SYNOPSIS: It covers the impact of the Vietnam War on some working-class buddies who live in a Pennsylvania steel town. The first part depicts a traditional wedding of one of them. Three of the friends go to Vietnam and are captured by the Viet Cong and tortured. They eventually get away, but one stays in Vietnam as the other two return home. Michael (Robert DeNiro) goes back to try to find Nick (Christopher Walken).
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.
TRIVIA: wikipedia, imdb, TCM
1. De Niro was a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider who left because of creative differences.
2. John Cazale was dying from terminal cancer. When the studio wanted to drop him, Meryl Streep (who was in a relationship with him) and Cimino threatened to drop out. Since he was uninsurable, De Niro paid the insurance. nominated for Best Picture.
3. Streep’s role was enhanced after she was cast. Cimino had her write her own lines.
4. It was based on a script called “The Man Who Came to Play” which was about Russian roulette in Las Vegas.
5. The scenes in Clairton were actually filmed in eight different towns in four states.
6. The wedding scene lasts 51 minutes. Cimino originally claimed it would last 21 minutes. The Russian immigrants who were the extras for the scene were asked to bring wrapped boxes as authentic looking gifts. When production was over, the crew opened up the boxes and found actual wedding gifts.
7. The deer (actually an elk) that Michael lets go was later used in commercials for Connecticut Life.
8. The river Michael and Steven fall into was the River Kwai. DeNiro and Savage did their own stunt – fifteen times.
9. When Nick spits in Michael’s face, Walken ad-libbed it and De Niro was not happy.
10. The slapping by the Viet Cong leader was for real. Cimino cast an actor who hated Americans
11. When Steven is in the cage and yells “Michael, there’s rats in here”, it was Savage telling Cimino that there were actual rats on the set.
12. De Niro has said that Michael’s visit to see Steven in the hospital was the most emotional scene in his career. He also said the movie was the most physically exhausting of all his movies.
13. When Michael puts the pistol to Stan’s head to reenact Russian roulette, De Niro insisted on a bullet being in the gun. Cazale insisted on checking the gun before each take.
Belle and Blade = 2.5
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 3.1
War Movies = 4.4
Military History = #29
Channel 4 = #12
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #30
OPINION: This is an extremely well-made movie. 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 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.
In 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 #40 on the list of great war movies.