Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Deer Hunter is perhaps due for a re-consideration. It was a shoo-in in 1978 for a
number of easily defined reasons. It was the first major revisionist look at the Vietnam War and its
effect on the working-class generation back home. It was epic in scale and ambition and a real
'director's movie.' From this vantage point 27 years later, its stellar cast seems more impressive
than ever. Besides another step in the evolution of Robert De Niro, four other important actors
of the 80s and 90s received a big career boost from this show.
Young Pennsylvanian steelworkers Michael Vronsky, Steven and Nick (Robert De Niro,
John Savage and Christopher Walken) charge off to war after Steven's wedding to his pregnant
sweetheart Angela (Rutanya Alda) and a quick weekend of hunting. Years and battles later, the
three are united as prisoners of the Viet Cong, and forced by their captors to play a perverse
game of Russian Roulette. Simply surviving appears to be impossible, but the mental trauma is
The Deer Hunter is a film of considerable virtues that go beyond being the right film at
the right time and winning a tall stack of industry awards. For acting, atmosphere and general realism
the film gets very high marks. We invest considerable emotion in the characters, some of which is
repaid handsomely. The interesting steel-town setting with its Russian Orthodox neighborhood is
shown in absorbing detail, yet our attention is firmly focused on just two or three characters.
Most of the opening hour is devoted to a jubilant wedding celebration. We get to know the character
of our working-class heroes without learning most of their last names.
That extended opening is followed by a jarring cut to a harrowing Vietnam sequence, a ragged
jumble of brutality and torture. A brief, frantic horrorshow of combat is followed by a
suspense sequence that forms the thematic center of The Deer Hunter - Russian Roulette. As
if adopting the game's suicidal madness as a lifestyle, one of the friends keeps playing it
afterwards for profit, as Saigon collapses around him.
The Deer Hunter has what many 70s movies were lacking: Heroic characters fighting and
friendship, honor, love and patriotism. All three of them walk through fire but only one comes
out the other side as a whole person; Vietnam is seen, fairly enough, as a place of physical and
psychological scarring. The film also celebrates life back home, which may be crude and rude but
also includes honest work in the steel mill and a grateful home-town girl waiting for one's
return. Even a marriage shattered by disability looks as if it will make a comeback.
Savant saw the film new in 1978 and had a different reaction. I agreed with the basis of the story
on a personal level, but everything else about Michael Cimino's 'important film' seemed wrong. It
was a reaction to the film's ideas and the lessons it taught, and not just a rejection of its
'uplifting' ending. I still react the same way - The Deer Hunter slickly pushes the same
old blather about honor and presents a story that grows increasingly pretentious.
Michael Cimino's calculated direction starts off the show beautifully, with a captivating
slice-of-reality ethnic wedding. Then he makes directorial noises that both give away his
game and reveal how little he has to say.
The wedding party is obviously calculated to outdo the opening reception in
The Godfather. It goes on and
on for its own sake, reels of non-narrative joy. Just when we think that Cimino has grasped the
lessons of Visconti and
The Leopard, he shows how
shallow he really is. The bride and groom Steven and Angela are told that if they drink from a goblet
without spilling, their life will be happiness. Cimino cuts to the tiny detail of little drops
of wine staining her dress, and the screen screams out 'symbol! symbol!' All of the build-up for
finding meanings in ambivalent behaviors is lost. From then on, it's as if Cimino is
scoring points, not telling a movie. 1
As is typical with most 'honest, emotional' accounts of war, The Deer Hunter turns out to be
more old-fashioned than supposedly old-fashioned pictures like
The Four Feathers. Buddies
go off to war with dreams of glory. Some make it and some don't, but the ideal of glory in War is
upheld. No matter how strongly the film says that anybody could crack up, we're encouraged to see
that some guys are just more heroic than others. One fellow becomes a (rather exotic) mental case
because of the strain. Another is ground down by the pressure and trauma. As
we identify so closely with them, our loyalties go immediately to the survivor, the man
of action who answers brutality in kind and can make horrible but necessary decisions under
pressure, for both himself and others. In other words, one soldier out of three has the right stuff,
and the other two get what they get because of their basic characters. Not us. We stay with the
main hero, and return with medals, a snappy ranger beret and a license to bed willing Meryl Streep.
In other words, this 'progressive' war movie is the old BS in a different package. The tough
survivors are the real men, and the others had unfortunate but fatal weaknesses.
The Vietnam sequence is the strongest in the movie. Cimino throws us into the action and not allowed to
get our bearings. Jarring discontinuities jump us ahead in the story, forcing us to fill in a lot
of blanks, fast. Years have gone by and the three are seasoned soldiers. Michael (De Niro) has
turned into Hawkeye Of The Rice Paddies, or The Man With No Dog Tags. His outfit apparently
wiped out, Michael plays possum until
a Viet Cong is distracted by the act of shooting a civilian woman and her baby. Then Michael grabs
a convenient flame thrower and incinerates him. We see a glimpse of what might be pigs fighting
over and devouring the baby's body. It's all too fast to tell for sure.
