Deer Hunter (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, Georeg Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren. USA. 3h 3m

Michael Cimino is a fairly laid back director, with only 8 titles under his belt he seems to only get out of bed to make a groundbreaking movie if and when he has something poignant to say. So 4 years after Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) he returns with this dark cult classic that will forever be etched in the minds of many cinema enthusiasts.

There isn’t much I can say about Deer Hunter that hasn’t been said already. It’s impact has been massive, but even with the parodies, tributes and deep analysis, what is the film trying to say? Is it anti war, is it purely dealing ? It is purely about the male bond of a few good friends? Whatever you get from the movie it starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral and there’s a lot of pain and torment that happens in between, which sounds like a nihilistic  analogy for life itself. I think I knew more about the movie before watching than any other film

There’s still a lot of discussion over what Deer Hunter is supposed to suggest, what side does it take when considering the United States involvement in the Vietnam war? For the most part the movie isn’t about the war, not directly. The title alludes to a person who hunts for deer, but what’s more important to any hunter with a pocket of morals is muttered by lead star Michael (DeNiro) “A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot”. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen” this poignant argument is that one shot is all it takes to end the life of a deer or indeed a dear friend.

Singling out a trio of steelworkers from Pennsylvania the film opens during a couple of days where Mikey (De Niro), Nick (Walken) and Steven (Savage)’s lives are being transformed by orders out of their control. They have been selected to be drafted to fight in Vietnam and have hours to finish work, one of the lads to get married and for all to go on their last deer hunt, During this time Cimino picks at their distinct personalities, mostly Mikey, who’s very orderly, dry and to the point, he doesn’t suffer fools but has a heart of gold, the rest just want to party and have fun, but they value each other and aren’t all that happy to be leaving their loved ones for a war that seems a million miles away from their peaceful mountain based American Dream.

The second act sees the men literally dropped into the carnage at the centre of the war, where, despite their best efforts they are captured and kept as prisoners of war and used as entertainment for the bloodthirsty enemy. The most talked about and mimicked scenes take over this chapter of their lives, the friends are used in a gut wrenching game of Russian Roulette. This is only the initial part of their individual downfalls and the breaking up of their lifelong friendships.

One of the most important and powerful films of all time!

The war was protested from the kick off, but it seemed politics and society were at odds with the benefits of the United States’ input overseas. It doesn’t go as far as Apocalypse Now (1979) or Platoon (1986) to really dig into the army life, there’s literally one act, fighting, capture and a daring escape. The fallout from this event is enough to knock everyone into a spiral of confusion, doubt, paranoia and insanity, or whatever it is that Nick (Walken) ends up going through.

Back home the loved ones are also experiencing a lot of changes,  Meryl Streep is a blushing blonde who’s in love with Mikey and Nick, she manages to escape her abusive father by living in their shared home while they are away. Returning home doesn’t solve the problems, there’s no healing process, but a strange limbo which forces Mikey to go above and beyond to make amends.

WIth a touch of fantasy thrown into the American victimhood, there’s no doubt that the makeup of Deer Hunter is some of the best film making within living memory. No matter your views of the war or any war, you can’t deny that  Vietnam was different to Iraq Afghanistan, these soldiers were drafted, they had no choice. Being ill prepared for the astoricites isn’t an excuse but it didn’t help with the devastating effects the war had on a number of people and their families which is only barely highlighted in this stunning piece of cinema which I hope still helps others understand the process without having to have another war to prove the point.

You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot

Among the matter of fact drama around a group of friends being utterly destroyed, not killed, but emotionally and physically ripped apart by war, there’s a lot of imagery and mystery in the film, a few curious scenes, a few stick in the memory like glue and have had audiences theorizing over their significance. For me the wine dripping scene at the wedding is always one which puzzled me, but the biggest impact was when the friend met a veterean who had returned from war, and they offered to buy him a drink. They are all high on life, drunk and making merry at a wedding, but face to face with this man who’s sitting at the bar with a 1000 yard stare and the weight of the world on his shoulders, having seen the world of war that they are about to be thrust into, the two worlds collide violently. Later on in the movie when De Niro returns, he’s like a shadow of the man they met on that fateful day. If you look at what they go through on that day there are other hints played out later on in the movie after the war, see if you can spot them!


Rating: 8/10

Related: Jacknife (1989), Platoon (1986),
Lists: 17 Great Films from 1978 Still Worth Talking About Vol 1
Spotlight: Robert De Niro

Post Discussion


One thought on “Deer Hunter (1978)”

  1. Another terrific review…a film that has a storytelling arc similar to “The Godfather” – beginning with an important emotional event for the characters, who then descend into the depths of their situation…brilliantly acted and directed, and while some argue with it as not “factual” – they are missing the larger point of the film…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.