Published on October 18th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Deer Hunter 
Summary: The most well-acted war film ever made. Cimino's Oscar winner could have used a few trims but for fans of character drama, this is a masterpiece. A late-'70s Springsteen song come to life.
R | 182 min.
Director: Michael Cimino | Screenplay: Deric Washburn
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
Studio: EMI | Distribution: Universal Pictures, Columbia, Warner Bros.
America in the 1960s has been romanticized for years as a time of free love, experimental drug use and outstanding creativity in music, art and literature. However, it can also be seen as a time when the country lost its innocence. Amidst cries for peace and love by young people of the era, the assassinations of both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the country’s involvement in Vietnam served as rude awakenings for an entire generation. In response, a new breed of filmmakers, determined to make gritty cinema, were coming into their own toward the end of the decade and would turn the War in Vietnam into a constant source of storytelling from the late-1970s on.
If you look at what is considered the first Vietnam War movie, John Wayne’s 1968 rah-rah fest The Green Berets, it looks like a sad antique — feeling more like pro-war propaganda because Wayne reportedly sought the US government’s approval regarding the story. That mentality couldn’t be further from the Vietnam War stories that young directors like Michael Cimino would tell just ten years later.
Upon release, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was critically-hailed, winning five Oscars including Best Picture in 1978. Rightfully, the film’s cast of young talent has been praised, as three of the leads would go on to win Oscars at some point — and become some of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood. The movie was also highly controversial for its cringe-inducing russian roulette scenes, which we’ll come back to.
I’ve said before that The Deer Hunter plays out like a three-hour Bruce Springsteen tune, but Billy Joel’s “Allentown” could have also been the movie’s theme song. In 1967, a group of young, rowdy friends in the small Pennsylvania steel town of Clairton are on the verge of growing up in a hurry. When we meet them, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are all being shipped to Vietnam in less than a week while some of their other friends are staying home for one reason or another. Steven is on the eve of his wedding and the guys plan on taking one final hunting trip in the mountains before they leave the states. We follow all three young men as they go through hell overseas and are each affected differently by their time in combat. Back home in Clairton, Nick’s sweetheart Linda (Meryl Streep) waits for the friends she hopes will return.
This movie is an epic in all senses of the word. The running time tops three hours, the drama is way over the top with actors going for broke, Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is stunning and the themes are lofty. The Deer Hunter is a difficult film to write about in today’s TL;DR world because you can’t sum it up in 140 characters. The screenplay, penned by Deric Washburn, deals with what events change a person from the inside, what separates children from adults, outdated images of masculinity and of course, post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike John Wayne’s movie, war is hell in The Deer Hunter.
A major theme of this picture is how war dehumanizes the people involved in it. From the three gung-ho friends we see transformed into shells to the Saigon woman whoring herself out in the same room where her baby sleeps to the russian roulette scenes where soldiers are literally treated as pawns and their bodies are discarded like checkers that have been jumped. There isn’t a single character in the film that’s involved in Vietnam and doesn’t show emotional scars.
One of The Deer Hunter‘s most complex sequences is Steven’s wedding and reception in the first act. This single sequence goes on seemingly forever (30+ minutes) but there is so much happening under the surface that you get the feeling the entire film could have taken place at this wedding and it still would have been strong. The reception is a drunken free-for-all that’s the most fun I’ve seen in an onscreen wedding since Connie got married in The Godfather! The event is as much a celebration of the young couple’s nuptials as a farewell to the trio of young men who are leaving Clairton for the jungle. Black and white high school portraits of Mike, Nick and Steven adorn the banquet hall’s walls as if it were a funeral and a banner flies above the stage, reading “Serving God and Country Proudly.” The young men are all trying to act hard while other boys from the town are making excuses as to why they aren’t fighting (“If it wasn’t for my knees,” as one character says). In a great moment of foreshadowing, a green beret drinks at the reception’s bar, distant from everyone else, and when the friends tell him they are shipping off soon, he coldly toasts them by raising a glass and saying, “Fuck it.”
Of the litany of great actors in this cast, Walken took home the lone Oscar for his performance as Nick, the character that becomes changed most by his time in combat. Walken begins the film as a fresh-faced kid in love with his hometown sweetheart and by the last time we see him, he’s more zombie than man — with every ounce of compassion drained from him. De Niro represents the film’s center as Michael remains a rock for the other characters throughout the action. He’s stoic and precise when taking the life of a ten-point buck with his hunting rifle at the film’s beginning but has seen too much death to fire a gun just for fun after he returns home. The scenes taking place in the woods of Pennsylvania are beautifully shot by Zsigmond and serve as a nice counterpoint to the green jungles of Vietnam, where the deer have been replaced with soldiers.
Any review of The Deer Hunter has to include references to the film’s infamous russian roulette sequences. I’ve seen a lot of movies but these remain some of the toughest scenes to watch each time I go back to this picture. Vietnam War history buffs have long declared these scenes totally inaccurate, akin to the “Mandingo Fights” from Django Unchained, but as in Quentin Tarantino’s slavery epic, these scenes go a long way in proving a point. As rich men in clean suits throw cash down in dimly-lit back rooms in Saigon, young men are being used as mere pieces in a game that will eventually kill them. Russian roulette may be a cliche device today but in 1978, this was as damning a symbol for war itself as any filmmaker had used onscreen.
Knocks on The Deer Hunter include its bloated length as it feels every bit of 182 minutes. The film is also soapy in certain scenes, especially once Michael returns home from the war. There is a scene late in the film when John Cazale’s character Stanley is messing with a pistol in their hunting cabin that ends up being especially melodramatic. I’ve also always been disappointed by the film’s final scene, when the characters sing “God Bless America” inside a grey barroom it comes off as painfully trite, especially considering how heavy The Deer Hunter has been to that point.
When I ranked my favorite war movies of all-time, I put The Deer Hunter in the top five. I still consider it the most well-acted war film because the young actors slip into their characters so naturally that you begin to forget you’re looking at these legendary performers. There’s no macho bravado from De Niro and no goofy cadence from Walken — these guys simply show the toll a war can take on people once they’ve left the battlefield.