Movie Name: The Deer Hunter
Studio: EMI Films
Release Date(s): December 8, 1978
MPAA Rating: R
A group of friends living in Clairton, Pennsylvania spend their days working in the steel mill and hunting in the mountain. As war comes to Clairton, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), and Steve Pushkov (John Savage) decide to enlist for Vietnam. Steve takes the opportunity to marry, Nick says goodbye to his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), and Michael and the other all have one last hunting party with their friends. When a chance meeting in Vietnam brings them back together, all of them are captured and forced into a dangerous game. When Michael leads an escape, getting free might be easy…but no one truly escapes.
Directed by Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter was a big success and one of the first Vietnam War films. It won Best Picture (with John Wayne giving away the award at his final public appearance), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Editing, and Best Sound with nomination for Best Actor (Robert DeNiro), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Cinematography, and Best Writing.
The Vietnam War ripped America open and The Deer Hunter was an early attempt to deal with this. The movie contrasts the ideas glories of the heroes of past wars with the reality that became Vietnam (a meeting with a vet at the wedding foreshadows the change).
The movie is often noted for feeling really long. The movie’s length has a purpose. It shows the life before war, life during war, and life after war. All three men become different people physically and mentally. DeNiro is the only one to come back intact, but even he is uncertain and changed. If the movie wasn’t as long as it was, it wouldn’t have the impact. In spite of this, I do feel it could have been trimmed down and I felt the “God Bless America” singing was a bit too much…I got it by that point.
The movie’s intense most intense scene is obviously its most controversial scene. There were a lot of objections to the use of Russian roulette since there wasn’t any evidence of this occurring even among prisoners of war. Still, this is an incredibly tense scene and really can almost be seen as a symbolic game of Russian roulette that everyone who went to Vietnam was forced to play. Some made it through the war unscathed…others were wounded for life.
The acting in the movie is great. DeNiro’s detached nature before the war allowed him to be detached during war. In scenes like the Russian roulette scene, DeNiro is scary…but I also found him a bit scary during the hunting scene before they went to war when he refused John Cazale (in his final role…he was dying from cancer at the time) his boots. Walken’s deadpan and stoic expression helps make him look crazed when he’s at the end of his rope right before the evacuation. Even Meryl Streep in her relatively small role shows why she became a great actress (she also was given the liberty to ad lib most of her lines).
The Deer Hunter is an interesting film to look at as a historical piece. It was one of the first attempts to understand Vietnam and what it did to people who went there. The horrors seen at home didn’t match the horror that the soldiers went through. The movie might not show the horrible homecomings or resentment that many solders faced returning home, but it does show how even with a supportive home front, the return home wasn’t always possible.