of Hanoi is a barely functioning hive of humanity with lawlessness running rampant and every kind of vice available on each street corner. I'm too young to have memories of any kind of the conflict so maybe things really were as bad as they are seen here. I know war is supposed to be hell but coming after such a warm and loving opening act, it is like an ice bath after stepping out of a sauna and stuns you into submission. Sadly, the final act of trying to return to normal doesn't offer that much in the way of relief either. This is honestly one of the most difficult films to watch I've seen for many years.
The other thing that nagged away at me was Camino's direction. The film is technically brilliant but there is a sense of Camino including material that could have been cut without any real detriment to the movie. The opening scene, for example, take far too long and introduce too many characters too quickly - I understand the logic behind developing the characters going to war but why spend time dwelling on those left behind, if only for context? At a bum-numbing three hours, the film begins to feel like an ordeal itself and I wanted it to spend more time emphasising the dehumanising effects of the war. But De Niro is the only one allowed that freedom - Savage demonstrates the awful physical effects of the war while Walken's haunted and gaunt frame is the most terrifying of all, a man completely lost to insanity and nihilism.
Should I watch it?
Without question, The Deer Hunter is one of the most important films of the twentieth century as well as one of its best. Personally, it's one of the best performed films I think I've ever seen as you utterly empathise with these ordinary men and women flung into extraordinary situations that break the heart and the spirit. It's not an uplifting film but it must be hailed for demonstrating the particular horrors of the Vietnam War in gruesome detail and free from Hollywood sanitising.
Great For: American steel workers, Vietnam veterans, silencing audiences
Not So Great For: the Vietnamese people, anyone dumb enough to think about playing Russian roulette for real, Republicans who think the film glorifies American involvement in south-east Asia (it doesn't)
What else should I watch?
The Deer Hunter was the first of a number of Hollywood films that eschewed the flag-waving patriotism seen in the 1968 John Wayne picture The Green Berets and instead depicted the conflict as a brutal and bloody failure. The following year saw Francis Ford Coppola's equally epic Apocalypse Now released while the Eighties saw the likes of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born On The Fourth Of July. The image of the conflict in films is one associated with bleakness and even today, is rarely shown in full in films in stark contrast to other conflicts like the Second World War, for example. Even action films, usually willing to feature any kind of war, haven't been as keen so action junkies have to rely on second-rate fare such as Chuck Norris' Missing In Action.
Personally, I find Michael Camino one of the most fascinating people ever to have stumbled into Hollywood. Starting out as a screenwriter, Camino found himself thrust into the director's chair for the Clint Eastwood comedy Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which Camino also wrote. After wowing critics and audiences with The Deer Hunter, Camino was given free reign on his next project - which proved a massive mistake. Once again over budget, plagued by endless reshoots and controversy over Camino's authoritarian behaviour on set, the disastrous Heaven's Gate proved to be the death knell for studio United Artists as well as Camino's previously high career prospects. Only making another four films after the release of Heaven's Gate, his career never recovered and he retired from filmmaking, unheralded, in 1996 and essentially became a recluse before passing away in 2017.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox