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The Deer Hunter: A review and thematic exploration

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Here is my review of The Deer Hunter it may be a bit long but what the hell, so is the film!

Highly controversial and exceedingly violent, The Deer Hunter sparked a lot of debate over its themes and images when it was first released. Some heralded it as the greatest American classic since The Godfather and some viewed it as a by-product of Hollywood’s propagandist war-agenda. Others simply wouldn’t watch it due to historical issues. Whatever your opinion, it has to be said that The Deer Hunter’s merits outweigh its faults (and it has its faults), and its status as a classic is set in stone.

The Deer Hunter is a film in three acts, lasting approximately three hours thattells the story of three Russian-American steelworkers from a working-class town in Pennsylvania. Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage) and Michael (Robert De Niro). The film begins with the three friends preparing themselves for Steven’s wedding to local Angela (Rutanya Alda) and then going to serve their military service in Vietnam. These early passages of the film, the men at work, singing together at the local bar and the wedding itself, are not rushed; Cimino (the director) takes his time exhibiting the characters for who they are. Michael is the quiet, unassuming leader of the group, Nick the man with a strange, incomprehensible attitude to life (declaring that he doesn’t eat because “it keeps the fear up”) and Steven the unprepared yet optimistic newlywed who by marrying the pregnant (by another man) Angela in a ‘shotgun’ wedding hopes to make an honest women out of her. During the traditional Russian toast to Steven and Angela, which is believed to be good luck for a couple who drink from conjoined glasses without spilling any wine, several drops of wine fall on Angela’s dress. The three men take advantage of the last day of their lives before Vietnam and go deer hunting, whilst Steven has his first night as a husband. The thrill of shooting deer across a magnificent landscape boosts the thrill of combat for this tight knit trio. These early scenes show working-class culture without patronizing or criticizing it, and each actor plays their character three-dimensionally and convincingly.

Soon after the hunting scenes the viewer is propelled into the chaotic and merciless world of the Vietnam War and the second act. Here the film depicts for the first time the metaphor that carries all its commentary on war and its repercussions. After having been captured by Vietcong soldiers and kept in a prisoner of war camp, Nick, Michael and Steven are forced to play Russian roulette and it is in these scenes that Cimino is in his element. The whole film is built around these scenes, the random violence and the unwillingness of those involved presents war in a new, entirely realistic and unforgiving way. De Niro plays his part perfectly as the leader of the trio; who encourages both Savage and Walken to pull the trigger every time they have to and who persuades Walken to fight back against their captors. This tense feeling of never knowing what’s going to happen next is created perfectly by Cimino; the long pauses between shots, Steven’s close call, the tears, the shouting, the anger all come together to create some of the most emotionally wrenching scenes in cinematic history. After a botched rescue attempt Walken ends up in an army hospital in Saigon. The scene when Walken demonstrates no knowledge of who his friends are, or what situation they are in, is expertly done, and is believed to be the scene that won him his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

An unknown period of time passes and we can see what the war has made of these men. Nick succumbs to his mental instability and, with intense amnesia leaving him with no recollection of his friends, remains in Vietnam playing Russian roulette professionally. Steven crippled emotionally and physically, regresses to childhood and spends his days in a veteran’s hospital playing bingo and pleading that he is never to be taken from that place. Michael after having lead his friends in the best way he could returns home to a hero’s welcome, but does not want one. This inseparable trio is vivisected, tossed aside and each individual part is left to deal with what they have had to live through. Nick copes by recreating the most intensely painful and scarring moment of his military service, comforting himself by the familiarity of the act. Steven shields himself from every aspect of the war and places himself in an idyllic utopia. Michael tries to find reassurance in the every day life he left behind and in Nick’s fiancée Linda (Meryl Streep). In one of the more touching moments of the film Michael raises his gun at the last moment before shooting at a deer, letting it live. Michael remembers the promise he made to Nick whilst lying drunk and naked at night on a basketball court to never leave Nick ‘over there’ and acts on it. The scenes that follow build up to the two friends facing each other, surrounded by screeching spectators, a revolver between them

The event that leads to the epilogue of the cast singing “God Bless America” in the bar they had previously gathered in before the wedding is the most heartbreaking in the entire film. This codetta is infinitely meaningful, but whether those meanings are hopeful, defiant, tragic or unspeakably sad is left to the viewer’s discretion.

Although De Niro may have had the lead, Walken is the star player of this film. His nuanced performance is so convincing (possibly helped by the fact that a lot of the physical abuse he endured wasn’t simulated) that it almost completely overshadows all the other talented performances. John Cazale (Meryl Streep’s partner at the time) is also excellent as the clichéd ‘loser’ who is so ignorant that De Niro engages him in an unforced game of roulette (in which a real bullet was used during filming) to teach him not to play about with the revolver he is always carrying around. Meryl Streep’s understated performance deserved the Oscar nomination it received (many believed she deserved the win, and this was put right a year later in Kramer vs Kramer) and should be considered especially skilful considering Streep wrote the majority of her character’s lines, due to Linda not being in the original draft. Streep has stated that she did this in order to be with Cazale during the last months of his life.

