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USA 1978
Directed by
Michael Cimino
183 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter, a film which looks at the human cost of the Vietnam War, is probably the best film of its kind, superior to Apocalypse Now which was released the following year, in dramatic depth if not in staging and close to being an American masterpiece. That is, until its closing minutes when bizarrely it appears to turn into a Republican Party fundraiser.

Divided quite neatly into three parts it tells the story of a group of working class friends whose lives revolve around the steel mills of their Pennsylvania town. Three of them, Michael  (Robert De Niro) Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) have enlisted for Vietnam, a cause in which they firmly believe with Steven being more apprehensive about his imminent wedding than his tour of duty. His wedding party is the event which occupies much of the first act.  Although important in setting the scene and depicting the relationships between all the main characters in the tightly-knit blue-collar community of which they are a part Cimino indulges himself by devoting the first hour of the film to portraying this . Michael, to whom the film’s title refers is the central figure who stands somewhat apart from the values and modes of behaviours which the rest of his friends (including John Cazale as Stan, George Dzundza as John and Chuck Aspegren as Axel) accept unquestioningly. This divide is brought home by the deer hunt which closes the first part of the film.

The second hour is given over the three friends' experiences in Vietnam, their terrifying ordeal at the hands of their Vietcong captors before their eventual escape. The third section deals with their post-combat lives, each man in his own way profoundly changed by war.  

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral The Deer Hunter charts a huge arc of personal transformation for all its characters and does so with great depth of feeling.  That is until they all join in singing “God Bless America”. If not easy to accept from a realistic point-of-view (unlike when they sing ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’ at the start of the film) the patriotic hymn sets entirely the wrong tone (the song title is, needless to say, a stock ruse of right-wing rhetoric) and throws us rudely out of our empathy for the friends  and appreciation of Cimino’s film-making skills (at the time he had only directed one film, the 1974 Clint Eastwood vehicle, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Understandably. the film was widely criticized for its depiction of the Vietcong as the faceless enemy and even in its homeland as a Pentagon version of the disastrous war. These are valid points (and couldn’t Walken’s headband in the climactic roulette scene have been a little less lumpy?) but even so the emotional sweep of the film is compelling (Stanley Myers' distinctly un-Hollywood score is a contributant here).

The Deer Hunter won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director and a Best Supporting Actor for Walken. Vilmos Szigmond's Panavision photography is outstanding and performances are remarkable with Streep, in her first starring role, luminous (she was then romantically involved with John Cazale who died of cancer shortly thereafter).




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