Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Deer Hunter

"Did you ever think life would turn out like this?" asks one of the characters in Michael Cimino's 1978 signature film The Deer Hunter. It's a key line in the story of three Pennsylvanian steelworkers whose lives are drastically changed by their experiences in the Vietnam war...

Cimino's masterstroke was to make The Deer Hunter a long form work, and the film greatly benefits from the time and space awarded to the characters. In fact, this 3-hour film is in no great hurry to get done - its only after the first 40min or so that the main protagonists come into focus and we begin to learn about their personalities. This early part of the film is the most leisurely paced - the lengthy wedding sequence prompted one commentator of the film to express embarrassment for not turning up with a gift; but The Deer Hunter never feels long - as the grand sweep of the film takes us from the monolithic steel works, along the drab streets of the town, to the hunting grounds of the mountains, the killing fields of South East Asia and the turbulent swirl of Saigon. Worth mentioning the terrific moment where the familiar life of the steel workers is swept away to a mournful Chopin piano refrain, played by George Dzunda's character, as the film abruptly cuts to the second act set in Vietnam.

Cimino's direction for the most part is subtle and unobtrusive and captures well the nuances of blue collar town life, with its 24-hour bars full of shift workers, its deeply religious traditions and the rough treatment of the women by their men. It's a tough film, not alone for the bloody Russian Roulette sequence (which earned the film much controversy and accusations of racism) but the film is full of interactions and relationships punctuated by awkward moments, and characters trying and failing to fit and connect. Also the look of the film is uncompromising, austere in its use of color, with cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond desaturating the frame, creating a sombre mood. Even the Vietnam sequences are spare in their color, an aesthetic borrowed from the 16mm news footage that Americans came to know the war by, the very opposite of the lush, jungle exotica of Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film has one of the more celebrated ensemble casts in American film. Robert De Niro1, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale and George Dzundza deliver career best performances, even non-actor Chuck Aspegrenall who was Cimino's access into the world of the steel industry when scouting locations for the film, equips himself well amid all the heavyweights, in his role of Axel.

Admittedly the film has its flaws - Cimino's use of insert stock footage of Vietnam scenes is simply clumsy, and that the three marines would end up together as prisoners of war by sheer coincidence feels a little contrived. But more seriously, Christopher Walken disappears for virtually the second half of the film only to reappear for the finale where his character has gone through such a radical shift in personality, that the emotional pay-off of the climax doesn't quite work as it should. Nevertheless The Deer Hunter is a magnificent, ballsy film and one of the last great movies of the 70's.

My copy of The Deer Hunter is the Studio Canal UK 2-disc edition from 2003. It's hardly worth mentioning this particular edition as the Optimum Blu-Ray is superior in every way. The extras from the DVD have been ported over to the BR and they're well worth the time. Cimino turns in an excellent, engaging and very thorough commentary track, no mean feat for a three-hour film. Cimino returns for the first of three features on the making of the film. The director repeats some information from the commentary track but expands on other subjects including Jane Fonda's2 reaction to the film. The 2nd feature has Vilmos Zsigmond discussing the shooting conditions and his lighting choices, while the 3rd segment features John Savage and his relationship to the film, which at one point causes Savage to become emotionally upset when recalling how he reconnected with the film some years later when he heard Cavatina, John Williams's stirring theme music. It's unlikely I'm sure anyone reading this has not seen The Deer Hunter but if it's been a few years I would highly recommend a revisit.

1. Robert De Niro has appeared in 4 films playing Vietnam veterans. In addition to The Deer Hunter, he played a vet in De Palma's Hi Mom! (1970), an unstable vet in Taxi Driver (1976), and finally in Jacknife in 1989

2. Jane Fonda apparently disliked the film for it's portayal of the Vietnamese, and no doubt the coda of the film where the surviving cast sing "God Bless America". Fonda herself stared in Coming Home made the same year as The Deer Hunter, which took a more caustic view of the Vietman veteran experience. Cimino, not one to mince words refers to Fonda as "Hanoi Jane", the name Fonda was given after her trip to Hanoi in 1972 where she criticized the American campaign in Vietnam.


  1. This was a staple of my early teens - I rented it numerous times. Once I got on a bus with it in hand on my way home from the video store and the driver looked at me and said something about it having sex in it and it not being suitable for a boy of my age(13yrs at the time). Just goes to show that the film already had a heavy rep - of course there is no sex in the picture, the driver was just another gullible seductee...

  2. Good story Jeremy. I rented Gestapo's Last Orgy in my teens and the guy behind the counter looked at the box and said "I like a good war film too". And that movie DOES have sex in it! I actually ended up owning that tape which was foolishly discarded when DVD came along. A bad move considering that particular pre-cert is worth decent money in these economically strangled times...

  3. I flogged over 1,000 VHS in 1992, half of which were pre-certs for a pitance. Doh!

  4. I saw this on VHS way back in the early 90's - and you are exactly right - a revisit with correct aspect ratio is very much called for! I agree with your very fair assessment - a great movie - Cimino's best, in my opinion as well.