A best picture winner and a box-office success back in 1978, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was never likely to suffer the reboot and remake indignity forced on other properties; there’s a veneer of high seriousness here which has caused a backlash, but viewed in 2020, this is still strong meat, sociologically and politically. Hailed as the first substantial Vietnam War movie after the wayward The Green Berets, the film is less concerned with war movie clichés as examining the impact that the American folly has on the ordinary folk of a Pennsylvania steel working community. The BBC’s film-critic Mark Kermode described the result as ‘a genuinely terrible film’, but he’s wrong as usual; it was, and still is, a great one. A quick look at Ciminio’s other work (Thnderbolt and Lightfoot, Year of the Dragon) shows he was no lily-livered liberal keen to throw another baby on the bonfire; this is a powerful study of American determinism on the rocks, and has sympathy for the working man caught up in a conflict he didn’t create.
The Deer Hunter gains a particular strength from the depiction of Russian Orthodox religion; even if the characters rarely talk about issues of faith, the church rituals are framed by Cimino in elaborate, frame-filling compositions, with blasts of traditional choral music on the soundtrack. The setting is a wedding, where Meryl Streep’s preparations are bitterly flavoured by the fresh bruise she’s sporting on her cheek. Three characters emerge from the drunken singing and dancing; Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steve (John Savage) and they display considerable vitality as they prepare to go to war. A key scene sees a haunted-looking Green Beret arrive at the wedding reception; while the boys attempt to engage him, the vet has no time for them; he’s the walking embodiment of Banquo’s ghost at the feast.
As played by De Niro, Mike also has a touch of Macbeth “This is this’ he explains, holding a bullet during a final deer hunt. He’s a very able, professional guy, and his use of guns makes him feel closer to his god; after the Wagnerian fire and steel of the opening smelter scenes, the pastoral beauty of the hunt itself draws on man-and-nature iconography, and reveals Mike as a man raised above his fellow men. On return from Vietnam, he loses his nerve, but finds it again to compete in the Russian roulette game that forms the tense climax here. Mike thrives on his own skills and invulnerability, but his inability to save his friends clouds him with self-doubt, and even his return home is a sombre, fractured affair. He’s a warrior, but his character strength and flaws reveal the inherent dangers of being a professional soldier.
The Deer Hunter catches big stars on the way up, and has a warm eye for social and military life. William Goldman found the story contrived and compared it to a Batman comic book, but the central metaphor, that the game as played is as mad as the war that forms the backdrop, can’t be faulted. It’s neither liberal hand-wringing nor strident machismo, but covers both bases on it’s way to something more profound. If you’ve only ever seen The Deer Hunter on tv in cut and pan-and-scan versions, this restored 40th Anniversary blu-ray is the ultimate way to experience this long, tortuous, but utterly engrossing look at man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
Thunks to Studio Canal for access to the 40th anniversary blu-ray for this title.