Epic in both scope and intensity, The Deer Hunter burst onto the scene in 1978 and beat Coming Home and Midnight Express to the Best Picture Oscar. Famous for its middle act sequences that involve the torturous game of Russian Roulette, the film has often been hailed as the definitive Vietnam War movie and is forever regarded as a classic.
The Deer Hunter is deliberately and rigidly structured around the basic three-act premise. At three hours in length, the film is majestic without caring the slightest for the audience. This isn't a film that panders to melodrama; you'll be lucky if you spot all of the significant glances or dialogue from the characters. Directed by Michael Cimino, and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale and John Savage, the film became a launching point for some fantastic careers.
Essentially, The Deer Hunter is a snapshot of the destruction the Vietnam War caused not just for the participating soldiers' mental sanity but also for the community they left behind. The film begins in a small grey and misty Pennsylvanian town. Three friends Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) are steelworkers working their last day before they leave for service in Vietnam. Steve is also getting married to Angela (Rutanya Alda), a girl who he has not had sex with and yet is pregnant. The three steelworkers also have other friends - Stan (John Cazale) a weedy hanger-on who gossips too much; John (George Dzundza), the owner of the bar the gang frequent and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) a large and yet loveable oaf. Nick has an on-off girlfriend in Linda (Meryl Steep), a woman who has agreed to live in Nick's place whilst he is in Vietnam to escape her abusive father. The group of friends often spend their free time deer hunting in the mountains, even if they each hold the pastime on a different level of seriousness. Mike sees the hunt as an almost spiritual battle between himself and nature; living by the 'religious' belief that a deer must be taken out by one shot only. In contrast, Stan hunts deer just to fit in with the group, even if deep down he dislikes the sport. Each of the men about to journey to the war possess different personalities - Mike is almost ambiguous in his aloofness; it's hard to tell what actually matters most to him. Nick is charismatic and the most likeable. As Mike's best friend, Nick is often the anchor that stops Mike completely withdrawing from the group's social circle. Steve is timid and quiet; he's almost bullied by his mother over his marriage to Angela, due to not being the father of her baby.
The first act of The Deer Hunter concentrates on Steve and Angela's wedding, and the community's party in which they say goodbye to the three young men signed up for war. This first act is extracted for as long as director Cimino can allow. Many sequences are drawn out deliberately past the point of worthiness, as if Cimino is attempting to heavily reinforce the notion that this small Pennsylvanian community is so forcefully inter-linked.
After the party, the gang embarks on one last deer hunt, and this segues almost startlingly into Vietnam War sequences, in which Mike, Nick and Steve's path intertwine. Without explanation, the three men can be seen imprisoned in a cage placed in water; their Vietcong captors randomly plucking prisoners out of the cage so that they can participate in games of Russian Roulette in which the Vietcong can bet on. For those that don't know - this basically involves players at a table and only one bullet in a gun. A player is not aloud to re-spin the chamber or check for the bullet. The gun is passed to his left and the trigger must be pulled aiming at one's head. If the chamber is empty, you survive. The loser is the unlucky person who shoots his head off with the loaded chamber. After these tragic events, the soldiers and the community are never the same, and Mike has to attempt to find Nick who has gone missing in Vietnam, but if there is one thing that the Deer Hunter promotes, it's the notion that life can be rebuilt.
