on December 3, 2003
The first time I watched this extraordinary film, I didn't like it as much as I would later on. At first it seemed a little sloppy and slow, with some very intense and memorable sequences. This is definitely a film that grows on you, and come to love after a few viewings. Robert DeNiro stars as Michael, an ambitious guy who loves to shoot pool with his buddies and go hunting. Their world suddenly changes when Michael and his two friends Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) go off to war in Vietnam.
This film shows the brutal intensity and reality of war and what the main characters are forced to go through. When they finally get back, their social and home lives have changed...mostly for the worse. We then see how each character copes with the effects of war, and loss of friendship.
One thing I've learned about some great masterpieces, is that they always seem to have a song before a huge event occurs. For example, in Pulp Fiction "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," before Mia overdoses. In "The Deer Hunter," there is a scene early on in the film where all friends sing and dance to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" with Christopher Walken leading. This scene sticks out in my mind as brilliant. While watching this scene, you become absorbed in the film and become close friends with the characters. It's really powerful, and a last good time before going off to war.
You may start watching this film and find the picture to be too grainy, or the plot too boring, but trust me...stick with it. It will most definitely be a film that will stay in your heart for some time.
on November 5, 2003
The Deer Hunter was a very important film in that it, if nothing else, served as one of the first studies of the effects of the Vietnam war on the average American citizen. While film and television had dealt with the Vietnam conflict to some degree previous to this (John Wayne's The Green Berets  and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episode entitled "In Praise of Pip"  come to mind), serious efforts in depicting the war realistically, as well as the war's effects on its participants, had simply been avoided, presumably for political and social reasons. With the release of "The Deer Hunter" (as well as with "Coming Home") in 1978, the topic of Vietnam was presented to the public in the form of gritty, realistic productions from major studios. These 2 films certainly must have had an impact on an audience which may not have had a personal, non-distilled understanding of the Vietnam war prior to their release. In fact, graphic scenes such as the Russian Roulette sequence of the Deer Hunter may have (erroneously) informed many on what the everyday GI in Vietnam had to endure at the hands of the VietCong. In this respect, I can understand the distain that reviewers such as Yisrael Harris ("Fantasy Masquerading as Reality") have for this film. As one of the first dramatic studies of Vietnam ever committed to celluloid, it could be said that the narrative of The Deer Hunter had a responsibility to portray events according to historical truths. This would insure that the structure of the film would faithfully inform a public that may have been getting their first glimpse of war-time atrocities. That being said, I think it is wrong to condemn the film based upon the fact that the historical accuracy of a key sequence is unfounded in the record books. Certainly, the atrocities committed by both sides of the Vietnam conflict were unimaginably cruel (ex: My Lai). When one considers this, is it that far-fetched to ask the viewer to believe that a gang of Vietcong could ruthlessly force US POWs to engage in Russian Roulette for their sick enjoyment and financial gain? I think it is a perfectly legitimate concept and, in the midst of so much war and bloodshed, what makes it inappropriate, other than the fact that it is undocumented? (In a far more legitimate criticism, one could make the argument that the Vietnamese soldiers are unfairly depicted as one-dimensional, innately cruel, soulless dregs). Nothing portrayed in that sequence would be considered 'unfathomable' in the pantheon of war. In Harris's review, he states that "I took it for granted, without even a second thought, that these [Russian Roulette] scenes portrayed a phenomenon that was a legitimate part of the Vietnam War experience". At no point does the film suggest that this type of activity was a widespread phenomenon within Vietnam. The film treats this as an isolated incident within one remote POW camp. To take for granted that this type of behavior was widespread is simply inappropriate and is not a product of a suggestive script, but rather an uninformed viewer. It is true that the Russian Roulette scene has more than a passing influence on the rest of the film, what with Christopher Walken's character becoming a willing pawn in an underground roulette gambling ring under a drug-influenced stupor. But this is an organized arrangement entered into by two willing parties, not an act of torture, as the previous scene is. Harris goes on in his review to ask "So what is the message of this movie?" and wonders how "to treat seriously a movie which takes such pains to build up a realistic group of characters... when a central pillar of the experience of the movie is total fantasy-land". Again, I hardly think that Russian Roulette is an unfathomable event within the scope of one of the bloodiest conflicts in US history, and the analogy of suggesting the similarity of a Russian Roulette sequence to a UFO invasion is utterly ridiculous. As they say, all is fair in love and war, and the idea that man's inhumanity to man could not include a cruel game of Russian Roulette is simply naive. The fact that there are no recorded incidents of this happening is irrelevant. This is after all, a fictitious account of ordinary people devastated by war, and in that regard it works on many levels. Besides, if the ultimate goal of the picture is to show the destructive power of war, both physically or emotionally, what difference does it make which vehicle is used to illustrate the destruction?
