Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1978)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Out of Competition)

Academy Award Wins: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Editing, Best Sound

Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1996

The annals of film history are dotted with enduring classics that define their time.  They act as avatars for the national mood, and are a dreamlike reflection of our collective unconscious.  It’s not a coincidence that some of the most potent films ever made came out of the 1970’s, a time of great social unrest and doubt.  As the Vietnam War raged halfway across the world, , we experienced a national crisis of conscience– spurred on by the nightly images of violence and death beamed directly into our living rooms.  It was a loss of innocence for America, in that a far-off fight shattered thousands of families, communities, and towns.  A countless number of promising futures were tragically cut short in service to a war that we couldn’t necessarily justify getting into.  We began to question the moral authority of our leaders and the decisions that were made in the best interests of “democracy”.

It was into this climate of social upheaval that director Michael Cimino released his second feature film, 1978’s THE DEER HUNTER.  The film painted a sobering portrait of a small Pennsylvania steel town rocked by loss when three of its sons go off to Vietnam.  The war was still something of a taboo subject in cinemas when Cimino made the film, but the man had already become well-known for his bold, confident vision and daring subject matter.  In the context of its time, a three hour film about an unpopular war was a huge roll of the dice, but the gamble paid off in spades– THE DEER HUNTER is a qualified masterpiece, and one of the most emotionally harrowing experiences in cinema.  It would go on to secure an Academy Award in Directing for Cimino (as well as Best Picture, among many others), and would undoubtedly become the crowning work of his career.    However, success has a dark side– and the perks of all these accolades would subsequently enable Cimino to indulge in excess.  In other words, Cimino’s yellow-brick road was a road to ruin.

THE DEER HUNTER also holds the personal distinction of being one of my favorite films of all time.  A number of the story’s themes are ones that I’m drawn to as a filmmaker in my own right.  I could expound at length about the film’s subtext and message, because each subsequent viewing of the film (I’m now up to three) reveals new insights.  The story is so layered and dense that it requires multiple viewings– a task made not-so-easy by the film’s ponderous three hour runtime.  When I first saw the film, I didn’t particularly respond to it, and it was only upon my second viewing that something clicked.  THE DEER HUNTER demands your time and your patience, but it will reward you substantially in return.

The film is splint into three distinctive, hour-long acts that form a framework not unlike the triptych in classic art.  Act One takes place in the sleep mountain town of Clairton, Pennsylvania.  Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three old friends from childhood, having never left their sleepy community.  They spend their days forging steel and their nights drinking copious amounts of Rolling Rock beer and chasing after the town’s slim selection of women.  When the film begins, it is Steven’s wedding day, and these rambunctious boys are intent on getting absolutely shitfaced before the big ceremony.  In the town’s community center, a raucous reception is held to not only to send off the groom and his bride in style, but to celebrate Michael, Steven, and Nick as hometown heroes before they depart for Vietnam to serve their country.  One of the biggest complaints against the film is the lengthy reception scene, which is one of the most drawn-out and longest in the film.  Initially, the scene seems aimless and bloated– however, this extended sequence sees Cimino planting the seeds of his story in an uncontrived, almost invisible fashion.

The sequence introduces Linda (Meryl Streep) , a beautiful young woman who finds herself the unwitting object of affection between both Michael and Nick.  We also meet Steve (John Cazale), one of the few members of the rambunctious boys’ club that finds himself impotently left behind while his more-virile friends go off to glory.  In a way, THE DEER HUNTER’s first act symbolizes a pre-Vietnam America, drunk off its innocence and presumed supremacy as a superpower. This is alluded to in a striking interlude halfway through the party, where a haunted-looking serviceman back from Vietnam disrespects Michael by refusing his drunken attempts to buy him a drink.  It’s a ghostly preview of the shocking transformation that lies in store for our three heroes.

The film’s second act shifts abruptly to a startling explosion, deep in the jungles of Vietnam.  Michael finds himself in the middle of nightmarish chaos, and then suddenly/impossibly reunited with Nick and Steven.  Their reunion is cut short when they’re captured by Viet Cong forces and imprisoned in a claustrophobic water prison along the banks of the river Kwai.  As prisoners of war, they’re forced to engage in emotionally battering games of Russian Roulette for their captors’ entertainment.  They escape by riding a piece of driftwood down the river, but are separated by a botched rescue attempt by American forces.  A short while later, Nick is treated for his wounds and released back out into the bustling city of Saigon.  Looking for a cathartic release from the POW experience that haunts him, he’s lured into the lucrative world of underground Russian Roulette.  Cimino’s second act depicts a harsh awakening to the hellish nature of war, and the lingering scars its causes.