The film was criticised in some quarters for both glorifying(?) the Vietnam War and presenting the Vietcong as barbaric two-dimensional villains. Some veterans claimed that they never heard of let alone encountered any acts of Russian Roulette whilst serving in Vietnam. If you look closely at the Dirty Harry vehicle Magnum Force, also written by Michael Cimino, you will detect small mentions of Russian Roulette even then, which suggests an unusual preoccupation with the horrific game. It has also been argued that the film would be regarded as emotionally hollow were it not for the excellent and poignant Stanley Myers music score, backed by the world famous guitar rendition of Cavatina by John Williams (not the Star Wars composer). This criticism is mainly due to Robert De Niro's portrayal of the film's main protagonist Mike. De Niro gives Mike an oxymoron personality, in that he is dangerously humane at times, with emotions difficult to penetrate and witness. De Niro was Oscar nominated for his performance, but lost to Jon Voight for Coming Home. Christopher Walken's stunning performance is pivotal in that the film's success hinges upon it. We the audience have to care about Nick and suffer the same loss his home community suffers, else the film is preaching to deaf ears. Walken won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, beating a strong field that included John Hurt, Richard Farnsworth, Jack Warden and Bruce Dern. The most impressive aspect of the cast however, is Meryl Streep as Linda. Streep was engaged to John Cazale at the time, who himself was almost at death's door due to cancer. Cazale struggled to finish the film, dying shortly after it was completed, and Streep accepted the role of Linda just so she could be near her dying fiancť. The film launched Streep to instant fame, and she won an Oscar the next year for Kramer vs. Kramer. Cazale's death cut short a tremendous career. The actor had only appeared in five films, but the quality of these films suggested he had the potential to become a memorable actor (The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Parts I & II).
Production wise, the film is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond captures stark imagery without ever being lush in tone. Images are marvellous without being beautiful, and this gives the film a perfect gritty tone. The editing by Peter Zinner gives the film a powerful narrative drive without pandering to hasty cinematic tricks. It's almost as if the director Cimino has taken the conscious choice to substitute drama for intense realism, and Zinner's editing represents this. As for Cimino himself, the director deservedly won an Oscar for Best Director, since he manages to render the film poetically without absorbing the audience's emotion. The infamous Russian Roulette sequences in particular are both compelling and completely disorientating, and better because of it.
The film isn't without its faults - the "God Bless America" ending could be regarded as overtly patriotic, with the community representing America and its refusal to let any traumatic event destroy it, almost as if the film isn't apologising for America's stupid political decision to become embroiled in Vietnam. Also, at three hours in length, it isn't for the easily distracted, since it isn't difficult to lose interest in the film's first act. Even so, the film is a masterpiece of modern cinema, and one of the most important films to attempt to tackle the Vietnam War as a subject. Cimino blew all the success he had gained on The Deer Hunter by bankrupting United Artists with his next feature Heaven's Gate, an under-rated epic that ensured he wouldn't work in Hollywood for years. Even if he made more movies, he never would have reached these heights again.
Academy Awards 1978
Best Director - Michael Cimino
Best Supporting Actor - Christopher Walken
Best Film Editing - Peter Zinner
Best Sound - C. Darin Knight, William L. McCaughey, Richard Portman, Aaron Rochin
Academy Award Nominations 1978
Best Actor - Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress - Meryl Streep
Best Original Screenplay - Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker, Deric Washburn
Best Cinematography - Vilmos Zsigmond
Presented in widescreen anamorphic 2.35.1, unlike the non-anamorphic Region 1 version, picture quality isn't much better to be honest. Images lack sharpness and the contrast is muted, but the worst part of it is the transfer, which contains some traces of visual echoes during frame transitions and a few artefacts. Even so, the print is very watchable, even if one feels that the Warner Brothers Region 2 transfer might be better.
Presented in the original 2.0 mix, the sound is vivid in audibility even if the stereo elements are underwhelming. The sound track is mostly mono other than a few left/right action-orientated elements that are given spatial channelling. Overall, the sound track is very acceptable.
Menu: A static and stylish menu that incorporates the beautiful Cavatina theme and a few images from the film.
Packaging: An average transparent amaray design with no inserts and a few promotional stills featured on the front cover. Chapter listings are printed on the reverse of the inlay card and visible via the transparent amaray.
Trailer: A long three-minute trailer that is intense and powerful even if it manages to reveal most of the finer portions of the film.
Production Notes: A few pages of onscreen text featuring some production notes from the film.
Photo Gallery: A selection of twenty promotional photos from the film, accessible via user navigation.
Biographies: Brief biographies of the five main stars of the film, combined with their filmographies.
A powerfully intense and deeply moving study of friendship tested during war, The Deer Hunter has lost none of its classic status twenty four years after it was released. The picture and sound departments are fine, with the picture currently being the best version released. The extras are a disappointment, but for a relatively cheap price this Region 4 version might be the most financially viable option.
Recommended R4 suppliers: EzyDVD