on October 22, 2003
The Deer Hunter is a very powerful movie and hard to describe without actually seeing it. During the late 1970s Hollywood put out a string of epics with a three hour + running time. The Deer Hunter was one of them. The Deer Hunter is not for everyone, although it does cater for all audiences. It has war /drama /romance /horror and mystery all rolled into one. Essentially the film is about friendship and how the Vietnam war ruined the lives of everyday people. But Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now have all told us this type of story before. What makes the Deer Hunter any different?
The Deer Hunter works on the basis of realism. There is no Hollywood type plot here and it certainly has art house appeal even though it boasts an A-list cast. The story is sometimes linear and then sometimes not. The characters are not entirely fleshed out fully, their backgrounds a mystery and their psychological profiles left uncertain but there are connections and this is all relative to the storyline which is essentially about friendship, lovers and coping with the aftermath of war. It is often very shocking in parts, especially the infamous "Russian roulette" sequences which is played out in a hyper-realistic manner.
Robert De Niro plays Michael Vronsky, a sort of quiet hard man who only speaks when he feels he has something to say and who has a soft spot for a girl called Linda, played by Meryl Streep. Linda agrees to marry Nick played by Christopher Walken, Michaels best friend, during a wedding between Steven played by John Savage, and his wife Angela played by Rutanya Alda. All of these three men are also celebrating enlisting for the army so that they can fight in the Vietnam war. Three of their best friends - Axel, Stanley and John are not going and will remain in the town of Clairton, Pennsylvania awaiting the return of the war heroes. All of the friends have a few things in common. They work in a steel factory, go deer hunting and like to drink beer together. The filmmakers build up an intimate relationship between the characters and again, realism, is the key to how the story is presented. There are lots of shots with nothing much going on and sequences that are simply not relevant to the plot, but all of it is used in a way to make the story much more believable.
It is suffice to say the war wrecks havoc on everybody and friendships suffer. The good times are mostly lost and the war veterans are trying to come to terms with themselves. Michael is still trying to act the hard man, trying to fix things, make everybody better - but there is very little he can do about it no matter how hard he tries. He has gone through so much that he does not want to see it all in vain, but he can not do anything and this frustrates him. Nick has gone insane is virtually replaying his role as a prisoner of war for all the world to see... and bet on. Steven is a cripple and his wife has put him in a institution. Linda is confused and just wants a man to settle down with her. It is all very sad and played with absolute authenticity.
The Deer Hunter is not a film that you are supposed to enjoy. It is more of an experience and you will have to be in the right frame of mind to sit through it without putting your finger on the fast-forward button. If you like it, like I and many others do, then you will enjoy repeat viewings. There is certainly something new every time you see it. For those of you that do not like slow moving dramas then avoid.... but you do not know what you are missing.
on October 19, 2003
Post-modern criticism teaches that all language and judgement is culturally relative. This film exemplifies that. It spoke to a particular people at a particular time and place. It won't make much sense to today's Iraq War generation.
The Deer Hunter was set near the end of the Viet Nam war when popular dissent against the war was starting to take hold in Main Street, USA. This movie is not about evil Vietnamese or American heroes. It's not about patriotism. None of the themes that sway today's generation made sense then.
This movie is about people - American teenage boys - and their breaking points. These youung men were born into a place with no opportunity, and no choice but to follow a path laid out for them by forces much stronger than they. In a deeper way, this movie is about the poor people who have fought rich men's wars throughout history.
The Deer Hunter was deeply anti-war - it was also deeply pro-American. Neither government hawks nor Jane Fonda Hollywood liberals liked this movie.
One part of this movie is even more endearing today than it was in the 1970's - setting the heart of it among the Eastern European, Ukrainian, Russian Orthodox church people of Western Pennsylvania; a hard-working white ethnic area of miners and steel-mill factory workers.