Then time stands still for the next extended scene, the forced Russian Roulette in captivity.
The Deer Hunter seems to want us to think that RR was the rage in Vietnam, both among the
V.C. and in secret betting parlors back in the slums of Saigon. The unbearable tension in this
scene was too much for many viewers; I can remember feeling the adrenaline rise in a packed
preview audience. It's personally threatening, and after one has crossed a certain unmarked
threshold of emotional acceptance, details of credibility don't count.
The Deer Hunter's narrative drive has so far been maintained by keeping us off balance and
under-informed. But from here on in the lack of substantial exposition works against Cimino.
Unanswered questions build up until events become absurd. Michael's final return to Vietnam makes
little or no sense on any level but wish-fufillment.
Things we ask ourselves: Why does nobody worry about stray bullets in these games of RR? All we see
are a couple of bystanders leaning a bit when the gun is pointed in their direction. Why would the
Viet Cong for a single moment permit one of their enemy to take hold of a loaded weapon?
(SPOILERS) Why does straight-shooting pragmatist Michael attend the illicit RR game in Saigon, which we are
led to believe carries an inordinately high cover charge? Doesn't it strain believability that he
happens to go the same night Nick comes by?
(SPOILERS) Why doesn't Michael find out what happens to his buddies, to whom he is so obviously dedicated?
One is clearly evacuated in a chopper, with a leg wound. The other is last seen riding a jeep
back to U.S. territory. By his elevation in rank it looks as if Michael goes right back into
service. Back home, why is Michael shocked to find out that Steven is alive and returned? How can
he possibly return to 'Nam? Is he in or out of the Army when he does? Does a longer version
answer these questions?
None of these questions would be relevant if The Deer Hunter were giving us something
substantive on other levels. But what we're fed is mostly symbolic pap. We've already established
Hawkeye, I mean Michael as a true hunting spirit of the woods, a superior man reared in a steel
mill but possessed of the gentlemanly graces to charm Meryl Streep's golden goddess of the
supermarket. Now he goes
out on another hunting trip. Cue more noble Russian choir music as the godlike hero communes with
the cloudy mountaintops. He's attained a higher level of wisdom, see, and lets the mighty
stag go in peace - just the kind of ennobling fable that gives war a purpose.
It's pap, I tells ya, the kind of ur-superman stuff that Leni Riefenstahl helped preach in pro-Aryan
mountain climbing movies. This doesn't want to be as provocative as it might sound,
but had the Nazis conquered the world, and saw the need to make a feel-good movie about how tough
it was to eradicate all those 'stubborn lower races' on other continents, it might have a few
things in common with The Deer Hunter. Being an unwilling warrior who does his duty, why,
what man's destiny could be greater?
Deric Washburn's script wants us to accept Russian Roulette as a metaphor for
the Vietnam experience, an idea that gets way out of hand. Resolute in its desire to stay
personal and avoid politics, The Deer Hunter takes RR as representative of what our boys had
to go through, at least on a spiritual level. How this adds up I don't know. The ultimate statement
seems to be that Vietnam is Evil and that everything the soldiers experience is the fault of Southeast
Asians. The Cong are subhuman brutes and the corrupt colonial French invite us to get in over our
heads. The prostitutes solicit us, against our will, naturally. It's only our superior spirit and luck
that enables us to go for years (!!) playing Russian Roulette. We not only survive, but amass a fortune
to send back home. 2
The definitive answers to all this are probably in print somewhere, but Savant can't help but
think that the Russian Roulette motif in The Deer Hunter is related to that famous newsreel
shot of the South Vietnamese police officer executing a suspected Viet Cong with a gunshot to the
head, the one with the fountain of blood similar to the effect seen here. The footage is a key image
in the antiwar documentary
Hearts and Minds.
In all fairness, The Deer Hunter does have a hint of equal-opportunity atrocities. The Viet
Cong are shown only as savage killers enamored of gruesome and inhuman tortures, but when the boys
are in the river we're given a glimpse of a helicopter flying overhead with somebody clinging on
underneath. Is airborne rescuing somebody else, or do they happen to be in the vicinity because they're
having fun murdering captured V.C. by dropping them from great heights?
For its ending the picture dissolves into emotional mush. All the crude and rude types
are humbled and brought to tears by a funeral, until we have a 'spontaneous' sing-song of God
Bless America. Despite the solid attempt by the cast to make it work, it's still using
'the patriotism card' to bring down the curtain. All the old themes have been recycled in new
wrappings, but it's still an empty enterprise.
The Deer Hunter is really an American version of a German Heimat (homeland) film, one
that posits rural and conservative values as meaningful and worldly and intellectual concerns as
an illusion. The cast of The Deer Hunter seem ready to return to their jobs (while those jobs
still exist - the outside world will impinge eventually) and forget about everything else. F___ the
war and let's have coffee and scrambled eggs.
