The Deer Hunter (1978)

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If there’s anything to learn from brave men who have fought in wars, it’s that war changes people. The Deer Hunter shows the effects of war on an individual’s life through the slow and steady character development of three friends from a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania who are about to be sent off to Vietnam. Director Michael Cimino approaches the genre in a different way. What he shows us is not a story about war, it’s a story about people.

Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) are three steel workers living in a small town called Clairton, Pennsylvania. Steven is about to get married before he is sent off to war. The beginning of the movie focuses on the wedding festivities. Meanwhile, we learn a lot about our main characters, like how Nick seems to be the most kind and level-headed of the bunch and he keeps the more serious Michael in check. Steven is a poor soul in love who is constantly being yelled at by his mother who doesn’t like his friends or the woman he is about to marry. Nick has a girlfriend named Linda (Meryl Streep), a young woman who has to suffer the indignity of having a father who is a physically abusive drunk. Michael clearly has feelings for Linda, although he keeps them hidden out of respect for his best friend. At some point during the wedding, a man dressed in an army uniform comes in to sit at the bar. Mike becomes frustrated when the man ignores his questions about the war. When Mike and Nick tell him with enthusiasm that they are about to be sent off, the soldier raises his glass and says, “fuck it.” Both of them are confused by this at the time, but it foreshadows the kind of attitude they will soon have about the war after having experienced it. 

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Mike and Nick, along with three other friends–Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren)–go deer hunting one last time, in which Mike kills a deer using “one shot,” the only way to kill a deer, as he expresses to Nick earlier on. The story then switches to Vietnam, where the three friends become prisoners of war. The captors force their prisoners to play Russian roulette–some very intense scenes–in which the captors bet among themselves who will live and who will die. Thanks to Mike’s fearless leadership, the three of them escape, and Nick is rescued by a passing U.S. helicopter. Mike then carries the injured Steven on his back to safety. 

The war itself doesn’t take up much screen time, as it is not the most important part of the story, it only acts as the catalyst to the change that happens with the main characters. Before the war, Mike was a bit of a hard ass. Aside from a drunken streaking incident after the wedding, he is a serious man. He gives Stan a lot of crap just for forgetting his boots for their hunting trip. He creates tension and conflict where they are not needed. During the war, his attributes pay off. He is the rock for Nick and Steve and is the main reason why they all make it out alive. At one point, however, after Steve is weakened and dazed by grazing his head with a bullet during Russian roulette, Mike and Nick argue about whether or not they should save him. Mike thinks that he is a lost cause, and Nick is appalled by the idea of leaving their best friend behind to die. Something changes in Mike, though. Maybe it is the unbelievable tension and near death experience he and Nick face when it comes down to them pulling a trigger against their own heads, but for whatever reason, Mike becomes the type of guy who would never leave a friend behind.

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When Mike returns home, he’s quiet and distant. He grows closer to Linda, but there is a battle still happening within him that keeps him from getting too close. He also finds himself unable to take the “one shot” when he goes hunting again, he sees the deer and fires into the air instead. It’s obvious that “one shot” doesn’t hold the same meaning to him anymore. He eventually finds out that Steve has been hiding away from everyone in a veterans’ hospital, his legs amputated after the injuries he endured from falling from the helicopter. After he finds out Steve has been receiving money from Nick, Mike returns to Vietnam, remembering the promise he once made Nick that he would never leave him behind. While there, he finds out that Nick has been playing Russian roulette for money after being recruited by a Frenchman named Julien (Pierre Segui).

Nick’s transformation, from a fun-loving, level-headed guy to a crazed man who doesn’t recognize his own best friend and who doesn’t think twice of putting a gun to his own head, is heart-breaking. He remembers Mike’s saying of “one shot,” but now it is twisted into something he never meant it to be. Once a term for deer hunting has now become a term for blowing your own brains out–it only takes one shot to do just that.

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The Deer Hunter is a powerful story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Michael Cimino doesn’t rush the story. This is a three hour long movie which could be divided into three separate acts. The first act is probably the most important one. Some people may say that they find it boring, but it isn’t if you can understand the intentions of letting the audience get to know the characters before they are thrown into life or death situations. A long wedding ceremony may seem unimportant at first glance, but during this happy festivity you really get a feel for who these characters are and the kind of lives they are living, and under normal circumstances at that. Without this, the war wouldn’t have so much of an impact on the story. You wouldn’t care whether or not these characters lived or died, and I sure as hell wouldn’t have been brought to tears by the end.

Secondly, the story doesn’t focus on the war itself. When this movie came out, a lot of people hated it simply for the fact that they felt it portrayed the Vietnam War inaccurately. Fact of the matter is, it’s not about the Vietnam War. This could be set to the backdrop of any war really. It’s about the before and after effects on individuals who experience the horrors of war. So I’m not sure exactly what was and what wasn’t accurate, but I think that unless a movie claims to be historical and factual in nature, it’s okay to look past some of those inaccuracies and to look at the bigger picture–and this is a big picture, indeed. It deals with themes most everyday people won’t ever fully understand.

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The cast is made up of some of the most talented actors and actresses in Hollywood at the time. Robert De Niro is perfect for his role as Michael. I’m not sure what it is about De Niro and his ability to intimidate me in even his least intimidating roles, but a role as a serious, no b.s. kind of guy in this movie is what he was made for. Christopher Walken, who won an Oscar for this role, really makes an emotional impact as a happy guy who is eager to live life and marry his girlfriend, but who ultimately ends up as a lost soul. John Savage as Steve was amazing as well, he managed to kill me slowly on the inside in his scenes at the veterans’ hospital. Meryl Streep is, of course, fantastic as always. I like seeing her in her earlier roles, she gives a special kind of life to her characters that makes you love her even if she isn’t playing someone particularly nice. John Cazale is most well known for his role as Fredo in The Godfather movies. Sadly, he was dying from lung cancer during the filming of this movie and actually died soon after it was finished. The studio wanted to replace him, but Streep, who was dating him at the time, threatened to walk away if they did. I’m glad he stayed on for the part, because he was an incredibly talented actor. It’s unfortunate he never got to see the finished film.

The Deer Hunter is a film which remains relevant to this day even through the controversy that surrounds it. It might not have been historically accurate, perhaps POWs were never forced to play Russian roulette–it might only be just a symbol for the idea that going to war is like metaphorically playing Russian roulette with soldiers’ lives. The point is that war affects everyone. It doesn’t have to be the Vietnam War, specifically, but any war. A war may not last forever, but the effects of it may last someone a lifetime. Michael Cimino presents these themes through a story with multi-dimensional characters and heart-breaking realizations. It won 5 Oscars including Best Picture, and they were well deserved.

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