I don't know if I would recommend this movie to anyone who didn't live through that era. But I am richer for having seen it. It is a brilliant snapshot of an American time and place that is gone now.
on October 16, 2003
Of a more than three hours long movie this is the line that drew most my attention, as I consider this movie to be about the war aftermath rather than war itself. The people who went to this war became its very victims, as they were used for the whims of others.
This flawed but yet beautiful movie is divided in three parts: before, during and after Vietnam war, the happy-go-lucky attitude, the horror and disillusion. Many have complained about the overlength of the wedding scenes, but I guess it was Cimino's intention, as he first allows the viewer to get to know the main characters in order to "make him suffer" more later in the movie.
What comes after the wedding and the last time the guys were hunting together is much more controversial. As to this movie's realism, some of the things that bother me the most are the morality of Michael Cimino's attitude to his story-telling, his one sided approach of the war and his politically correct treatment of the vietnamese: all the atrocities portrayed in this film are committed by the Viet Cong. As for the highly controversial russian roulette contests scenes, which by the way are some of the most dramatic and most beautiful scenes ever to be captured by a camera, although they never really took place, they can be justifiable. The whole thing can be viewed as a metaphore, trying to depict the absurdity of the Vietnam War, as the whole movie itself is not a realistic, but a surrealistic work. Even the landscape is surrealistic. But even so, the question remains moot.
The best thing in this movie is certainly the acting. De Niro gives one of his best performances ever, especially in the Vietnam scenes and later on. When he comes back home he feels a tremendous void: he has serious problems connecting to people, as the war experience was too mindboggling for him to even try to talk about it. He makes you feel the devastation that touched America and how this war scarred forever its psyche. Chris Walken deserved the best supporting actor academy award he won that year for his part in this movie: his portrayal of the one descending slowly into madness is at least memorable. Meryl Streep is fantastic too: the chemistry between her and De Niro is obvious, but what I liked the most about her performance is her quiet inner nervousness, her inner trauma as she struggles between her loyalty to Nicky and her attraction to Michael and her need for some consolation. Savage and Cazale are excellent too.
The closing scene is one of the saddest I've ever seen in a movie, as they all sing a patriotic song in order to try and regain the natural feeling they once proved, all wrecked beyond repair, realizing that something has gone forever.
All in all a masterpiece, although a flawed film, but frankly, how many flawless masterpieces have you seen in your life?
on October 6, 2003
While "Deer Hunter" was an important early movie dealing with the Vietnam War, it has its flaws which seem to magnify every time I see it. Like a lot of people, when I first saw it in a theater many, many years ago, I was shaken up, and believed that Cimino's movie was deservedly heading for the Oscars.
After a quarter-century I now believe the movie was deliberately manipulative and distorted. Yes, it's good that "Deer Hunter" showed how ordinary Americans' lives were warped and shattered by the war, but so did "Coming Home." But this is a very one-sided movie, a triumph of rugged machismo individualism (De Niro's character) over faceless, mindless adversaries. Why were they sent to Vietnam? What did they do? The battle scenes make no sense. How did they get captured? Cimino's chronic lack of focus has been picked up by others.
The Russian Roulette scenes are simultaneously classic and highly objectionable. I have yet to read of any documented instances of NVA or VC, who are depicted in this movie as soulless insect-like goons, forcing prisoners to do this. Likewise, I don't recall seeing anything about this catching on as a Saigon blood sport. This is a Hollywood conceit and artifice, and feeds American stereotypes and racial attitudes for the worse. The movie treats the Vietnamese as hopelessly alien sub-humans who inflict terrible things upon innocent Americans. It this is your bag, at least "Hanoi Hilton" tries to have some basis in fact.
The best thing about "Deer Hunter" is the acting. The young De Niro, Streep, and Walken are superb. What the movie makes them do is not their fault.
I will offend lots of people when I say that of movies that deal with the aftermath of soldiers' experiences in Vietnam, "Born On The Fourth of July" is a better and less objectionable movie.
on September 10, 2003
The reviewer who gave it a rating of 1 probably experienced this film more fully than anyone who is viewing as part of the "Vietnam" pantheon. I think we need to be looking a bit more closely at what the filmmaker was trying to say and how he went about it.
A little secret... this movie is about how human beings (who are complex even when they're poor!) deal with traumatic events.
