If we consider The Deer Hunter as a film about Vietnam, it is incredibly simplistic and sometimes downright stupid. But it's not principally a film about Vietnam at all. Instead, it's about how men bond, inter-relate, become close, drift apart and, fundamentally, love each other. Vietnam is used as a rite of passage, allegorical more than anything else. The film is as much about America as about South-East Asia; it's incredibly confused and sometimes downright silly. It's also brilliantly made, eloquent and genuinely moving.
Beginning in industrial Pennsylvania in the early seventies (presumably, the time scale being one of the flaws of the film), the film traces the emotional journey of three friends; Michael (De Niro), Nick (Walken) and Steven (Savage). It is the last weekend before they are shipped to Vietnam and Steven is getting married to his fiance Angela (Rutanya Alda). The men drink, brawl and bond and then go into the mountains for one last deer hunt, a yearly ritual which is particularly relished by Michael who has a somewhat Nietzschean desire to find the purity in killing a deer with only one shot. This done, the film dissolves to a hellish Vietnam where the three men are captured by the Vietcong and forced to play a brutal game of Russian Roulette for the enjoyment of their captors. All three men escape their prison but at a high price; Steven is crippled; Nick wanders the streets of red-light Saigon obsessed with the game of Russian Roulette; while Michael is haunted by his promise to bring Nick home at any cost, unable to cope with or articulate the pain he feels. After an abortive homecoming, Michael returns to Saigon to try to find Nick and exorcise the demons that the war has left him with.
The first hour is a beautifully atmospheric evocation of life in a small community, with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope. The innate stillness of the church where the wedding takes place is contrasted with the rowdy vitality of the men as they get pissed and sing along to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You". There is poverty here and unhappiness - a forceful vignette of Linda (Streep), Nick's girlfriend, being beaten by her father is unsettling - but there's also fellowship and joy. A sense of ritual binds these people together, whether it be the Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony, the throwing of the bride's bouquet or the deer hunt itself, and it's entirely appropriate that the film should begin with a wedding and end with a wake. Cimino captures something powerful here, something which becomes one of his key themes, a truthful sense of how men behave in groups. So, the totally unsentimental affection they show to each other - the lovely moment where Steven's brother (Dzundza) hugs him so hard you think he's going to break a rib - is as natural as the constant ribbing of the awkward, slightly isolated Stan (Cazale) as his obnoxious personality keeps threatening to cause discord. A banner at the wedding party proclaims that the three men are "Serving God And Country Proudly", and this simplistic view of war and men seems entirely appropriate for a place where everything seems certain and change is slow moving and easily assimilated. Vietnam changes everything for this place as much as it does for the men - the Veterans around the bar at the party demonstrate that war is nothing new for the community, but Vietnam is a different thing altogether, a fact asserted by the rather unnerving arrival of an uninvited Green Beret, unable to do anything but curse and grimace in a sort of quiet desperation. Cimino evokes an elegaic sense of something coming to an end, be it innocence or youth - at one point, Michael asks "Think we'll ever come back", realising that he's on the verge of something for which he is entirely unprepared.
Michael is the key character in the film, not only because Robert De Niro gives such a superb performance but because he embodies some of the quandaries the film tries and usually fails to solve. He seems a little apart from the others, not only in his quiet stillness when the others are cavorting in the bar, but also because he's the one who takes the deer hunt seriously as if accepting its allegorical role in his life. He wants purity out of violence and approaches Vietnam in much the same quiet way as he does the deer hunt. His inarticulacy is what I remember most from the film; his speechlessness says everything about the war that we need to know. But the rather inert nature of the character is a problem - is this Cimino ? If so, do we take Michael's macho bullshit about the purity of killing at face value ? Why is he so cruel and bullying to the annoying but basically innocuous Stanley ? Are his tears genuine remorse and sadness or just self-pity ? When he turns into a Rambo-esque figure towards the end, how does this equate with the tearful character hiding in the motel when he comes home ? There's a rage inside Michael which only erupts once in the film; when faced with a loaded gun in Vietnam and forced to put it to his head, he emits a stream of curses and screams at his captors as he squeezes the trigger. It's a great, memorable moment but we want more, we need more. Michael's character needs to be the central pillar that holds the film together, but it's only de Niro's star power that stops him disintegrating into a scattered collection of ambiguities.
