41. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino

Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, John Cazale, George Dzundza

It is difficult (though hardly impossible) for me to take seriously most of the war movies made before 1970. This is because much of those older features don’t really depict armed conflict as the life, community, and country-altering horror that it truly is. One of the exceptions is 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.” In that movie, we were shown how three WWII veterans adjust/don’t adjust to life after the war. 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” takes this approach, using Vietnam as the backdrop instead of WWII, and presents an emotionally crushing film for the ages.

Behaving very much like a three-act play, “The Deer Hunter” can be broken down into one-hour segments. The first act is our introduction to a small Pennsylvania community where everyone knows everyone. Three of their young men, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage, in a role originally intended for Roy Scheider) are about to quit their jobs at the steel mill to go off to war. But, before they do, Steven is getting married. It’s a truly beautiful Russian Orthodox ceremony. Someone among them should have realized something was up, however, when they meet a Green Beret at the bar, ask him what it’s like in Vietnam, and all they get out of him is “F**k it!” Much of this first hour is leisurely paced, and is often unfairly judged because of this. It needs to be this way, in order to really soak in who these people are and what their lives were like before the war. It is also this first hour that I consider the saddest. No, nothing bad happens to anyone in these first sixty minutes, and that’s exactly the point. It is in knowing that their world can never be this happy ever again that you feel the most for the characters here.

Of the three men, Nick seems to be the one giving the most thought toward what “might” happen “over there.” The night of the wedding, once Michael has exhausted himself streaking through the streets after one too many brewskies, Nick catches up with his friend and pleads with him to promise not to leave him behind in Vietnam. Michael promises. The next day, the last day of their old lives, Michael and Nick drive with the rest of their friends (minus Steven) to go deer hunting. Stan (John Cazale) seems to always forget something on these trips; this time, he annoys Michael by asking to borrow his extra pair of boots. Michael then gets all philosophical about what shooting a deer means to him. It still means a great deal to him, clearly.

Act Two is in Vietnam. Michael, Nick and Steven have all been captured and are now unwilling participants in their captors’ sick game of Russian Roulette; they’re wagering money on who will blow his brains out first. By far, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. Many have objected that there were no documented cases of Vietnam POW’s being made to play Russian Roulette. Okay, fine, but you cannot deny its effectiveness on screen. Through all of this, Michael has to remain strong for his friends, both of which are becoming unglued by their predicament. They eventually do escape, but become separated just as Nick had feared. Steven’s body is broken, but Nick’s damage is psychological.

The most upsetting thing about Act Three is not in how it ends, but rather in how it begins. Michael returns from Vietnam, to find the whole town emotionally affected by what he and his friends have been through. It’s as though they had all signed up, gone to Vietnam, and ended up prisoners in that cage alongside Michael, Nick and Steven. Michael grows closer to Nick’s girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep), but it’s their mutual concern for Nick (who never returned from Vietnam) that forges this bond.  Soon, he and his friends go deer hunting again. A deer crosses Michael’s line of sight, but he can’t bring himself to take the deer’s life. He understands how the deer feels now. After avoiding it for months, Michael visits Steven at the veterans’ hospital. Steven is legless and wheelchair-bound, but has something he wants Michael to see. It’s money, and quite a lot of it. Steven doesn’t know where it’s all coming from, but Michael does. He returns to Vietnam, just in time for the fall of Saigon, and discovers an out-of-his-mind Nick playing Russian Roulette professionally.

Everyone here is at the top of his or her game. Christopher Walken, in particular, has never been better. He is quite deserving of his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film also picked up four other Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. Hard as it may be to believe, this was only Meryl Streep’s second movie (and first of an unmatched 17 Academy Award nominations). Sadly, it was also the last movie to feature John Cazale, who died from cancer shortly after the film was finished. The movie has three pieces of music which will stick in my mind forever. First is “Cavatina” (aka The Deer Hunter Theme) which plays over the opening and closing credits as well as certain points during the movie. “God Bless America” figures in a key scene which I won’t spoil. But most memorable for me is Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” This song has appeared in other movies, notably in “10 Things I Hate About You,” but never with this kind of impact. As if the death of actor Heath Ledger weren’t enough to sour the otherwise upbeat and optimistic tone of the song, the scene in which this song appears in “The Deer Hunter” is enough to turn it into the saddest song I’ve ever heard. It won’t matter how many times I play that song; for the rest of my life, I will think only of the loss of innocence whenever I listen to it.

  1. Elmo Shell says:

    John Cazale, was a wonderful actor to bad many are unaware of him. Great review, one of my personal favorite films based around the Vietnam war.

    • It’s easily my favorite Vietnam War film. Cazale and Meryl Streep were an item at the time. As he was already very sick with the lung cancer that eventual killed him, the studio wanted to get rid of him because they did not want to be liable. Streep and director Cimino both threatened to quit the movie, which worked, and De Niro paid for Cazale’s insurance. They filmed all of his scenes first. Because his career was so brief, it’s also very unique; he’s the only actor in history to have all of his films be Best Picture nominees (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter).

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