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A big hit in 1978 and a Best Picture Oscar winner to boot, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is perhaps due for a re-consideration. It was big news 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.' What knocks us out now is the story's stellar cast. Besides providing a key 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.
The sprawling story soaks in the atmosphere in a Pennsylvania steel town. Young 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. Their captors force them to play a perverse game of Russian Roulette. Simply surviving appears to be impossible, but the mental trauma is even worse.
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 Cimino's handiwork receives 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 the film's 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 possesses in spades what many '70s movies were lacking: heroic characters fighting and suffering for friendship, honor, love and patriotism. Michael, Steven and Nick walk through fire but only one emerges 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 hometown 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 in a story that grows increasingly pretentious.
Michael Cimino's calculated direction launches the show beautifully, with a captivating slice-of-reality ethnic wedding. But his directorial noises give away his game and reveal how little he has to say.
The wedding party seems calculated to outdo the opening reception in The Godfather. It goes on and on for its own sake, unspooling reels of non-narrative joy. Just when we think that Cimino has grasped the lessons of Visconti and The Leopard, he ruins the magic by showing 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 Angela's dress, and the screen screams out 'symbol! symbol!' All of the director's build-up for finding meanings in ambivalent and neutral behaviors is lost. From then on, it's as if Cimino is scoring points, not telling a story. 1
As is typical with most 'honest, emotional' accounts of war, The Deer Hunter turns out to be more old-fashioned than supposedly obsolete 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 still encouraged to see that some guys are better than others. The strain turns one fellow into a (rather exotic) mental case. 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 really ratchets up the pressure. Cimino throws us into the action and we're not allowed to get our bearings. Jarring discontinuities jump us ahead in the story, forcing us to fill in a lot of blanks, quickly. 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 chore of shooting a civilian woman and her baby. Then Michael grabs a convenient flamethrower and incinerates him. We see a glimpse of what might be pigs fighting over 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 introduces the wild idea 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. Watching the movie cold, one could feel the emotional pull of the threat of death. It's really a triumph for director Cimino and his actors. After one has crossed a certain unmarked threshold of emotional acceptance, details of credibility don't count.
The film'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 fulfillment.
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 feel-good movies about how tough it was to eradicate all those 'stubborn lower races' on other continents, their productions 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 survive 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 here 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 became a key image in the anti-war 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. 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 seems 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 year after Cimino's film came out, fans lamented that Apocalypse Now didn't win Best Picture because the Academy had already honored a Vietnam War Oscar winner. Coppola's phantasmagoria is a lumpy and politically charged puzzle with plenty of 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 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 a real cheat that his transformation from human to zombie is glossed over so quickly. Walken carries the story's most difficult role and just 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 show 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, even when she has to attend the wedding with a freshly bruised face.
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 peers, 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 close-ups 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 Blu-ray + DVD of The Deer Hunter for their 100th Anniversary celebration is a positively luminous presentation of this handsomely filmed blockbuster. Michael Cimino evidently threw Vilmos Zsigmond's box of special effect filters over a cliff, and the result is some of the great cameraman's best work. Of course, the two of them would soon retrieve that box of filters for their amber-toned super epic follow-up, 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 pabulum we get today.
The package also contains a DVD of the feature, which in this case is interesting because the extra copy is not used as a way to jack up the retail price.
The presentation repeats the lean, but interesting, set of extras from the 2005 DVD special edition. The feature is accompanied by a commentary with film Journalist Bob Fisher and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond. Zsigmond'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. A misleadingly titled 'deleted and extended scenes' extra is instead a selection of a few (very long) alternate camera takes in work print 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 is on tap as well.
The 100th Anniversary of Universal is visited in a special menu item, while the disc's heavy card slipcover opens up to a commemorative graphic display with some facts about the film and a timeline showing its place on the flow of Uni award winners, just after Animal House and right before The Jerk.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Deer Hunter Blu-ray rates:
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 close-up of the clackers. All ambiguity is wiped away when the director visually underscores his point. 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?
Savant has heard from two people about this issue. There's a Region 2 disc of The Deer Hunter with a commentary by Cimino and F.X. Feeney. It points out that the reason Nick has sent money to Steven is that Nick is the father of Angela's child. At the end of the wedding sequence Mike and Stosh argue over some unstated fact, while Steven drunkenly states that 'he's never touched Angela,' as if he's the only one in town who doesn't know that she's pregnant. This entire issue is not only undramatized, it remains underwater (so much so that Savant promptly forgot about it). It doesn't change my logic above - Nick seems to have a very selective memory of his friends and his life back in America. He doesn't even recognize Mike, but he's addressing envelopes of cash every month. I suppose to some this might be a subtlety indicating riches to be mined just under the surface of the movie. I say the whole subplot is just buried, and might as well not be there. The Deer Hunter is a gripping movie, but there's a point where information withheld from the audience just plain gets in the way of telling a story.
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T'was Ever Thus.