The Vietnam scenes that follow the deer hunt are powerful and memorable, a view of war as nightmare which is just as potent as the much lengthier, trippier version presented in Apocalypse Now. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is in heat here, full of rich, frightening clarity as one horrible image succeeds another. This section of the film is on fire and it's almost entirely bogus. This isn't so much a criticism as an observation by the way, since Cimino taps into a pulp mindset so effectively that we come away with as clear a view of the war as any other filmmaker has given us. But it's a vision filtered through years of war films, comics and newsreels that is about war as film more than it is about Vietnam itself. Consider the plotting. Michael is asleep in the grass, then Nick turns up. Then SLAM ! Michael, Nick and Steven are all in a cage at the mercy of wickedly grinning Vietcong sadists. BOOM ! Russian Roulette time, blood everywhere, tension turned up to 11. ZOOM ! We're in Saigon with Nick, lurching around the fleshpots until he comes across an illegal backstreet Russian Roulette club. SLAM ! MIchael is back in America but he wants to find Nick ! WHOOSH ! He's back in Saigon, just as everyone else is trying to get out, ready for the final confrontation with his old friend. It's about as subtle as Sands of Iwo Jima and has as much to do with reality as Gunga Din. But that's only if you look at it realistically. As an allegory of America in Vietnam, Russian Roulette is brilliant. It doesn't matter that it probably didn't happen or that if it did it was probably not played out in the open in the middle of the war zone. What matters is that it works as metaphor. War is always mad, but the heated madness of America's ten year involvement in Vietnam was nightshade in bloom, all bets off, all expectations toppled. The random insanity of Russian Roulette is the perfect way of expressing this for Cimino, a filmmaker who was has never been especially subtle but who is very good at violent extremity. Maybe the laughingly villainous VC, slapping the prisoner's faces as they force them to face suicide, can be seen as the cruel gods sniggering at the hubris of America. Or perhaps they are the successive governments, promising to stop the war but constantly extending and expanding it. Or maybe it's just the cruelly random chaos which overtakes soldiers at the back end of nowhere trying to salvage some reason for their being there.
Is The Deer Hunter racist ? Yes, but not in the simple, xenophobic way that some critics have suggested. It's racist because it is not remotely interested in the North Vietnamese except as black-hearted villains and presents them without an ounce of sympathy or understanding. On this level, virtually every war film made in Britain about the Second World War is racist towards Germany, so it's a pointless argument. But in The Deer Hunter it is very revealing. After all the self-hatred and soul-searching about Vietnam, we have here a film which dredges up something positive from the deep heart of the collective American psyche, namely simple heroism. The figure of Michael isn't heroic because he kills VC or saves entire villages of innocent South Vietnamese - see The Green Berets for this version of the war - but because he loves his friend and tries to save him. His emotions may be hopelessly confused, but his simple acts of friendship are redeeming and meaningful. It's pulp and not really as profound as Cimino tries to make it, but it's honest pulp and it is very powerful because it's presented with total sincerity. Like his sometime co-writer John Milius, Cimino is much less interested in politics than he is in philosophies and emotional journeys - although his next film Heaven's Gate still stands as one of the most openly left wing films ever made in Hollywood - and I don't think he ever gave the representation of the North Vietnamese much serious consideration.
The last section of the film is problematic but also strangely beautiful. Michael returns to America, having lost Nick in Saigon, and tries to go back to his old life. But he finds himself totally dissociated from his community. The scene where he sits in a motel room and cries is tremendously moving, as are his stumbling and inarticulate attempts to connect with Linda. The use of Stanley Myers' main theme "Cavatina" is gorgeous here and I personally wish that the film had ended here. But at heart this is at least partly a pulp action movie and so it has to have closure. So Michael makes an entirely unbelievable return to Vietnam for a horribly conventional reunion with Nick. It's extremely exciting on the level of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but only on that level and I don't think there's a jot of common sense in the entire return to Saigon section. The last scenes almost make amends with the superbly ironic but also touchingly sincere use of "God Bless America" - an attempt to cling onto something when everything else seems lost - but the film wants too much and it doesn't quite manage to cohere in the end.
There are many worse faults than stumbling into incoherence however and The Deer Hunter still manages to be a hugely impressive achievement. The screenplay, while often minimalistic to a fault, is full of convincingly raw dialogue and the ear for natural speech is faultless. It occasionally tries to preach but it's easy to ignore this. The editing is also superb, especially the jagged style used in the Vietnam sequences, and Vilmos Zsigmond's work is beyond criticism, throwing up image after image which is impossible to forget. I particuarly love the lighting in the deer hunt sequences which has the beautiful clarity of his subsequent work on Heaven's Gate. Stanley Myers' music should be mentioned too - the use of the main theme, 'Cavatina', is beautifully poignant throughout and he lets many scenes speak for themselves.