The third act finds Michael returning to Pennsylvania.  Clad in an ornately-medaled military uniform, he projects an image of success and honor, but like the spiteful serviceman earlier in the film, he too is haunted by spooks he can never quite shake.  He reconnects with Linda, beginning a reluctant affair that’s driven more by comfort and companionship than lust or passion.  His transition back into normal life is a hard one, filled with many stumbling blocks. He reunites with Steven, who has since lost both legs and an arm.  Heavy painkiller drugs cause Steven to ramble incoherently and make him a fraction of the man he used to be.  Curiously, Steven mentions that money is regularly sent to him from Saigon– from who, he doesn’t know.  Michael deduces that it’s Nick, which means that he’s still alive.  Invigorated by the realization, Michael heads back to Saigon to save Nick from a devastating fate.

THE DEER HUNTER is full of nuanced, involving performances.  Cimino aptly captures the drunken playfulness and nonchalance of his homegrown subjects, which give this very serious film its only moments of levity.  When the tone changes, Cimino is equally perceptive at capturing their faded smiles and hardened hearts.  The 1970’s was a great decade for Robert De Niro, which saw him turn in his best performances in some of the greatest films of all time.  In THE DEER HUNTER, De Niro embraces a blue collar, flinty mentality– externalized by a scraggly goatee and a trucker cap.  Despite his gruff exterior, he’s quiet and sensitive; somewhat distanced from the carousing nature of his friends.  His insightfulness translates into a steely resolve and quick wit under the pressure of Vietnam’s hostile conditions.  It’s an Oscar-nominated performance every bit as iconic as TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle or THE GODFATHER PART 2’s Young Vito Corleone.

Christopher Walken won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Nick.  Nick is initially presented as the group’s jester, but it’s a facade meant to disguise how scared shitless he is about going overseas.  In a private, drunken moment early in the film, Nick begs Michael not to leave him behind in Vietnam, no matter what.  This anxiety ultimately breaks him, and his transition from eager and fresh-faced to gaunt and lifeless is captivating to watch.  His performance is entirely deserving of the Oscar, and endures as one of cinema’s most haunting figures.

John Savage, who in my opinion is a severely underutilized character actor, also experiences a striking conversion.  He’s the picture of virility and swaggering machismo at the beginning of the film, only to have his character broken by the brutal conditions of Vietnam.  His rapid mental unraveling is shocking, leaving only a hollow shell of himself by the end.  Steven represents the countless maimed soldiers who were lucky enough to not come home in a body bag, but maybe would have been better off if they had.

THE DEER HUNTER was Meryl Streep’s breakout role, resulting in her own Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  While she isn’t particularly given a lot to do, she gives the film a softer, feminine edge to counteract the broken machismo that runs through the film.  It’s worth also noting that she’s just as tough and courageous as the men.

And then there’s John Cazale, a figure who absolutely must be mentioned.  Name five of your favorite films from the 1970’s– odds are he’s in every single one of them.  No other actor has made such an impact on the cinematic landscape in only a few films.  Cazale acted in just five films before terminal cancer took his life, but his selection was impeccable.  From Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), THE CONVERSATION (1974), THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and Sidney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), and finally to Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER– each one an enduring classic in its own right.  His particular brand of shuffling fuck-up has been unmatched in the years since, the dedication to his craft urgently apparent in each one.  Cazale suffered through the filming of THE DEER HUNTER, summoning all his strength each day to help Cimino achieve his vision.  Sadly, he died shortly before the film was released– but he leaves behind one of the most artistically pure filmographies in all of cinematic history.

To bring his richly textured vision to life, Cimino enlisted the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.  Shooting on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio,  Zsigmond crafts an image that retains Cimino’s signature visual style.  The saturated, naturalistic colors jump off the screen- particularly, the blood-red bandanas worn by contestants of the Saigon Russian Roulette operation.  Foregoing the use of subtitles to let the audience know when the action shifts to Vietnam and back again, Cimino instead employs a dreary, autumnal color palette for the Pennsylvania sequences while the Vietnam and Saigon scenes explode with intense greens, browns, and oranges.  This approach is mirrored in the camerawork:  the smoky, mountainous vistas of Pennsylvania are rendered in slow zoom and dolly shots, while Vietnam is depicted through the jumpy unsteadiness of handheld camerawork.  His preference for wide angle lens creates panoramic vistas in which the subject appears tiny against the landscape– undoubtedly influenced by the framing techniques of John Ford.  A variety of stock footage is added to the Vietnam sequences to heighten the realism and supplement Cimino’s depiction of The South Pacific as a hellish nightmare.

