One of the major films of 1970s New Hollywood, The Deer Hunter is an ambitious film in both style and content. It won Oscars and was much lauded on its initial release, and still regularly features in all-time greatest film lists. Director Michael Cimino was a former TV commercial director who had just had success with his debut feature, the knockabout buddy film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). For his follow-up he decided to hold out, turning down offer after offer, and go for something really special: a three-hour epic on the Vietnam War and its returning soldiers. It was the first major film about the conflict since John Wayne’s flag-waving The Green Berets (1968).
The first hour is set in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small industrial city close to Pittsburgh. We meet a group of friends going for drinks after finishing their shift at the steel mill. We see Clairton’s blue-collar society with its clearly defined spaces for men and women as they prepare for Angela and Steve’s wedding. The men are in the bar shooting pool, dancing around and ironically singing love songs to each other. The women are carrying the cake to the reception hall, practising their lines in front of a mirror (‘I do’) or cooking for their abusive fathers. Eventually Steve’s mum breaks these barriers by dragging him out of the bar.
The Clairton scenes are filmed with an almost poetic realism. We get beautiful shots of heavy industry, trains, overhead wiring and neon signs. The flying sparks in the steel mill look like a fireworks display. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was the master of this gritty but oddly beautiful 1970s look – seen most perfectly in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).
There follows an almost documentary depiction of a Russian Orthodox wedding followed by my favourite part of the film – the wedding reception. Filmed with minimal dialogue and wonderful naturalistic performances, the sequence shows people dancing, drinking, fighting and making up or simply exchanging meaningful looks; all to the accompaniment of the wedding band’s Russian folk songs. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and a wonderfully unsentimental vision.
The film then takes a weird shift from Pennsylvania to Vietnam, and from realist drama to high- concept action movie. Central to this part is the Russian roulette scene, an unconvincing piece of spectacle that seems tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Undoubtedly there were enough disturbing things about the Vietnam War that this fabrication (or metaphor – if you’re being kind) was not necessary. Historically there is no evidence of this occurring in Vietnam and it all seems very unlikely, although admittedly the scene might convey something of the emotional truth of the Vietnam experience. It is perhaps unfair to criticise a Hollywood film for taking licence with historical truth but the contrast with the honesty of the Clairton scenes jars a bit too much. Of course, when you discover the origins of the script, how it started as a film about Russian roulette in Las Vegas, you realise that what you have is added seriousness and gravitas to a schlocky movie idea, rather than the other way around.
Despite the schlockiness, there is no doubt that the scenes of prisoners pointing revolvers, loaded with one bullet, at their heads and pulling the trigger makes for pretty intense viewing. We watch close-ups of faces in agony as we wait for one of two sounds – a soft click or an explosive bang. It is suspense in its simplest form (I’m sure Hitchcock would approve) and great cinema. And not only do we have pure cinematic drama – as intense as the heroine tied to the railway lines – but some pretty exciting mathematics too – the mathematics of pure chance.
For the third part of the film we return to Clairton and see the traumatised Michael (De Niro) go back to Linda (Streep) and normal life. The scene where he makes his taxi drive past his welcome home party is heartbreaking. Another short hop back to Vietnam for the fall of Saigon and a final round of Russian roulette and the film ends with an ambiguous singing of every sports fan’s favourite patriotic song – ‘God Bless America’.
The Deer Hunter has been criticised as pretentious and self-indulgent and such charges are not unwarranted. The attempt to sum up the experience of war veterans with a deer hunt metaphor is a little clumsy and heavy-handed and dates the film somewhat (it seems very 1970s). Although, if The Deer Hunter is a flawed masterpiece, it is really because of that god-awful John Williams theme tune.
This is more than compensated for by the superb acting. Cimino has assembled one of the finest casts of the era: Meryl Streep and John Cazale (who died of cancer shortly after) are brilliant while Christopher Walken gives his usual strangely intense performance. But the film belongs to De Niro. If you have forgotten how great he is (after watching Meet the Fockers) and need reminding, this is the film to watch. De Niro is the king of the gesture – he can do more with a shrug than most with a 10-minute monologue. His character might be inarticulate (‘This is this’) but his intelligence and intensity of spirit are never in doubt. In this, one of his most remarkable performances, he shows why cinema is such a great medium for the inarticulate hero.
Ultimately, The Deer Hunter remains a powerful film made with impressive style, and one of the key films of the decade. It was a time when mainstream cinema looked like it was going somewhere really interesting. And Michael Cimino looked destined to be one of its leading lights. If only he hadn’t been constrained by the ideas of high-concept action movies, or budgets, or shooting schedules – then we could have seen what he could really do. Maybe I should try watching Heaven’s Gate one more time. Is it really so terrible?
Watch the original theatrical trailer: