BACK-STORY: “The Deer Hunter” was released in 1978 and was the first important major motion picture about the Vietnam War. Its success marked the rise of the subgenre that has produced some great war movies. Significantly, 1978 also saw the releases of “Coming Home”, “The Boys in Company C”, and “Go Tell the Spartans”. The movie was directed and co-written by Michael Cimino and marked the peak of his career. He battled the suits to get his vision on the screen and succeeded for the most part. The movie was a big critical hit and did well at the box office. It was awarded Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Editing, and Sound. It was nominated for Actor (Robert De Niro), Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay. It is ranked #53 on the most recent AFI’s greatest movies list. The film was Streep’s first big movie role and ironically, John Cazales’ last film. He was dying from cancer and passed before he saw the finished product.
OPENING: The movie opens with the beautiful “Cavatina for Guitar and Orchestra” playing over the credits. This creates a positive vibe from the start. We are introduced to the dingy industrial city of Clairton, Pa. in the year 1967. Our working class quintet of buddies is preparing for the marriage of one and the cleaving of the group by the Vietnam War. Their camaraderie is similar to that of soldiers in the barracks and on R&R.
SUMMARY: The first third of the movie involves the wedding of Steven (John Savage) to his pregnant girlfriend Angela. The wedding is in an Eastern Orthodox church and if you ever wondered what those rites are like, watch this movie. The extended scene flows into the rollicking reception. (There was literally an open bar for the extras. Check out the old couple sleeping on each other in the background.) Those Russian-Americans know how to party. It’s not just a wedding celebration. The groom and two of his buddies – Mike (De Niro) and Nick (Walken) – are headed for Vietnam as volunteers. The characters are clearly drawn. Steven is the sensitive guy who marries a woman who is not carrying his child. Nick is the lady magnet who has a spiritual streak. Mike is the taciturn leader who takes hunting (and life) seriously. His character reminds of Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans”. Cimino lets the reception play out with little dialogue. A key terse exchange occurs when the trio encounter a veteran drinking at the bar and try to suck up to him. He is obviously suffering from PTSD and responds to their patriotic overtures with several “fuck it”s. This is the first foreshadowing that their working class lives are about to take a turn for the worse. Another omenous development is when Angela spills some red wine on her wedding dress during the “it’s good luck if you don’t spill” toast. Oh, oh! The non-grooms in the extended buddy group leave the reception and head off on one last deer hunt. The scenery is awesome and the music elegaic as Mike and Nick track a magnificent stag that Mike bags with “one shot” (his mantra and a recurring theme).
Suddenly we are in Vietnam. No boot camp for this movie. Mike is lying outside a village. An enemy soldier appears and throws a grenade in a bunker full of civilians and then kills a mother and child. Mike uses a flame thrower on him. Nick and Steven are part of reinforcements that arrive, but so does a large force of Viet Cong. Cut to the famous prison locale. The trio and some expendables are being held captive in a cage on the river. There are rats! The sadistic guards are forcing the prisoners to play Russian roulette for their amusement. (The head thug was a local Thai who Cimino instructed to actually slap Walken to get the right reaction.) In one of the greatest scenes in war movie history, Mike engineers their escape in ten seconds of orgiastic violence. The acting is fantastic. They float down the river (the actual Kwai River) and eventually make it back to American lines, but Steven is physically crippled and Nick is emotionally damaged. Mike remains stoic.
|Uncle Ho will not be happy with what is about to go down|
Nick, although clearly suffering from PTSD, is released from the hospital and wanders the streets of night-time Saigon. (The Saigon sets are authentically red-lit.) He stumbles upon a Russian roulette den and is lured into the “sport” by a decadent Frenchman. I guess it’s Stockholm syndrome. It’s a small world as Mike happens to be at that particular “competition”, but he is unable to prevent Nick from choosing this new career path. Mike returns to America thinking Nick is lost and Steven is dead.
Mike’s return is not a joyous one. If he was to look in the mirror he would see the “fuck it” vet. He feels disconnected from his old life and friends. He passes up the “Welcome Home” party, but later hooks up with Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Streep). They’ve been meant for each other since the beginning of the film, but it’s an awkward arc. Linda asks him “did you ever think life would turn out like this?” An unanswered “no”. Speaking of awkward, the reunion with the buddies proves positive that “you can’t go home”. Mike tries hard and even goes hunting again. Guess what happens when he has a clean shot at another stag (the deer from the Hartford commercials)? The hunt ends with Mike introducing Stanley (Cazale) to Russian roulette. Awkward scenes come in threes as Mike visits Steven who is wheel chair bound in a Veterans Hospital. Ever the leader, Mike forces Steven to return to the catatonic Angela.
Mike learns Nick is still alive and since he had promised not to leave him behind, he heads back to the Nam. He arrives during the chaotic last days of Saigon. It’s not too chaotic for him to find the Frenchman and get to the game.
|Nicky don't pull that trigger|
the view from the other side of the table
CLOSING: Mike buys into the game when Nick does not recognize his friend (and in fact spits in his face). Nick has needle marks indicating heroin addiction. Watch out, that stuff can kill you. Usually it is lame when a movie tries to replicate a previous scene, but in this case the Russian roulette match is riveting. Once again, De Niro and Walken are amazing. The climax is predictable, but touching and wrenching.
Mike brings Nick home (for his funeral). The gang is together one last time and the movie ends with them singing “God Bless America” which means we are left to puzzle what the Hell is Cimino trying to say? Is he making fun of their blue collar patriotism? Is he being ironic? Did he just dilute the anti-war message of the film? Discuss. One thing is indisputable. The three guys who stayed out of the war are much better off than the three that volunteered to go.
Acting = A+
Action = 6/10
Accuracy = C
Realism = B
Plot = A
Overall = A-
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Definitely. It is one of the more balanced war movies. That doesn’t mean it’s not predominantly a guy film. I don’t think the Russian roulette subplot was included to attract females. Linda and Angela are not feminists and both are damaged goods, but they are realistic characters.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is not based on a true story. Clearly. Cimino tried to justify the Russian roulette scenes as based on reality, but he was shaky on this. There is no evidence that the Viet Cong tortured prisoners using Russian roulette. They were bastards, but not that bastardly. Cimino took some flak for the racist undertone of his depiction of the Viet Cong. There is also little evidence for the existence of Russian roulette dens. If they didn’t exist, they were the only form of entertainment that could not be found in Saigon.
CRITIQUE: This is an extremely well made movie. Cimino put all his talent into the film (and based on the rest of his career might have left some of it). He’s under relative control here, unlike the bloated “Heaven’s Gate”. The decision to break the narrative into three parts was wise and tempers the length of the movie. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel a little long. Cimino takes his time getting where he’s going. For instance, we don’t get to Vietnam until the 1:08 mark. It’s worth the wait as that middle third is so intense, albeit over the top realism-wise.
The cinematography and acting keep you focused through the slow moments. The interior shots are intimate, the exterior shots of Clairton are industrially grimy. The hunting scenery is breathtaking. The camera work is not pretentious. The score is fine. The movie also has an eclectic mix of period songs.
The acting could not be better. De Niro and Walken are electric from their first appearance. This was Walken’s first major role and seldom is it more obvious that you are watching the beginning of a great career. Streep is Streep, of course. She wrote some of her lines and the role was expanded because of her talent. The rest of the cast is up to these three. Special mention has to be made of John Cazales. It was tragic that this was his last film, but he went out on top. As usual, he plays a dislikable character, but he makes a good foil for Mike. Savage is kind of odd man out, but he gives a sincere performance as the weakest of the “warriors”.
The screenplay tends to be a little heavy-handed. The foreshadowing allows the alert viewer to piece together some upcoming plot points. Not unusual for a Hollywood flick, however. The movie reminded me of “Jaws” in this respect. The themes are hammered in. War impacts not just the warriors. There are different types of wounds – physical and mental. Cimino comments on working class patriotism and male bonding in a knowing way.
The movies biggest flaw is the time-line makes little sense. Of course, this type of thing bothers only the very small minority of viewers like me. Check this out. They go to Vietnam in 1967. We can assume a good bit of time passes before the village scene. Mike has gone into a different unit than Nick and Steven and in fact does not even recognize them (possibly from combat stress). This reunion was most likely in 1968-69. That means Nick goes into the Russian roulette business no later than 1970. Clearly Mike returns to Saigon in 1975. This means a lot of time has passed and it is inconceivable that Nick had survived that long. Cimino’s decision to stage the climactic scene in the midst of the chaotic last days of Saigon is understandable for cinematic effect, but makes no sense in reality.
CONCLUSION: “The Deer Hunter” is an important movie. It opened the flood gate of Vietnam movies and still remains one of the best. I think it is appropriately placed at #29 on the list of great war movies. I might add that it also fits on a list of great movies. You can’t say that for many of the other movies on Military History magazine’s list. It is definitely a must see for any movie buff.
MY VIETNAM TOP 10
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Full Metal Jacket
4. We Were Soldiers
5. The Deer Hunter
6. 84 Charlie Mopic
7. Born on the Fourth of July
8. Hamburger Hill
9. Go Tell the Spartans
10. Rescue Dawn
Now that I look at it, that’s a damn fine list of movies. I wonder if there is any other war that has that kind of quality at the top.
THE POSTER: It is certainly eye-catching, but shouldn't it be Christopher Walken with the red head band and the pistol to his head? Let's see, who was the bigger star? Oh, yeah. Never mind. Grade = B
THE TRAILER: The trailer pretty much covers the gist of the movie in 3 minutes. I don't like the way the clips are monotonously broken up with the chilling music and the constant reminder of the name of the movie.
Grade = C
watch this scene