Cimino’s richly-detailed compositions are a sight to behold.  His preference for deep focus and slow-paced editing (courtesy of editor Peter Zinner) allow the viewer to absorb themselves into the world of the story, choosing where they want to look within a frame.  As a result, we never see the same movie twice– there’s always something different to notice in each scene.

Stanley Meyers contributes the film’s haunting score, most notably the elegiac “Cavatina”, or as it’s better known: “The Theme From Deer Hunter”.  Even if you haven’t seen THE DEER HUNTER, you’ve more than likely heard the somber mandolin strings of “Cavatina” at some point in your life.  It’s an iconic composition that has aged as gracefully as the film itself.  Cimino also uses an inspired mix of source music that gives the film its rough-edged, blue collar patina.  Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” recurs throughout the film, sounding like it’s been beaten into submission by the bar’s junky jukebox speakers.  Traditional Eastern European polka and folk songs during the wedding sequence gives us a great deal of insight into the characters’ cultural heritage– a tactic that arguably inspired director James Gray in his own intimate depictions of modern immigrant families decades later.

One of the most striking uses of music in the film, however, is Cimino’s incorporation of a non-diagetic choral piece/choral hymnal during the scene’s titular deer hunting sequences.  The foreboding, majestic voices hang in the mountain’s hazy air as De Niro maneuvers across the rocky landscape in pursuit of his prey.  It’s at once both unsettling and beautiful, suggesting an uneasy harmony between man and nature.  Or perhaps it’s subtly commenting on the cycle of life and death.  That’s the beauty of film though– every interpretation is valid.

Speaking of the cycle of life and death, the film uses both ritual and liquid as potent metaphors.  THE DEER HUNTERbookends with a pair of celebrations, albeit differing drastically in tone.  In the beginning, a wedding is the cause for raucous, drunken revelry.  Liquor flows freely and several toasts are made.  As I wrote before, this symbolizes an America drunk off its victory in World War 2 and confident in a similar outcome on the eve of their entry into Vietnam.  Water is used to great effect in the Vietnam sequences as a sort of torturous cleansing agent, traumatically detoxing the characters of their confidence and innocence.  The end of the film is like a great national sobering, closing with both a somber funeral and an epilogue involving coffee instead of alcohol.  Perhaps the liquid metaphor is reading into the film a little too much, but this is Cimino we’re talking about here– I would be doing a disservice to the man’s spirit if I didn’t indulge myself a little.

Cimino’s signature storytelling themes are perhaps at their most potent in the context of THE DEER HUNTER.  The effects of fractured male camaraderie are soulfully explored as the friends literally go through hell and back.  The film is very much a love story– the love between brothers.  Sure, they bust each others balls on a frequent basis, but it’s done so out of a deep, profound affection.  Additionally, Americana imagery is on full display, much more so than any other of his films.   What’s striking about their incorporation here is the deeply ironic, bittersweet implications they take on within the events of the story.  The film famously ends with the characters somberly singing “God Bless America” after a funeral that has effectively stolen their innocence.  Hollywood executives were furious over the film’s ending, and they accused Cimino of anti-patriotism.  Much has been written about its inclusion in the story, so I’ll simply add that its presence is well-justified, and serves as a pitch-perfect coda to Cimino’s weary tale of innocence lost.

Any way you slice it, THE DEER HUNTER is inarguably the high point of Cimino’s career.  The large scope and broad canvas afforded to him by the subject matter made for emotionally arresting cinema, but it also enabled his indulgent tendencies.  Indeed, many of the same traits that would spell his downfall in his very next film (1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE) are present here.  There’s long sequences that bog down the pacing, and a pompous sense of grandeur and grandiosity liberally applied to the proceedings.  The tone almost seems to explicitly tell you: “This is one of the greatest films ever made”, but in this case, it actually is.  This is a film where Cimino put a live round into the gun chamber during the filming of the Russian Roulette sequences in order to heighten the actors’ tension– with that degree of ballsiness and dedication to craft, greatness is simply inevitable.   There was a lot of critical revisionism going around in the wake of the HEAVEN’S GATE disaster, but with five (well-deserved) Academy Award wins and a secure spot in the National Film Registry, THE DEER HUNTER is an undeniable masterwork that’s just as relevant and arresting today as it was in 1978.

THE DEER HUNTER is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.