THE DEER HUNTER (1978)

  • Director: Michael Cimino
  • Writers: Screenplay by Deric Washburn, Story by Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis A. Garfinkle & Quinn K. Redeker
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale, and George Dzundza
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#79), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#91), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#35), 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Michael Cimino, Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Walken, Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Robert De Niro, Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video or YouTube

The late 60s to very early 80s are seen by some as the height of Hollywood cinema, when the tyranny of the studio system had been broken but new rules hadn’t really evolved to take their place. This was the era of the egotistic iconoclasts, that was dominated by the Kubricks and Coppolas of the world and that spawned Spielberg, Scorsese, and Lucas. Of all of these, Michael Cimino may have burned the brightest the fastest. In The Deer Hunter, his second feature film, he somehow got a studio to pay for and release a three hour complete downer of a movie about a war that had just ended three years earlier. In his next movie, Heaven’s Gate, it would be Cimino who may have brought the era of completely unchecked auteurs to a close, and drove the studio that released it, United Artists, into bankruptcy.

But we’re here today to talk about The Deer Hunter, which had the distinction of being the first really popular film about Vietnam to be released after the end of the war. In its favor it has some truly spectacular visuals, but honestly it drove me a little nuts. That it’s over three hours long isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem is that, if you let me have a crack at editing this movie, I’m not convinced that I couldn’t get it down under an hour with the exact same number of actual events.

The Deer Hunter centers around a trio of friends (played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) from a small steel-working town in Western Pennsylvania, who as the film starts are about to leave for Vietnam. The film starts with a solid hour’s worth of a wedding at a Russian Orthodox church, between Savage’s character and his pregnant girlfriend. Meryl Streep plays Walken’s girlfriend, but we see De Niro’s character is also in love with her. We see the friends, along with the rest of a group of buddies that includes John Cazale, go on a final deer hunt high in the mountains. This part was shot at high altitude in the Cascades. Anyone who’s been to Pennsylvania knows that it doesn’t look like this, but it lends itself to some visuals unlike those you’ll see in any other movie.

The middle section takes place in Vietnam. The men are taken captive by the Viet Cong, and forced to play Russian Roulette against each other. They eventually escape by convincing their captors to put extra rounds in the chamber and then shooting them. De Niro returns to his hometown, covered in medals, but finds that Savage, badly wounded, is now living in a VA hospital, away from his wife and child. De Niro tries to go deer hunting again, but can’t shoot the deer when he has the chance. Walken never returned, and De Niro (after starting an affair with Streep) returns to Vietnam to try and find him. Walken, apparently traumatized by the war, is performing in secret underground Russian Roulette games in Saigon. De Niro enters one to get close to him, but Walken shoots himself in the head and dies. All of the remaining characters go to his funeral, then sing “God Bless America” in the bar where they used to hang out. The End.

What many people remember about this movie are the Russian Roulette sequences, though there is no record of any such torture method being employed in Vietnam during the war. In addition, at least 25 unfortunate people are alleged to have died playing Russian Roulette because they saw it in this movie, when before this it wasn’t really part of the cultural zeitgeist. In a metaphorical sense, though, it does work in the context of the movie. Surviving Vietnam, and war in general, feels to many soldiers like just a game of chance.

It’s bizarre from a modern perspective to think of Walken as a handsome young leading man, but he looks the part here. He would win his only Oscar for his role, which included a crash diet to look unhealthy and gaunt in the film’s third act. De Niro, meanwhile, was the only member of the cast to already be considered a major star going into this movie. He was the young, method acting hot shot of his era. He reportedly prepared by hanging out with local steelworkers in bars, and supposedly insisted in one scene in the third act where he presses a gun to Cazale’s forehead that there be a bullet in the chamber, for realism. I’m all for method acting, but that seems to be taking things a bit far. It may be considered blasphemy by some, but I generally find De Niro to be… fine? I didn’t grow up on Scorsese’s gangster movies to the degree that a lot of people my age did. I don’t dislike his work, but he doesn’t make a movie for me, either.

At the time he shot his part for this movie, John Cazale was very sick with lung cancer. His girlfriend at the time, Streep, took her part in this movie, despite considering to basically be an underwritten girlfriend character,  in order to continue spending time with him. De Niro paid for his insurance, as he was considered uninsurable at the time, because he wanted him on the movie. Cazale died shortly after completing his role, and never saw the completed film. He made exactly five movies over his seven year career, all five of which were at least nominated for Best Picture. For her part, Streep brought a surprising depth to a character that, she was right, didn’t have much to it on the page, and she earned her first of a record 21 Oscar nominations. 

Back to Cimino, whose story is inextricably tied to this movie. Under his guidance, the movie went wildly overbudget. Producers thought the wedding sequence would only go on for a few minutes of screen time, but Cimino shot it for days at St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church in Cleveland. The shoot took place in summer, but the scene was supposed to take place in the fall, so Cimino ordered that individual leaves be removed from the deciduous trees. The crew allegedly discovered that, even though the wedding presents were all wrapped and in boxes, they all contained actual wedding presents such as silverware, “for realism.”

The President of Universal Studios later described post-production on this movie (and remember, this was after it made a bunch of money and won Best Picture) as “a continuing nightmare… This was simply because [Cimino] was wedded to everything he shot. The movie was endless. It was The Deer Hunter and the Hunter and the Hunter.” That’s the version that ended up getting released and you can now watch on Peacock, by the way, because Cimino fired his editor (who later forgave him after winning an Oscar for the Film Editing he did not get to do). The studio test-screened two different versions of the movie, one of which was substantially shorter, but the story goes that Cimino bribed the projectionist in the theater showing the shorter version in order to get it to test lower. 

The longer version was released, became a hit, and won a bunch of Oscars. He was vindicated. Then he got a blank check to make a western named Heaven’s Gate, also starring Walken, and it is now considered one of the great disasters of movie history. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been told it’s four hours long (he tried to release a five hour version, but the studio flatly refused), and that five of those minutes involve an uninterrupted fiddle solo on roller skates. United Artists, which had been founded by Chaplin, Griffith, Fairbanks, and Pickford, was literally driven out of business. The New York Times said that Cimino must have “sold his soul to the devil to make The Deer Hunter, and now the devil has come to collect.” Maybe he did. But I also kind of don’t want to watch The Deer Hunter again, either. I do think I respect it, but I don’t really need to watch it again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: