The 50 Greatest Dramas: #49: The Deer Hunter (1978)

Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter

Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Michael Cimino’s Vietnam odyssey takes three Pennsylvania steelworkers to hell and back. Starring Robert De Niro, the film introduced cinemagoers to Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep

It takes a true visionary to see exactly how the times are a-changing. In the latter half of the 1970s, with only Thunderbolt And Lightfoot (1974) to his name, Michael Cimino approached the Hollywood studios with his pitch for The Deer Hunter. They all baulked, unconvinced that the American cinema-going public was ready to see the recent wounds of Vietnam reopened.

Unconcerned, Cimino secured financial backing outside the usual channels by turning to Britain’s EMI, and then took further decisions that, at least at the time, seemed crazy: making the film last a whopping three hours (with a Russian Orthodox wedding sequence near the film’s beginning matching the length of all the war scenes in the middle), and placing alongside his established star Robert De Niro an ensemble of relative or total unknowns, as well as John Cazale, whose cancer meant there was a real risk that he would not live to complete his final part (in fact he died shortly after the production ended).

The rest is history. The Deer Hunter swept the board at film awards ceremonies, was a phenomenon at the box-office, and launched the cinematic careers of newcomers Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. The reasons behind its great success are easy enough to see: it boasts extraordinarily nuanced performances from what is, at least in retrospect, a dream cast; it is technically very accomplished, without once seeming flashy or ringing false; and it manages to root its grand epic themes in a compellingly intimate human drama. The Deer Hunter is, in short, a deserved classic. The film also, in its day, courted considerable controversy, chiefly because of its portrayal of Vietcong soldiers forcing their prisoners (American and Vietnamese alike) to play Russian roulette. ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda, whose own, similarly themed film Coming Home was in fierce competition with The Deer Hunter at the 1979 Academy Awards, accused Cimino of racism, historians denied that there was any evidence of Russian roulette being played in the conflict, while a confederacy of psychologists and media pundits blamed the film for a spate of Russian roulette-related deaths in the US following its release.

The Deer Hunter

There is no doubt that Cimino’s chosen focus is on his American characters, although whether this constitutes racism is more open to question - he certainly does not shy away from showing American brutality. Cimino has subsequently defended his film’s historical accuracy by claiming that Russian roulette is used on POWS even to this day as a weapon of torture - but it does not follow from this that it was ever used in Vietnam, and the uncomfortable probability remains that the ‘continuing’, if thankfully marginalised, practice in today’s conflicts is inspired less by the realities of the Indo-Chinese experience than by the accessible fictions of The Deer Hunter itself.

What is certain is that the film’s Russian roulette sequences constitute an arresting metaphor for the random cruelty of death in war and, thanks to the care which Cimino has taken in building up the viewer’s investment in his tormented characters, these scenes are as involving, upsetting and unbearably tense as anything that has ever appeared in cinema. Viewed now, some decades after it was made, what seems most striking about The Deer Hunter is the sensitivity with which it charted the shifting mood of its times. After Vietnam, after Watergate, after nearly a decade of self-examination, anti-authoritarianism and cynicism, when all the old American verities had fallen away and patriotism had become a dirty word, Cimino seemed almost alone in discerning that, in a nation shaken to its very foundations by distrust, there still remained a growing desire to return to some of the old faiths, values and traditions.

The Deer Hunter

His story of three young working-class men from the heartlands (De Niro, Walken, John Savage), whose lives are all forever changed by their tour of duty in Vietnam, is a harrowing reflection of America’s experience in the first half of the 1970s; but the film’s final, ambivalent sequence, in which the two survivors gather at a wake for the third with a small group of friends and lovers and find solace in the words of ‘God Bless America’, instead looks forward to the future.

Cimino’s characters, who are only semi-articulate at the best of times, never actually voice an opinion on America’s Indo-Chinese ventures, and it is not clear whether Michael, Nick and Steve go to Vietnam because they are patriots, or conscripts, or because it is in their eyes, much like the mountains back home where they hunt for deer, just another all-male domain in which they can play out their games of cameraderie and machismo. In this way, Cimino side-stepped the narrow ideological controversies of his times, making a film that could (and did) touch both fervent supporters and vehement opponents of the Vietnam War - and the same is true for his ending, which seems to reassert an America that rests on faith and patriotism, even as it calls into question whether such terms can any longer have the same meaning as they did before. It is a mixed message that looks back to all the doubts and disillusionments of the seventies, while at the same time paving the way for the new conservatism of the eighties under Reagan.

Deer Hunter

On top of all this, The Deer Hunter is at once a war epic (whose focus on the homecoming of De Niro’s hero Michael Vronsky evokes both Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’), a realistic portrait of a sleepy Russian Orthodox steeltown in Pennsylvania, and a story of male friendship that, post-Brokeback Mountain, seems full of unspoken desire and sublimated longings. It is rich, messy, and unmissable.

 

Verdict
Gauging the shifting moods of the 1970s, this tale of life and love disrupted by war is as arresting as a bullet to the brain.

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