THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 59: THE DEER HUNTER

by Laurent Kelly

The Deer Hunter (1978) – Director: Michael Cimino   Original Screenplay: Deric Washburn  Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale  OSCAR COUNT (5) – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Film Editing, Best Sound

The Deer Hunter is a compelling character study about the changing nature of relationships before and after the Vietnam war. In the first hour we are painted a portrait of a closely knit community with friends who work,  drink and socialise together. It is brave for a film to spend such a significant amount of time building up its characters and whilst it may be a little indulgent in places it helps to demonstrate some key mirroring incidents that occur later. The key one is of course is of the hunting of deer. Protagonist Michael has no problem with his rifle before Vietnam but when he comes back post-war on a hunting trip he is reminded of his exploits in Vietnam and develops a guilty conscience. The deer is prey as were his victims and as was his closest friend who he realises he has to go back and rescue.

Some of the smaller moments are the most rewarding such as Michael returning home to a hotel and feeling utterly deflated as he leans back against the wall. He has been through emotional and physical toil and just wants to crawl up into a ball and forget that it all ever happened. What is impressive about the film is that the characters are authentically portrayed within their inability to verbalize their true emotions.  This is arguably De Niro’s greatest strength as a character actor and in this film his eyes are allowed to tell the majority of the story. There is pain reflected in them as he returns to a town which is trying to pretend that everything is still okay even though there are severe cracks under the surface. Scenes also effectively highlight the disorientated mindset of someone who has been through the hell of a war surrounded by old friends who have an appreciation but can’t really understand what this must feel like. This is best demonstrated in the following sequence at the bowling alley where Jon Cazale’s character tries to engage him in lively banter when asking for his advice about a woman. Michael responds to him warmly but there is a sadness in his face which speaks volumes. The sort of comical situations that would have been the highlight of weekend nights have now been clouded by visions of pain and sorrow:

Of course the longer the film goes on the more tense things become. Michael visits his friend in a wheelchair and is reminded about the prolonging impact of war with an injury that has caused deep stress amongst a marriage. Talk is tense and relations fragile. Michael is desperate to get things back to the way they were and so he goes off in pursuit of Nick who has become heavily involved in a sadistic, russian roulette circus. Nick has lost his soul in the battleground and he has no intention of being saved. The scene of Michael trying desperately to win him around and Nick’s tragic answer is one of the most powerfully acted pieces of cinema ever crafted.

So too is the harrowing ending in which the characters gather around the dinner table after Nick’s funeral. Their expressions are helpless, their faces trying hard to disguise their hurt. Although they are trying to keep it together we know that things are only going to get worse for these characters in the years that follow. This is why it surprises me that people consider the ending of The Deer Hunter to be patriotic. I think this is a gross misunderstanding.  The ending of the film to me feels deeply ironic as the characters half-heartedly sing God Bless America in an attempt to try and stay strong and disguise their true, hurtful feelings towards a country that has been largely responsible for so much suffering in this particular war. These are characters that desperately need something to hold onto and so patriotism is their answer. This however does not make the film patriotic, it shows that the alternative for these characters would be having to come to face with the fact that their situation is utterly helpless and who the hell wants to feel like that?

As a poignant character study, Deer Hunter is tremendously effective although I will admit that the film is flawed. Though powerful some scenes do linger too heavily and the infamous Russian Roulette scene where the friends are captured seems very one sided in its portrayal of Americans as the victims to the stereotypically nasty Viatnamese guards. There were definite signs in The Deer Hunter that Michael Cimino could let his indulgent tendencies get the better of him (see Heaven’s Gate) though thankfully in this film he manages to largely keep  the emotions and story in control.

DID YOU KNOW?: The spit that Walken launches into De Niro’s face was completely improvised by Walken and almost caused the famous method actor to leave the set in outrage. Walken was annoyed by tactics that De Niro had used in previous scenes such as secretly requesting that the actors playing the Viatnamese guards to slap the main stars hard across the face. Walken simply  gave De Niro a taste of his own medicine.

 

 

 

 

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