Yes, the film can be seen as the stereotypical, racist American war film. The Vietnamese are shown as violent, grotesque and inhuman whilst the central character, Michael, is the quintessential hero whom everyone can relate to. There weren’t even any recorded instances of Russian roulette during the Vietnam War. Some have called the film outrageously right-wing and others say it’s overly melodramatic but what people are forgetting is that at the heart of this film is not an anti-war message because, well, everyone is anti-war now. The Deer Hunter is, at its core, a film about that sense of male camaraderie, enhanced by adolescent adventure, which is able to carry three friends through all the unpleasantness in life and leave them, in whatever state the may be in, on the other side.

Let me know what you think!

One of the best films I've ever seen. It's a bit of a chore at times due to length but the best scenes are so painfully intense and emotionally charged, it's impossible not to be shaken.
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Back in 1979, Jane Fonda was criticizing The Deer Hunter for being right-wing, pro-war propaganda. The fact that she had a competing Vietnam flick up for awards at the time, Coming Home, certainly influenced her opinion, although she claims it didn't. Something must have though because she also claimed to have never watched The Deer Hunter. Both films did well at the Academy Awards, with The Deer Hunter getting Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, etc. and Coming Home nabbing Best Actor (Jon Voight) and Best Actress (Fonda).

At the time of its release, I felt the overall message of The Deer Hunter was about how war destroys lives, so I took it to be an anti-war film, and I still do to this day.
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Agreed. The main character goes to war and sees his best friend's life destroyed as he gets involved in gambling and offs himself by playing Russian Roulette is a bit heavy. There's also no message that says, "The destruction of these lives was worth it." Therefore I'm with Mark in thinking that The Deer Hunter is an anti-war movie and certainly not pro war at all.
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Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
I actually rewatched it since my last post. The Russian Roulette metaphor does threaten to derail the film, especially at the end, when the film's other major metaphor, "One Shot", is spoken by Nick to Michael as a form of recognition before he goes ahead and self-destructs. However, having this final Vietnam scene sandwiched in between Michael's second deer hunt where he refuses to shoot the deer and the quietly powerful finale ("God Bless America" - which I take as a tribute to "There's no place like home" rather than "Let us win wars") helps one to let it slide.

The more I remember Jane Fonda's comment, the more I think she thought The Deer Hunter was racist by showing all Vietnamese (and Chinese, if she didn't "notice") as being violent, maniacal killers. She still thought it was jingoistic but maybe racism was more her point. I wonder if Jane ever watched the movie.

I liked this film a lot,Russian roulette and war parallel was great and the cast is amazing, too.The characters were presented in a wedding which lasted for about and hour so the viewer could easily get used to them and feel more for them.But I just never understood what the deer meant in this movie.
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I liked this film a lot,Russian roulette and war parallel was great and the cast is amazing, too.The characters were presented in a wedding which lasted for about and hour so the viewer could easily get used to them and feel more for them.But I just never understood what the deer meant in this movie.
This is one of my favorite movies ever. The deer exemplified respect for life, an analogy to Budhism ( even though many claim the film to be racist ).
Of course the film was told from the point of one side, American, but the movie was directed and wrote by an Italian American and the American side was represented by Russian Americans so let's leave the racism to the anti-war crowd.
Many scenes depicted in this movie were not figments of someone's imagination, and they occured in the real war, as many Vietnam vets can testify. The ones that were stationed in Saigon can attest to the Russian roulette games played there towards the end of the war. It's no coincidence either that one of the characters envolved in running the games was French.
What's great about this movie is the character development from beginning to end. The viewer is treated to lives unfolding in front of his very eyes and it didn't hurt that the great Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematagropher.
The 5 Oscars that this movie received were all well deserved and the casting and acting very superb. To those that never experienced war, it really brought war and the effects of it before, during and after.
I'm sure if the Vietnamese had told this story, it would have been presented in their slanted view, but such is life.
The unitiated can only be left to read between the lines and discern for themselves what they believe to be true.
Irregardless of fact or fiction, this is one superbly made movie and will live on as one of the greatest war movies of all time.

Watching the Deer Hunter on HD Net Movies as I post and it's the first time in many years that I've seen it.
Too many military inconsistencies to make it believable and while I get the metaphors that war is bad,(like some people think it's good )and I guess those people are right wing draft dodging chickenhawks (You hear me,Mr. Cat Scratch fever) the movie just doesn't do it for me now and didn't do it for me in 1978.
I think it was just a warm up for that dog Heaven Gate