THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
REVIEW BY JOHN ULMER (Copyright, 2004)
"One shot is what it's all about. A deer has to be taken with one
Some films lose their charm as they grow older, or after we've already
seen them once. Then, there are the motion pictures such as "The Deer
Hunter" that never become tiring, and remain as haunting and deeply
moving as they were the first time we saw them.
There's that particular infamous scene in "The Deer Hunter" that seems
to remain more disturbing each time we view it, when Michael (Robert
De Niro), a Vietnam veteran, tracks down a friend of his named Nicky
(Christopher Walken), who never arrived home after the war and is
eventually found in Saigon, playing Russian Roulette for money, his
mind an utter mess. He is unable to fully remember Michael, and
refuses to return home, and what proceeds in the following sequence is
a haunting example of gut-wrenching filmmaking.
The movie has two important themes: friendship and war. With "The Lord
of the Rings" featuring a somewhat overblown friendship between Frodo
and Sam (that sometimes borders on being overly-sentimental goo), "The
Deer Hunter" represents a portrait of true, powerful friendship. This
is superior to any of the scenes between Frodo and Sam in "The Lord of
the Rings," the characters here more realistic and empathetic, the
performances more convincing. When he finds Nicky surrounded by men
putting wagers on his life, Michael tries to bring him home, but Nicky
just spits in his face. To reveal his feelings for Nicky, Michael
holds a gun to his own head. "Is this what you want?" he taunts. "I
love you, Nicky." And then he pulls the trigger and the barrel clicks:
empty. Michael's face suddenly drains, a reflection of his inner
This movie features some of the greatest acting in the history of
cinema. Walken picked up the coveted Best Supporting Actor Academy
Award in his breakthrough debut (his short role in "Annie Hall"
notwithstanding), although to this day many viewers argue that De Niro
should have gone home with Best Actor as well (for which he was
nominated). The movie itself was nominated for nine Oscars, and won
The Vietnam sequences take place midway through the movie, serving as
a connection between the beginning and the end, both of which study
the lives of the men and not the war around them. Michael, Nicky and
Steven (John Savage) are young Pennsylvanian miners drafted into the
war. Steven has just gotten married to the love of his life, but has
little time to celebrate as he is shipped overseas with his friends.
They eventually all find themselves taken hostage in a Vietnamese POW
camp where their captors force them to play Russian Roulette. The
rules of the game? Put a single bullet in a random chamber of a
handgun, spin it, snap it, raise it to your head, squeeze the trigger,
and repeat these steps until there's only one man left standing.
After a series of fortunate events Michael, Nicky and Steven escape
and make their way downriver. All three men are eventually rescued,
Nicky via helicopter and Michael and Steven later on. Steven's
battered, infected legs are amputated and he is left helpless in a
wheelchair. Michael returns home as well only to find that Nicky is
still back in Vietnam. Nicky's girlfriend back home, Linda (Meryl
Street), begins to fall in love with Michael, but Michael soon
remembers his promise to Nicky ("If I don't make it back don't leave
me over there") and travels over 2,000 miles back into the middle of
his own personal hell to find and rescue his best friend. It's hard
for him to understand why Nicky doesn't recognize him when he finally
tracks him down. "It's me, Mike." "Mike who?"
Causing mass controversy upon its release because of its alleged
"racist" content regarding the Vietnamese, a crowd of Vietnam veterans
gathered around outside the Oscars ceremony and caused riots as well,
claiming that the film was "not accurate" and somehow insulting to the
veterans of the war.
However as many film historians, authors and critics have already
pointed out, the film is never meant to be a 100% accurate depiction
of the events in Vietnam. It is not really a Vietnam War picture at
all. Instead, it is a focus on the aftermath of war, and how damaging
it can be, both physically and mentally, to its participants. Because
of the era that "The Deer Hunter" was released in, Vietnam was a
recent event, the focus of the nation, and is therefore used as a more
convenient -- and relative -- backdrop (much like "Apocalypse Now").
Unlike "Platoon" this is not a movie relating specifically to the
Vietnam War, in fact less than a half an hour is devoted to the war
scenes. It is a character study, and accusations of racism -- although
perhaps justified to some extent -- are hardly convincing as the film
itself is not concerned with bashing the participants of the war as it
is the war itself.
It is the film's necessary setup that is often called long and boring
and, ironically, unnecessary, but this is essentially where the nature
of each character is examined for the audience. To launch directly
into the war sequences would be sloppy, and we would have a harder
time caring for the characters. Instead, we are given scenes with
weddings, discussions, and hunting trips -- normal events. Then, the
end, a somber reflection upon the past, chronicles the aftermath of
the damaging events in the lives of Michael, Steven, Nicky and their
loved ones. Michael has a hard time adapting back to his normal life.
It would be hard for anyone, after experiencing such damaging events
De Niro made a few post-Vietnam films during the '70s and '80s, the
most famous being "Taxi Driver," in which Travis Bickle was totally
unable to find his way in life again after the war and resorted to
violence in order to justify his existence and release his anger. "The
Deer Hunter" is similar in approach but reveals more background; this
would be a suitable prequel of sorts if the names had been changed.
Over the years "The Deer Hunter" has surprisingly gained a fairly bad
reputation -- most of which stems back to the controversy surroundings
its release and protested accolades. Director Michael Cimino's
follow-up ("Heaven's Gate") was an enormous flop, bankrupting United
Artists, and he had a hard time finding work afterwards. His first
feature film, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," which starred Clint
Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, was a buddy road movie that was also a sign
of things to come in Cimino' later features, most notably the process
of male bonding, which is a huge primal element in this project.
Cimino was an extremely talented and visionary director, and it's a
shame that the ambition of "Heaven's Gate" cost him his career.
And furthermore, despite the negativity surrounding "The Deer Hunter,"
it is still one of the finest works of American cinema, a touching,
poignant and ultimately depressing film that asks us if the effects of
war extend past the physical and into the realm of human mentality.
Yes, I think they do.
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