Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Deer Hunter Catches Me at Last

I grew up watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news, so Vietnam movies seemed grimly unnecessary to me, and I never watched any of them until decades later.

I finally saw Apocalypse Now when I turned 50 in 2009, watching it on TV with Mom and Dad. We were engrossed in Apocalypse until Marlon Brando—not my Dad’s favorite—appeared, acting weird. After a few mumbled scenes, Dad waved his hand at the TV in disgust, saying, “Ahh, I’m going to bed.” This was Dick Gould’s classic thumbs down when he was done with a TV show or movie.

In happier times: the epic wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter." Real drinks were served in these scenes!
The Deer Hunter came out in 1978, a year after I graduated from high school in Manistique, Upper Michigan. I just watched the controversial classic for the first time this summer, 38 years after it was released. I guess I’ve been avoiding The Deer Hunter my entire adult life!

Director Michael Cimino, who recently died,  on  the film's set.
When Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino recently died, I realized I should watch the movie that made him famous. Opening the Netflix envelope, I saw that it was over 3 hours long—and wondered how 1970s audiences liked that?

All I knew about The Deer Hunter was that it made Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken stars, that the Vietnam scenes were hard to watch, and that it was an epic about everyday people.

Robert DeNiro as Mike, as the deer hunter.
A great deal has been said about this film—about its artistic merits, political accuracy, and intentions.  Though I thought The Deer Hunter was too long, I could not take my eyes off the screen. The Deer Hunter was unlike any other movie and I had no idea what would happen next. How could audiences or I know that a pivotal wedding day scene would last an hour? Or that we would next see the three men, about to leave for Vietnam, in the middle of action, and shortly after, captured? And that the group leader would actually return to Vietnam to rescue one of his friends, only to find out that he doesn’t want to be?

Meryl Streep, in her breakout role as small-town girl, Linda.
I found the small town scenes the most powerful, because they rang true. The Deer Hunter is set in a small Pennsylvania steel mill town. While the paper mill in Manistique wasn’t as all-dominating, many locals worked there or at Inland Limestone. Growing up and watching demonstrators and politicians argue about the Vietnam War on TV, I was always struck by the different attitude of people in my home town. They may have been for or against the war, but either way, just seemed to accept it as another hardship in their working class lives. I remember as a grade-schooler at Hiawatha School, when we brought treats and wish list items to mail overseas to local soldiers. I have vivid memories of when my family got the news that Dad’s brother, David, stepped on a land mine. I can still feel how horrible the news was, how frantic my family was, trying to figure out how to get Grandpa and Grandma Gould to the army hospital Uncle David was flown to. They had no extra money for luxuries like plane tickets. I remember hearing the grownups say that when word got out about David, money was donated from friends, family, and townspeople in a day’s time. So, those scenes of people coming together in The Deer Hunter, whether for a wedding or to welcome one of their own back from the war, in a simple, heartfelt way, really hit home.

The Vietnam scenes and its chaos of gunfire, bombing, and masses of people on the run, is hard enough to take. But the infamous Russian roulette scenes had me flinching. After a certain point, I felt like I was watching another movie. I think that was the point: these men were taken from their small town lives and dropped into a nightmare halfway around the world. Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken were both 35, and John Savage was 29, when this movie was made. Despite their painfully powerful acting, the actors were clearly men, not boys. I realized later that many U.S. soldiers were so young, like my Uncle David, who was 18 at the time. Imagine going into that hell straight out of high school.

Christopher Walken won a best supporting actor Oscar as walking wounded Nick.
Just when you think you’re home free, DeNiro’s Mike goes back to rescue Walken’s Nick. And like the Vietnam War’s finish, there’s no happy ending for The Deer Hunter, either.

The controversy, praise, and criticism of The Deer Hunter are all valid. The movie is at least 30 minutes too long, you wonder where some characters have disappeared to, or ponder where is this all going? The movie’s strengths are the talents involved. The acting is uniformly top-notch. To think that John Cazale, as shit-stirrer Stan, was dying of lung cancer during filming, is mind-blowing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is striking, making his compositions of rugged nature and the smoky factory town equally beautiful. The direction by Michael Cimino shows both his strengths and flaws. Cimino knows how to stir emotions with epic sweep and realistic detail. But like Francis Ford Coppola and his war epic, Cimino doesn’t know when less is more, or when enough’s enough. Cimino was given free rein on his next American epic, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate—which turned out to be enough rope to hang himself. The film was such a critical and commercial flop that it essentially ended Michael Cimino’s career.

The Deer Hunter, released at the end of 1978, still retains its emotional power.
I’m not one of those film buffs that love to pick movies apart or demand perfection. If a film has something to recommend it, I’ll watch. Maybe I’ll even watch Heaven’s Gate, to see what all the hooting and hollering was about. After all, it’s only been 36 years since its release.


  1. I love "The Deer Hunter". It was one of the films that truly surprised me when I saw it many years ago. I didn't know Christopher Walken's career prior his illustrious indie career in the 90s, so this to me was a great introduction to a wonderful actor.

  2. Hi Pedro, I have a hard time being able to access my comments...this blog format is not the friendliest!
    The acting in "The Deer Hunter" and the cinematography really knocked me out.
    I hope you are doing well and I hope that I am as a consistent film blogger as you!
    Cheers, Rick