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The Deer Hunter

*****
1978

‘…a powerful study of American determinism on the rocks…’

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.

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  1. Your phrase strong political & sociologically meat made me smile; it is that. DeNiro’s ‘See this? This is This. This ain’t something else” that you mention was my favorite quote. It prompted me to thumb through old notebooks to find what younger me thought of the movie. In 1998, I jotted down words that radiated from a circle to describe my 2nd viewing of The Deer Hunter. I realized the circle was a bulls eye target and I thought (then) that Cimino was taking aim at: rites, American Foreign Policy, manhood, war, the swift inanity of life, girls that got pregnant out of wedlock & abused girls, what we will/won’t sacrifice, and patriotism.
    I’ve watched DH 3 or 4 times since then and while I see why I drew the target, I think DH was also about rites of passage and rites we take for granted: hunting, killing, marrying, dying, enlisting, joining a union or brohood… It’s a surreal character meditation and a look at a community shown us as only the movies (and great actors) can. I keep watching it because something haunts me. Is it the deer or the perplexed hunter with mixed loyalties and a perchance to run naked in the streets? Is it that the adaptation immigrants make is the best part of America? Am I trying to better understand risky Nicky or good girl Linda? Is it the clever trade off of cynicism for compassion or silence for knowing what words can’t describe? Unlike Mike, I have more than one shot to figure it out. Thanks Film Authority.
    PS belated 2 thumbs up for your review of Cry of the Banshee!

    • You should be writing film reviews; rites of passage for sure, but also you nail something when you say ‘the the adaptation immigrants make the best part of America.’ A few commentators noted that when John Wayne presented the Oscar to Cimino, he must have hated The Deer Hunter. I wonder if that was because of the film’s modernity, it’s negative appraisal of Vietnam, it’s ant-heroic characters, or all of the above and more? There’s literally so much going on in this film that if someone is offended, I’d be able to offer them a choice of options as to what to be offended by. But I would say that we see the community in this film more clearly as we get older, and perhaps it’s best to say that the film haunts us for reasons we’ll never quite put our finger on; I’d be suspicious of anyone who tells me they know the secret of life.

      Cry of the Banshee; a film of two halves, to be sure, but halfway to a great treatment of the material, even if the male gaze ruins the impact…

  2. going to be a debby downer here.
    Did you type this on your phone with 3 fingers tied behind your back? I read the comments to see if Fraggle was going to roast you, but I guess the movie itself was too much.

    I’ve never seen this, not even sure I’ve heard of it. I’m not a big fan of Vietnam movies mainly because the portrayal seems to be slanted to only one side: “Vietnam was Evil and all the Soldiers in it were Evil”. I’ve seen the pictures of the damned hippies spitting on the returning soldiers and it infuriates me. And how it was micromanaged by politicians, a lot of whom weren’t even Americans? A military man would have won Vietnam and made us proud. Instead, we got what we got. And I can never separate that from any film I watch about that era and that specific event.

    • So…I’d say that this film depicts the central character Mike as a very brave, heroic soldier, and that would probably chime with your world view. It’s also a film about ordinary, hard-working people who are betrayed by their leaders and used as cannon-fodder in a war that they could probably have won if they’d not been, as you say, micro-managed badly. In fact, pretty much all of your comment would be in line with the film’s position. The Deer Hunter touches a nerve for many, but it may also be hard to take for those who feel a close sense of connection to the historical events, and that’s a matter of taste. But this film certainly doesn’t suggest that soldiers are evil, it suggests that good men and women have a hard time keeping themselves alive, and that’s something I personally can get behind. Not a typical Vietnam movie by any stretch of the imagination.

  3. I recently rewatched this film for the first time in ages and it blew my mind (no pun intended). A younger me used to find the wedding party scenes overlong and boring. Now I think it’s one of the most realistic depictions of humanity ever put on film. I haven’t felt as invested in a group of fictional characters in I don’t know how long. I finally realized that we need to spend all that time with the characters for the second-half of the film to have the emotional impact that it does. In fact, the first-half of the film has now become my favourite part of it. The life of a small working-class town in 1970s America captured on film like a time capsule. Yes, I know it’s fiction but Cimino made it feel real. As you said, fantastic performances all round. Great review!

    • Really appreciate your comment. I feel the same. When you’re younger, this seems like a long preamble. When you’re older, you appreciate the detail of the community depicted. Makes for epic drama. Great comment, thanks!

  4. That astonishing opening shot leading us into a hard world, literally, of fire and steel. The religious elements, the fraternity with bonds that never break, the way war breaks down personality. A first-class effort.

  5. This was such an amazing movie. I’ve seen it many times, and it always manages to captivate me with each watch. Terrific perfomances, especially of course by Christoper Walken. And who can forget that final scene. Powerful stuff indeed. This is another one of those films that falls into the category of : They don’t make them like this anymore. Didn’t know they brought this restored version out, but I will be on the look out for it! Great post! 😀

    • Yes, and that restored version is a pretty reasonable £3.49 to rent; for such a long film, and given the predicament we’re all in, long movies are the way to go In lockdown….

      • Really? That’s very good news indeed! Haha, well I have the week off next week, so who knows, might give it a rent then 😀 Haven’t seen it in ages, so might as well be a good one to rewatch😊
        Ps…Thought for a second my comments weren’t coming through or said something wrong 😅😅 Good to see that’s not the case😊

  6. Wow, that trailer for the 4K restoration looks amazing. Maybe too amazing. I think of this as being a grubby movie.

    I appreciate it more today than I did the first time I saw it, when all I could think of was how long that wedding was going on for. Now I think it’s a great movie. I don’t remember seeing Kermode’s review. What was his problem with it?

    • That it’s not a silly spooky face ghost-train ride I guess, that seems to be what he likes. But yes, this didn’t look great on tv in the 80’s, the compositions were ruined, the color was, as you say, grubby. And yes, that wedding is over an hour, and the Vietnam sequences take a long time to arrive; frustrating on a first watch, but a striking gamble on a second or third. An essential restoration IMHO.

  7. It’s a long time since I saw this, hadn’t realised it had been panned. I remember it being harrowing and thought it was really well done. Back in ’78 I knew nothing much about Vietnam etc was focussed on my training to be a Nurse, but it started me off finding out.

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