The acting is of a uniformally high standard throughout. Robert De Niro gives Michael a nobility and humour that aren't present on the page and his charisma helps disguise the fact that the character's motivations are confused and inconsistent. Christopher Walken is supremely watchable as Nick, managing a difficult character change with ease and John Savage, presented with a paper-thin character, makes Steven likeable, if inevitably less interesting than his fellows. Nice support too from the likes of George Dzundza and Chuck Aspegrin. Meryl Streep is superb in one of her earliest roles as the poignantly torn Linda, another underwritten character brought to life by a superb performance. Most touching is a very frail looking John Cazale, in his last performance before his death, and superb as the annoying but all too recognisable Stan. What impresses most is that these are believably real people - bar Michael's sudden transformation into Chuck Norris - and they live in a convincingly real community.
This wasn't Michael Cimino's first film - that was the deliciously quirky Clint Eastwood film Thunderbolt And Lightfoot - but it is an astonishingly confident and accomplished one. None of the flaws of the film come from his direction and many of the problems of the film are tempered by his ability to create dramatic tension and suspense. The pacing is masterful, hiding the fact that the film lasts three hours. His tendency to over-mythologise is present here, as it is in the work of John Milius a filmmaker easily comparable to Cimino, but this has the advantage that he aims big. Even if he misses sometimes, making the attempt is pretty honourable in the first place. The totally unjustifiable critical roasting of Heaven's Gate eant that Cimino's career never quite got back on track, although Year of The Dragon is often very impressive and there are marvellous things in full version of the virtually unseen The Sicilian which is now, surprisingly, available on R2 DVD. Every flaw in this frustrating but beautiful film is redeemed by the sheer nerve of the filmmaking - even silly errors like the use of "Midnight Train To Georgia" in a nightclub a full year before it was released are more niggling than serious. The word "epic" is thrown around too often these days to cover everything from Spartacus to dross like Dances With Wolves, but this is a true epic in both spatial and emotional terms. It reaches for the stars and sometimes falls down on the ground, but that's the risk you take as a director trying to do something epic - and the rewards for the audience are rich and numerous. In the midst of a pulp adventure movie about Vietnam, Cimino presents us with a piercingly truthful and desperately moving statement about the redeeming power of love in male friendships, without ever becoming camp or trite. That's a huge achievement.
Region 2 was promised a "Special Edition" of The Deer Hunter to compare favourably with the non-anamorphic extras-lite Region 1 release. What we've actually got seems to be a straight conversion of the region 4 release reviewed here with similar technical quality and much the same extras.
The film is presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. That's the good news - if you haven't seen the film in its original aspect ratio, you haven't seen it. The bad news is that this is merely an average to above average transfer. The colours are splendid throughout with lovely distinctions between the shades of green and blue and some truly striking skies throughout. However, the blacks are not as full as they should be and the darker scenes show a considerable amount of artifacting. The picture looks rather grainy, although this is only really noticable during the interior scenes. The detail level is acceptable and sometimes very good. Nothing special, but not a disgrace.
The soundtrack is the original Dolby Stereo version of the film. This is generally monophonic with occasional directional effects during the louder portions of the film - the steelworks, the explosions in Vietnam. The music comes across very well, notably during the main titles. Generally a good soundtrack but nothing spectacular. A full Dolby Digital 5.1 remix might have beefed up some elements of the film but what we have is adequate, being clear and crisp.
The extras are limited to the lengthy original trailer and a 20 picture photo gallery made up of shots from the film and a couple of pictures of Cimino directing. We also get a cropped version of the poster. If you have a DVD-ROM drive you can access some extracts from the press booklet.
There are a paltry 20 chapter stops and the menu is accompanied by clips from the film and the lovely theme music.
The Deer Hunter looks just as good now as it ever did and it's a shame that Cimino, like John Milius, can't get to make proper films anymore. This R2 DVD presents the film reasonably well but it's nothing special and certainly not worth the £20 RRP. All things considered, the R4 remains the best option unless you can find the R2 considerably reduced in price.
Mike Sutton has reviewed the long awaited Region 2 release of The Deer Hunter. A great movie which gets better and better with age but far from a great disc.