The Deer Hunter still dazzles with its performances. The actors create the characters out
of whole cloth, and Cimino's fluid direction finds an excellent balance between stand-here-do-this
blocking and naturalistic improvisation. John Cazale is excellent at portraying a whining sad sack,
the weakest and least principled of the group - it's a shame that he only
seemed to play this kind of character in films. Christopher Walken is intelligent but also vulnerable
and reasonably sensitive - it seems sort of a cheat that his transformation from human to
zombie is glossed over so quickly. He carries the story's most difficult role and barely makes
it work. Meryl Streep is the local gem one finds behind lunch counters or otherwise buried in small
towns, often quite happily. The one-two punch of this film and TV's Holocaust put her way
up front in the list of hot actresses. She mostly rides the film out with her poise and disarming
smile; we have a hard time with the character every time she's asked to convince us that her Linda
isn't very bright. Everything about Streep projects intelligence.
De Niro carries the lead role with quiet dignity. The part does most of the work and he just has to
stay on top of it. The 'youthful exuberance' of running through the streets naked now seems like
a stunt, and De Niro's attempts to give Michael an unyielding downside don't work too well either.
When he browbeats and chastizes the lamely infantile Stosh (Cazale), we have to conclude that
Michael is a natural leader granted right of judgment over his buddies - even to the extent
of pulling the trigger on poor Stosh to teach him a lesson.
George Dzundza and Chuck Aspergren fill out the roster of small town buddies. Rutanya Alda has
considerable screen time overjoyed in the first half and depressed in the second. Shirley Stoler
(The Honeymoon Killers)
turns a dozen closeups into an interesting fringe performance. Look sharp to catch a few glimpses
of the charming Amy Wright
(The Accidental Tourist) as
a spirited bridesmaid.
Universal's Legacy Series Edition of The Deer Hunter finally presents the show in
an acceptable video version. Savant had given up on the title in the 1990s -- every transfer, even
laserdisc versions, looked terrible. I saw a bit of at least one DVD that wasn't much of an
improvement. This edition is an excellent opportunity to check out the celebrated picture and
form one's own
opinion. The year after Cimino's film came out, fans of
Apocalypse Now complained
that it didn't get Best Picture because it was preceded by a Vietnam war Oscar winner. Coppola's
phantasmagoria is a lumpy and politically-charged puzzle with its own pieces missing,
but it did what The Deer Hunter only pretended to do, and that's say something coherent
about the War.
The Deer Hunter is of course also known as the success that launched Cimino's
Heaven's Gate. That debacle is singlehandedly credited for bringing down a studio and
killing off 70s adult 'director's movies'
in favor of the Spielberg-Lucas toyland and the corporate pablum we get today.
The two-disc set is thin on extras, but the three-hour film has happily not been bit-compromised by
trying to jam too much on one disc. The feature is accompanied by a commentary with film Journalist
Bob Fisher and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond. Zisgmond's communcation skills have improved since the
1970s and he says a lot worth hearing, once one gets beyond his raspy voice. Thankfully, he does
talk about more than just how each scene was shot from a camera point of view. As has been reported
elsewhere, we find out that the Pennsylvania mountains were really filmed in Washington State.
Disc two has almost nothing on it. A misleadingly titled 'deleted and extended scenes' extra is
instead a selection of a few (very long) alternate camera takes in workprint form. It drags on
quite a bit, showing us some moments that are obviously first tries before the actors have fully
warmed up. A trailer with bad color and some press-release text production notes are it for the
extras. It looks as if other material fell through at the last minute.
Amazon.com still lists two items not included on the disc: Acceptance of Best Picture Award and
Anatomy of a Scene. The disc comes in a handsome and durable 'little Golden Book' package that
promises a lot more.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Deer Hunter rates:
Movie: Very Good with reservations
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Deleted and
Extended Scenes, Trailer
Packaging: 2 discs in heavy plastic and card Book form
Reviewed: August 28, 2005
1. An identical thing happens
in Sam Peckinpah's
Straw Dogs. Two characters
argue back and forth, and we notice that on a desk in the foreground is one of those conversation-piece
toys, the rack of brass balls that clack back and forth. They seem to mirror the argument, and seen
out of the corner of one's eye, are a relevant comment on the scene. But then Peckinpah ends the
scene by cutting to a closeup of the clackers. All ambiguity is wiped away when the director makes
the point obvious. In The Deer Hunter the drop of wine changes the whole direction of the
show. Stop looking for the answers, folks, it'll all be spelled out for you.
2. For criminy's sake, if Nick (Walken) is so insensate about reality
and suffering amnesia about anything to do with home, Michael, Linda or Steven, WHY is he sending
money back to Steven? Is this all answered in Cimino's four hour cut?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.