#53 The Deer Hunter (1978)
Running Time-183 Minutes
There are some movies that everyone loves. There are also movies that make the audience feel better about the world. The Deer Hunter is neither one of these movies. Don’t get me wrong, some people do love The Deer Hunter, but it certainly isn’t a movie that everyone loves.
The Deer Hunter is the story of Russian American steel workers living in working class Pennsylvania. We have Mike (Robert De Niro) who is the hard-edged leader of the group, and his best friend Nick (Christopher Walken), who is kind-hearted and loving, especially to his long time girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Then there is Steven (John Savage), who as the movie opens is about to get married before he, Nick, and Mike head off to fight in Vietnam. Also in their group of friends is Stanley (John Cazale), who is the hot-tempered misfit trying to be more important in his own life, John (George Dzundza), who is also the local bartender, and Axel (Chuck Aspegren).
The first act of The Deer Hunter takes place in their hometown and starts on the day of Steven’s wedding, which is also a going away party for the three men who are leaving the following week. We get to see the personalities of all of the characters, as well as seeing how they all feel about each other. Mike is obviously the “top dog” of the group and doesn’t seem to care much for anyone except for Steven, Nick, and of course Nick’s girl, Linda.
After the wedding is over all of the men, except for Steven who is on his honeymoon, go deer hunter in the mountains. Mike once again shows his power and dominance over the others, especially Stanley.
The second act throws the audience directly into the middle of Vietnam. Mike is apparently alone, trying to fight off the enemy, and when relief comes its Nick and Steven that arrive. Almost instantly they are captured and in some kind of make-shift prison camp. The prisoners are being pulled out and then forced to play Russian roulette while the group of enemy soldiers places bets on who will lose. Steven is unable to hold up against the pressure and is placed in a jail cell that is almost entirely under water and has rats swimming in it with him. Nick and Mike are then forced to play against each other. Mike convinces them to put three bullets into the gun instead of just the one, and Mike and Nick use these circumstances to achieve their freedom. Once they get out they float down the river until they are spotted by American troops.
In the third act all three of the men are separated and we get to see the results of them serving in the war, as well as them being forced to play Russian roulette. Mike seems to be the least scarred by these events, but what he wants most is to have things back the way they were before they left.
While watching The Deer Hunter I couldn’t help thinking about the amazing way that director Michael Cimino made this movie feel as if the viewers were watching a documentary. If all of the actors weren’t such high stars I would believe that they were actually steel workers in a small town. The entire movie has a raw feel to it that makes you feel as if you’re doing more than just watching The Deer Hunter; you’re living it. This entire movie was filmed on location, including the scenes in the small prison camp on the water. Real rats were used and there was one real bullet in the gun during the Russian roulette scenes. (They did check to make sure that the bullet wasn’t going to be fired.) The men were filmed in a real steel mill, in fact Chuck Aspegren who played Axel wasn’t an actor at all, but a foreman at a steel mill that DeNiro met early in pre-production, who became part of the movie.
There has been plenty of talk over the years as to the subject matter including the Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter. Although America cinema was on the precipice of Vietnam movies, The Deer Hunter was the first to display the graphic violence that went along with wars. There was no sugar coating anything at all. The same year of its release Coming Home also came out, portraying the effects of Vietnam on those who came home, and it also was critically acclaimed. The next year saw Apocalypse Now come to the screen, and within a decade audiences had seen Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Born On The Fourth Of July. All of these movies have to give some credit to The Deer Hunter for preparing audiences for the darker, more dynamic side of war.
There is so much that can be said about The Deer Hunter that I don’t even have a fraction of the time that I need, but I want to single out the acting performances in this movie as being one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled. Robert De Niro gives one of the most inspiring performances of his illustrious career. He was instantly excited about the script, and was just the star needed to get a studio attached to this project. Once he was on board, things really began to start rolling. De Niro brought in Meryl Streep, who easily could have won an Academy Award for her performance, and once she was on board her partner John Cazale came right behind. Of all the brilliant actors in The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken was the one to win a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His performance is emotional, touching, and frightening, all at the same time.
John Cazale was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer but elected to do The Deer Hunter anyway. It was a final opportunity to make a movie with his partner Meryl Streep, and the cast and crew had to film all of Cazale’s scenes first. He plays his role perfectly (just as in all his movies) and unfortunately did not live long enough to see The Deer Hunter completed.
Many viewers even today feel that The Deer Hunter is hard to watch, as well as being inaccurate, since there is no evidence that war prisoners were ever forced to play Russian roulette. It is hard to watch this movie, but I have always felt that was the whole point. Are war movies ever supposed to be easy to watch? This one certainly has a dark feel that leaves you pessimistic, but that shouldn’t take away from what has been created here: a truly magnificent movie that leaves the audience thinking about it for weeks, months, and even years. I certainly will be.