The first part of the movie sets up the characters and their respective situations and relationships, including the trauma of their current lives (in the good old US of A).
The second part is the "event". Oooooh. Get over it, it's not the point of the movie. Really.
From hospital in Saigon onward (when most people nod off) is where the filmmaker is getting to the point. This film is a treasure of themes and symbolism, probably too much so for most people. If you are interested in stories about real people, what symbols they can represent, and the intertwining of themes throughout a story, then you should not miss this film. View it at one sitting without distraction and you will likely come away profoundly affected.
on August 26, 2003
For many of us who came of age during the Vietnam conflict, this was the first of many movies to treat with broad-brush approach the way the war raging across the ocean affected us so profoundly. And given its all-star cast of Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and others, one can hardly question the level of seriousness and calculation with which the subject was broached. Yet in many ways this otherwise wonderful depiction of how so many working class boys became men and had their lives altered forever by the experience of Vietnam is flawed by its pedestrian treatment of the war itself.
Thus, while this is truly a wonderful work of entertainment, its tongue-in-cheek depiction of a band of buddies who enlist and serve together in Vietnam is sheer nonsense at the level of realistic portrayal of men in combat. The very idea that Viet Cong soldiers would knowingly arm any American soldier with a loaded weapon while in captivity strains to the point of credulity any subsequent dramatic effort that depends so strenuously on such an action. So too does DeNiro's suave and cavalier soldier of fortune pose, bedecked as it is with a stylish and rakish Van Dyke type beard and longish hair. As a special forces soldier, he would hardly have been so romantically attired or coiffed.
Please don't misunderstand me; this is a great film as long as it sticks to things found native in the American landscape, although the sequences depicting the deer slayer type scenes are not terribly accurate either. Yet somehow this small steel-town boy is some kind of phenomenal marksman, without much practice or explanation where this unusual skill came from. Yet in spite of these obvious shortcomings, DeNiro, Streep, and Savage add immeasurably to the level of the film through wonderful performances. Walken, as usual, is quite over the top, although the part itself is so far fetched that it is hard to see how he could have made it more believable or empathetic. The cinematography is evocative and stirring, and the combat scenes were shot in a topographical setting quite reminiscent of the tropical forests and the muddy rivers of Vietnam.
The true story is back at home, however, where the survivors have to do the best they can to string their broken lives back together in some semblance of meaningful adulthood in the wake of the devastation the war leaves in its wake. In that sense this is a very accurate portrayal of the way the war came home to change America forever. This is a terrific film; one wishes the director had opted for a little more realism and accuracy in his portrayal of the actual experience ion Vietnam. Enjoy!
Nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1978, The Deer Hunter received five for best film, best director (Michael Cimino), and best actor in a supporting role (Christopher Walken) as well as for editing and sound. It also generated a great deal of controversy immediately after its release, notably about the inclusion of Russian roulette contests which the Viet Cong require their prisoners to play; also about the portrayal of the Viet Cong themselves as heartless, bloodthirsty animals. Nonetheless, The Deer Hunter remains one of the most highly-regarded films about, arguably, the most unpopular war in which the United States has ever been involved. (Curiously, very few outstanding films have as yet examined another unpopular war, the so-called "police action" in Korea.) Guns of various kinds contribute to the film's dramatic impact. The pistols used in the aforementioned Russian roulette contests, of course, but also the rifles which Michael (Robert De Niro) and his buddies carry with them into the Pennsylvania mountains during their last deer hunt together before several report for military duty. Throughout the film, Michael remains the unquestioned leader of his friends in Clairton, a steel mill town, and takes personal responsibility for each of them.
Those who admire this film as much as I do have their own reasons. Here are mine. First, Michael's efforts to locate and save (in several different ways) Nick (Walken) during the last days of the war as well as his efforts to return Steven (John Savage) to Clairton from a veterans' hospital combine and illustrate so many of the film's basic themes. For me, these efforts also indicate how committed Michael is to friendship worthy of the name.
Also, the scenes in Clairton create a profoundly human frame-of-reference for the inhumanities which Michael and others experienced during the war in Viet Nam. This is especially true of Steven's wedding and reception, later when Michael strolls with Linda (Meryl Streep) to her job in the grocery store, and especially at the end of the film when they and their friends assemble in the tavern for breakfast and quietly sing "God Bless America." Vilmos Zsigmund was nominated for an Academy Award for his cinematography in 1978 but Days of Heaven was selected and I have no quarrel with that selection. The Deer Hunter deserved its nomination but, in my opinion, the other three (Heaven Can Wait, Same Time Next Year, and The Wiz) did not.
The third reason (among several others) for my great admiration of this film is that the impact of the war is so effectively dramatized in the lives of the central characters, of course, but also in the lives of their family members and friends in Clairton. In the same year (1978), another controversial film, Coming Home, was also released. Its focus is limited almost entirely to Sally and Bob Hyde's marriage (Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern) which gradually disintegrates, only in part because of Sally's involvement with Luke Martin (Jon Voight). In The Deer Hunter, the scope is much wider but the war's impact is no less destructive, notably in the lives of Nick, Steven, and his wife. The changes in Michael's life are also significant but at least he has gained some wisdom and, as the film ends, we are left with the thought that he and Linda will begin a new life together. There is an especially significant moment during the wedding reception when Michael and his friends attempt to engage a soldier in conversation. Only later do we realize how much of a harbinger the soldier's dark attitude is. He has already experienced and been changed by what yet awaits for Michael, Nick, and Steven.
Voight rather than De Niro received the Academy Award as best actor (as did Fonda as best actress) but The Deer Hunter and Cimino prevailed in competition with Coming Home and Hal Ashby. In my opinion, all deserved their nominations and each would have been a worthy recipient. One final opinion: In years to come, The Deer Hunter will continue to be held in high esteem but I doubt if that will also be true of Coming Home whose dramatic impact depends almost entirely on the performances by Fonda, Dern, and especially Voight.
on July 19, 2003
A friend of mine asked me a while back whether I could recommend a good film to watch.Making an earlier note that Deer Hunter was on TV that evening, I made sure to stress that on no account he should miss that film.I was very surprised to find out that not only he has not seen it yet, but he knew little about it. So I volunteered to explain why I consider the Deer Hunter one of the most beautiful films ever made.
Firstly, it is not a war film a la Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Thin Red Line, yet it is all about war. The effect of war on the human soul, though the film is set in Vietnam, it can really be any war,anywhere,at any point in time. Only the strongest will survive the cruelty,savagery and uncertainty of war,and the weaker ones will succumb to its evil grasp which will destroy them forever. This is the story of the Deer Hunter.It is also about friendship, the bond of which is continiously tested, yet survives the most 'testing' hardships.
Friends from a small steel town in Pennsylvania, live a normal peaceful life, they marry, hunt deers together, and basically get on with their lives, then Vietnam happens, and they are drafted, and their whole lives irreversibaly change forever. The before and after of war/Vietnam is what the Deer Hunter is all about.The scenes in the actual war are only a very small part of the whole story, the highlight of which is probably the most legendary scene in movie history, The Russian Roulette, a nerve racking and very violent scene that cleverly reflects the insanity of war.
There are so many other memorable scenes,(the wedding scene is the best wedding put on celluloid!) but there is one scene that affected me as much:
Coming back from a hunting trip on the eve of their departure to Vietnam, the six friends finish their day in an empty bar, still on a high, until John (George Dzundza)plays a beautiful ballad on the piano, and suddenly they become silent, and when the last note fades, they all look at each other without saying a word, realizing the fate that awaits them, a change so perfectly captured on camera!
This is all the work of a genuis of a director, Michael Cimino, whose self indulgence in his underrated masterpiece Heaven's Gate that bankrupted Universal Studios, and an unforgiving Hollywood, curtailed a true talent.But on The Deer Hunter he was the 'King of the World' and helped create an original cinematic masterpiece. All the actors give their best for him, Deniro, Walken, Savage, a still unknown Meryl Streep, and a dying John Cazale (With his untimely death, American cinema lost one of its treasures!).
So..my friend was convinced and he promised to watch it, most probably because he wanted to avoid listening again to my diatribe about the film!!
But he did and he called me the following day with only one word: WOW!
Not only that, but he went straight and bought the film on DVD.
The Deer Hunter is what the term 'my movie library' was made for!! If you have not bought it yet, you should immediately do so, and it is guaranteed you will be in awe, totally captivated by sheer genuis! WOW indeed!